View from Stockholm: The EU must stay the course

Commentary

Sweden continues to support sanctions on Russia and the Swedish public is fully behind its government's hard line on Sweden's eastern neighbour.

Sweden has been one of the most forthright hawks on Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. The change of government in Stockholm in October brought about a slight shift in policy towards Russia, but Sweden’s hardline position remains fundamentally unchanged. Sweden continues to push for the European Union to stay united and firm on sanctions and to be ready to impose further measures if Russia and the separatists should fail to implement Minsk II.

At the European Council on 19 March, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven supported the proposal to extend economic sanctions until the end of the year so as to synchronise with the timeline foreseen under Minsk II. If the sanctions were to expire this summer, the thinking goes, pressure on Russia would fizzle out, making it unlikely that Russia would fulfil its commitments. Russia’s commitments under Minsk II are backloaded: the restoration of Ukraine’s control over its border with Russia is supposed to take place after local elections are held and a political settlement is finalised by the end of 2015.

While the new administration has continued to support the effort to keep pressure on Russia primarily through sanctions, there has been a slight recalibration in Sweden’s position.

Sweden’s alignment with likeminded EU hawks such as the United Kingdom, Poland, and the Baltic states is partly a legacy of the previous government and, in particular, its foreign minister, Carl Bildt. From the very beginning of the crisis, Bildt, along with former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, led the charge among EU foreign ministers on Russia. The new government, a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens, inherited this hard line when they came to power in October. While the new administration has continued to support the effort to keep pressure on Russia primarily through sanctions, there has been a slight recalibration in Sweden’s position.

The new foreign minister, Margot Wallström, has put greater emphasis on the need for dialogue with Russia and the necessity of supporting civil society. She has focused on human rights and the state of democracy in Russia. The rationale behind Sweden’s position on Russia is also based on the need to respect international law. In this context, Sweden sees it as particularly important that the EU continues its non-recognition policy of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and that Europe maintains Crimea-related sanctions.

What Ukraine needs is not more weapons, but rather, fewer.

Political and economic support for Ukraine remains a basic tenet of Sweden’s approach to the crisis. During Prime Minister Löfven’s visit to Kyiv on 10-11 March, he announced a $100 million loan to Ukraine. However, Sweden’s support for Ukraine does not include military support. The government has been lukewarm on the idea of sending arms, saying that what Ukraine needs is not more weapons, but rather, fewer – it needs Russian weapons to be withdrawn.

Increases in Russian military activity in the Baltic have contributed to firming up Sweden’s position on Russia. Russian military aircrafts have carried out a series of incursions or near incursions into Swedish airspace. Some of these aircrafts have flown without transponders, which has put civilian aircrafts at risk.

The notion that a foreign submarine could operate clandestinely just a few kilometres from the capital transfixed the population.

Most notable, however, was the weeklong hunt in Stockholm’s archipelago in October for a submarine that was not identified as Russian, but was widely assumed to be Russian. The notion that a foreign submarine could operate clandestinely just a few kilometres from the capital transfixed the population and brought home the point that Russia could actually pose a direct threat to Sweden. This has focused minds as well as sharpened the government’s rhetoric on Russia.

The government’s hard line on Russia sits well with the Swedes. Sweden is not dependent on Russian gas and the sanctions have not had a major impact on the economy, notwithstanding the fact that Russia is a significant trading partner. A long and complicated history with Russia also plays its part in shaping Swedish public opinion: between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries, Sweden fought 11 wars with its big neighbour. During the Cold War, Sweden was officially non-aligned but in practice cooperated with NATO and maintained a defensive posture directed towards the Soviet Union.

Support for Sweden joining NATO has also increased; now, close to half the population have a positive view of membership.

In a recent opinion poll, three-quarters of those asked were concerned about developments in Russia. The percentage of those who considered Russia a serious problem for peace and security rose from 26 percent in 2013 to 56 percent in 2014. Support for Sweden joining NATO has also increased; now, close to half the population have a positive view of membership. This is an increase of 10 percentage points from the previous year and represents the highest support for NATO membership ever recorded in the country.

Given the new security situation, the government has proposed increasing defence spending by €665 million over the next five years, with a particular focus on counter-submarine capabilities and on rearming the strategically important island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Opposition parties have responded by proposing even higher increases.

Fredrik Wesslau is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Collective.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe, Russia, EaP, Ukraine, Ukraine Crisis

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