Sweden’s government affirmed its military neutrality even as a government-commissioned report broadly sided with those in favor of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization amid rising tensions with Russia.
“Our non-alignment policy serves us well,” Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem said in Stockholm Friday after receiving the report. Joining NATO “would expose Sweden to risks, both political and otherwise, and we don’t think that’s the right direction.”
The country has been forging closer ties with the military alliance, taking part in joint military exercises that have angered authorities in Moscow. A stable, geographically strategic democracy such as Sweden would be a welcome addition for NATO as it struggles to contain a more assertive Russia on its eastern flank.
The review released on Friday in Stockholm refrained from making a formal recommendation.
While NATO membership would “increase common conflict-deterrent capabilities,” it would also spark a political crisis with Russia and possibly lead to a regional arms race, the review concluded.
And although Russian attacks on Sweden or its Baltic neighbors are considered “unlikely,” being a part of NATO would help “remove uncertainty in case of conflict.” Earlier this week, Estonia issued a formal protest after accusing Russia of violating its airspace, the latest in a string of similar incidents.
A much cited scenario involves Gotland, a Swedish island situated in the Baltic Sea that would be strategically important in the event of a Russian-Baltic conflict. Sweden would risk getting drawn in at an early stage, according to Ambassador Krister Bringeus, who led the review.
Attitudes toward NATO membership are shifting in Sweden, which during the Cold War relied on a strong defense to deter aggressors. In order to address a weakened military, its lawmakers last year agreed to boost military spending by 10 billion kronor ($1.2 billion) between 2016 and 2020, including money to ramp up its military presence on Gotland. The decision came after a hunt for a mysterious foreign submarine in the sea near Stockholm, which caught the world’s attention and led to a more heated national debate on Sweden’s declining defense capabilities.
The review into Sweden’s security stance was the result of a compromise between the left-of-center government and opposition parties, which today favor NATO membership.
But membership remains taboo among many members of the Social Democrats and the Greens, which form the Swedish government.
“We will cooperate with other countries, we will help decrease tension, we will keep our security policy doctrine and direction,” Wallstroem said. “Anything else would be irresponsible, especially when the world around us is so insecure.”