U.S. and NATO officials are increasingly optimistic that Sweden will join the military alliance as its newest member by this summer, bringing an advanced military already closely integrated with Western allies into the fold as tensions with Russia increase.
Sweden last year announced it was giving up 200 years of military nonalignment and would seek to join NATO along with neighboring Finland in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Finland joined earlier this year, but NATO ally Turkey has blocked Sweden’s accession for months over disputes with the Swedish government.
Many officials and experts who track the matter say Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh off a presidential election victory, is now preparing to give the green light to Sweden joining NATO by the time of an upcoming alliance summit scheduled for early July in Vilnius, Lithuania—though they stopped short of declaring it a done deal. (Another major question at the summit is whether and how Ukraine would ever join NATO.)
“We’ve fulfilled our part,” said a Swedish military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about closed-door talks. “Now it’s up to the alliance and Turkey and Hungary to do their part.” Hungary, which has also blocked Sweden as a new member, has hinted to alliance members that it would not block Sweden’s NATO bid on its own.
Sweden has deepened cooperation with NATO since 2014, when Russia first invaded eastern Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea, but joining as a full-fledged member would bring a sea change in how NATO prepares its defenses in northeastern Europe. The biggest change would be extending NATO’s collective defense protection to Sweden—the Article 5 pledge that an attack on one member is an attack on all. But there are also a host of crucial changes for Sweden’s and NATO’s militaries at the nuts-and-bolts level aimed at integrating their forces. Some of the alliance’s most sensitive intelligence also remains off-limits to Sweden until it is inside NATO.
With all of its neighbors now alliance members, European military officials and experts characterize Sweden’s joining NATO as the final piece of the puzzle in fully integrating northern Europe’s defense. Officials have floated the idea of creating a joint air force for the region once Sweden joins, for example, expanding the capabilities and reach of each country’s individual fleet of fighter jets and air defenses.
Sweden will also for the first time join NATO’s nuclear planning group and be included in the alliance’s ongoing discussions on how to update and combine its conventional and nuclear deterrence against Russia. (Three NATO allies— the United States, United Kingdom, and France—have nuclear weapons.)
“The nuclear dimension of European deterrence is clearly the most prominent it has been since the end of the Cold War,” said Chris Skaluba, an expert on NATO at the Atlantic Council think tank. “Getting Sweden and Finland up to speed on this will be really important.”
NATO is also revamping its defense plans to back up its pledge to defend “every inch” of territory. Bringing Sweden into the fold will make it much easier for NATO to rush forces to its vulnerable Baltic flank bordering Russia, if Moscow reconstitutes its forces that have been decimated in Ukraine and tries to carry out an incursion into those countries.
“It’s very important that Sweden is going as quickly as possible on board, because if you look at the map, we really need Sweden so that this whole thing is deep enough, what we are going to defend,” said Harri Ohra-aho, an advisor for intelligence in Finland’s Defense Ministry and a retired major general. “It’s very important for logistics and everything else. We already know that it’s rather difficult to defend the Baltic countries. The same goes for Finland if Sweden is not on board.”
In particular, Finnish officials are counting on Sweden’s logistical and naval capabilities to defend the alliance’s northern flank. (Finland joining NATO has doubled the length of the border the alliance shares with Russia.) Stockholm has also made plans to clear NATO’s benchmark for defense spending, set at 2 percent of GDP, by 2026.
Western officials inside and outside the alliance are worried that a delay in getting Sweden on board could hamstring NATO’s defense planning process, which is set to see the alliance transform its command-and-control structure in the wake of the threatening new showdown with Russia over Ukraine. Those plans will remain secret, but broadly they aim to return the alliance to a Cold War-esque posture of doling out assignments to each country on what specific forces will be deployed where and when to defend a specific region if there’s any military confrontation with Russia.
“It’s like a potluck dinner. Everyone has to bring something,” said Jim Townsend, an expert on NATO and former Pentagon official now with the Center for a New American Security think tank. “What NATO does is tell everybody what they need them to bring to the dinner. You’ve got to make sure somebody is organizing who brings the military version of salads, entrees, desserts, etc., so everyone doesn’t just show up with potato chips.”
If Sweden’s not at the smorgasbord, the dinner could be a bust. NATO would have to implement an awkward defense strategy where it can’t completely rely on Swedish military capabilities and territories in its contingency plans. Prior to deciding to join the alliance, Sweden and Finland made their defense plans assuming that NATO would not come to their aid if either nation were attacked.
“It’s not like they were starting from scratch,” Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary until last year, said of Sweden’s bid. “[But] it makes sense to avoid an extended gray period.”
Big changes would be in store for Sweden at NATO headquarters as well, where Sweden would for the first time have a seat at the table—and a veto—for discussions over major NATO plans and enlargement processes as a full member. And Swedish officials and officers would likely head for NATO headquarters in Belgium, which is expected to undergo a reorganization under NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe, Gen. Chris Cavoli, who also heads up U.S. European Command. Cavoli has publicly lamented that NATO’s military planning has been unequal to the scope of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has been running European ammunition stockpiles dry.
Sweden and current NATO ally Denmark effectively act as gatekeepers to the Baltic Sea. Adding Sweden to the alliance would turn the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake,” as alliance defense planners like to call it, rendering Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet effectively inert. (Sweden also has a fleet of five diesel-electric attack submarines that were designed specifically to operate in the Baltic Sea.)
Additionally, Sweden has the largest defense industry in the Nordic region, which NATO officials hope to put to use as an ally in restocking European arsenals depleted by sending supplies to Ukraine.
Former NATO officials have also expressed concern that a delay in Sweden’s bid could upset plans to create a common air force among the Nordic countries announced in March. That plan would require Sweden to upgrade to NATO-standard command-and-control systems that it is not currently using, said Grand, the former alliance official. The planned alliance-within-an-alliance could be key to helping ensure the security of the Baltic States, which have limited airpower of their own, with the provision of American-made fighter jets.
While Sweden cannot mobilize hundreds of thousands of reservists like Finland, European military officials and experts believe that Stockholm can be the glue that holds together a Nordic military alliance. Sweden is also considering reforming arms export laws that limit its ability to sell weapons abroad, which is a major problem for the region’s largest arms producer, while Finland has already begun beefing up its air defenses with the recent purchase of the Israeli-made David’s Sling system.
“That’s a game-changer for the region, from the Baltic Sea to the High North,” Grand said.