Sweden is edging closer to joining the NATO military alliance, its biggest foreign policy decision in a generation. The move, supported by at least 70% of Swedes according to the latest polls, is a direct consequence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The irony of that, said Swedish Ambassador Urban Christian Ahlin, is that “the Russians wanted to stop Sweden and Finland from joining.”
“Having Sweden and Finland in NATO sends the message that NATO is stronger, bigger and more united than before he invaded Ukraine,” the recently appointed Ahlin told The Washington Diplomat. “Putin got exactly the right message.”
Since taking up his post in August, Ahlin has spent much of his time dealing with this issue. At a recent welcome reception, Kurt Volker, the former US ambassador to NATO, said Stockholm’s new man in Washington “has been instrumental in helping bring Sweden to the point where it is now about to join NATO.”
Sweden and Finland applied to join the alliance in May 2022. Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April of this year, but Sweden’s accession has been blocked by both Turkey, and to a lesser extent, Hungary. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused the Nordic country of giving safe haven to members of the PKK—a Kurdish separatist movement he considers to be a terrorist group, while Hungarian President Viktor Orbán says Swedish politicians and the country’s media lie about the state of Hungarian democracy.
But in October, Erdoğan signed the accession protocol and submitted it to the Turkish parliament, where it’s been ever since. Some Turkish lawmakers have further stalled the process by placing even more conditions on Sweden’s accession. Any expansion of NATO must be approved unanimously.
Ahlin said Sweden’s entry to the alliance—and the nuclear protection it affords, among other things—should surprise no one, since his country has been moving in that direction for the last 30 years.
“Since 1809, we have been neutral, and have never been to war,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “We stayed out of both world wars. There was no appetite to join.”
In the 1950s, Sweden spent up to 5-6% of GDP on defense, said the ambassador, “because we wanted to be trustworthy neutrals.”
“We paid lots of money to have our own fighter jets, submarines and tanks,” Ahlin said. “We were also committed to supporting international peace. More than 100,000 Swedes have participated in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Since we were not a NATO member, we wanted to use our strength to do something good in the world.”
Then, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the next year, Sweden gave up its neutrality, becoming “militarily non-aligned” with NATO, he said.
“We had everything but Article 5,” he said, referring to the collective defense article in NATO’s founding treaty that says an attack on one member is an attack on all. “It was as close to NATO as possible without actually joining. We were a closer ally of NATO than many member nations.”
Long history of political activism
Ahlin, 59, is a veteran Swedish politician with the left-wing Social Democratic Party. While still a teenager, he was elected chairman of the local branch of his party’s youth league in Mariestad.
“The Soviet Union broke up while I was a young Social Democrat,” Ahlin said. “I traveled around Eastern Europe and the Middle East promoting democratic values and human rights.”
After studying at Karlstad University, he taught math and science in an elementary school in Mariestad until his election to the Swedish parliament in 1994 at the age of 29.
Ahlin chaired the parliamentary foreign affairs committee from 2002 to 2006 and served as its deputy chairman after the Social Democrats lost power. In 2014, he was elected speaker of the Riksdag. A foreign policy expert, he was a founding member of the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations and a board member at the East-West Institute. Immediately prior to coming to Washington, he was Sweden’s ambassador to Canada.
Among other accomplishments, Ahlin in 2007 negotiated the release of two Swedish construction workers from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. He also worked behind the scenes in what year to free staffers from his party’s Stockholm headquarters who were taken hostage by armed PKK separatists.
“I knew a little about Turkey and the PKK, so I volunteered to talk to them,” Ahlin recalled. “I went in and spoke to them for five minutes. I said, ‘This will not lead to anything.’ The Turks then invited me to be at the court hearing” for PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan.
Turkey, and to a lesser extent, Hungary are holding up Sweden’s membership in NATO.
“We are waiting for Turkey and Hungary to ratify,” Ahlin said. “We have a very humble attitude. All members need to accept a new member; those are the rules. The Hungarians have said they are not going to be the last. So we will see if Turkey ratifies.”
Ahlin conceded that the Turks have “had valid security concerns that we’ve looked into.”
Last July, Erdoğan lifted his initial objections to Stockholm’s NATO bid after the Swedes took steps to crack down on Kurdish groups that Ankara sees as terrorists. But then in November, the foreign affairs committee of Turkey’s parliament delayed forwarding the application for a vote by the full chamber.
On Dec. 8, Erdoğan said Turkey would ratify Sweden’s NATO bid on condition that the US Congress simultaneously approve Ankara’s request for dozens of F-16 fighter jets and spare parts. The new demand puts the onus on the United States, not Sweden, to take a certain action before it is allowed to become the alliance’s 32nd member.
Turkish politician conditions Sweden’s NATO entry on ‘permanent peace’ between Israel, Palestinians
Another potential roadblock is the conditioning of support by a key Erdoğan coalition partner on “permanent peace” between Israel and the Palestinians.
Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party—whose political backing has given Erdoğan a majority in the Turkish parliament—said “we look coldly upon Sweden entering NATO,” according to a Bloomberg story citing the newspaper Turkgun.
Bahceli told the newspaper he’d change his mind and welcome Swedish membership in the alliance only “if permanent peace is attained between Israel and Palestine and an independent Palestinian state is recognized, if Israel agrees to pay reparations, and if [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu stands trial at The Hague.”
Sweden recognized Palestine as a sovereign state in 2014, and the Palestinians opened an embassy in Stockholm the following year. NATO has no jurisdiction over the ICC.
Asked about Sweden’s position on the latest Middle East war, between Hamas and Israel, Ahlin offered a measured response:
“We consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization and we think it’s terrible. Israel has a right—and a duty—to defend its own borders, and to fight terrorists. We fully understand that, and having human shields is a war crime,” he said. “What we want is that civilian lives will be spared. And it’s correct to go after terrorists, but it must be done according to international law.”
The war started when Hamas attacked Israel from the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostage. The attack surprised the Israelis, who launched a massive military response, which has killed more 18,000 Palestinians and led to the displacement of some 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people.
Hungary in no rush to ratify
There has also been pushback against Sweden’s membership from Hungary. In September, Orbán said “nothing is threatening Sweden’s security,” and that Hungary was in no rush to ratify its NATO accession.
The Swedes appear to disagree. When the Swedish government announced it was increasing its defense budget by $2.6 billion in 2024, it said the country was “facing the most serious security situation since the Second World War.”
Sweden’s defense budget is expected to reach $11.2 billion next year, or roughly 2.1% of gross domestic product. That’s just above the minimum of 2% of GDP that NATO defense ministers agreed in 2006 to commit to defense spending to ensure the alliance’s military readiness. It’s twice the $5.6 billion allocated for defense in 2020.
Nevertheless, Sweden waits. Its NATO application is stuck until Ankara and Budapest sign off on it.
Ahlin: Russia fears democracy, not NATO
Economically, Sweden is strong and enjoys one of the world’s highest standards of living. It also has a diversified industrial base.
In 2022, the country exported $17.4 billion in goods and $11.5 billion in services to the United States. Top exports were pharmaceuticals, machinery, automobiles, control devices, raw materials and fuels. US imports to Sweden included machinery, aircraft, mineral oils, ores and scrap metal.
The two countries also cooperate militarily. On Dec. 5, Sweden inked a defense cooperation agreement with Washington that gives the US access to military bases in Sweden. Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson, who signed the deal in Washington with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, said it “will create better conditions for Sweden to be able to receive support from the United States in the event of a war or crisis.”
Despite the rhetoric coming from the Kremlin, Ahlin said he thinks Putin is more concerned with democratically governed countries moving right up to Russia’s doorstep than he is with the NATO alliance.
“For Putin, it was never about NATO. It was about Ukraine,” Ahlin said.
“Russia benefits from a NATO that is close to their border because they don’t need to worry about war. As long as Russia doesn’t do anything, NATO is not a threat to them.”
Citing Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US national security advisor under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, Ahlin said, “Without Ukraine, Russia could never be an empire.”
“Russia knows that NATO is not a threat to them. They really don’t care if Sweden or Finland are members.”
In fact, he added, “Russia benefits from a NATO that is close to their border because they don’t need to worry about war. As long as Russia doesn’t do anything, NATO is not a threat to them.”
What Putin’s government is afraid of is “Ukraine being a successful, democratic prosperous state. Because if it is, the Russians will start asking, ‘Why can’t we be prosperous and democratic also?’”
One of the Swedish ambassador’s main concerns as 2023 drew to a close was Republican-led opposition to continued US military aid to Ukraine.
On Dec. 6, Senate Republicans blocked a $105 billion spending bill that included $61 billion for Ukraine, with most of the rest for Israel, Taiwan and the US-Mexico border.
The funds allocated to Ukraine were mostly for security assistance, with a portion for humanitarian and economic aid. Yet all Republican senators voted against the bill, as they tried to get more funding for security at the US-Mexico border.
“It would be disastrous if the US walks away from Ukraine and lets the Russians win this war,” Ahlin said. “If we stop supporting them, the costs will be much, much higher. We want the US to be a force for good in the world.”