Sweden’s NATO Membership Will Further Intensify The Arctic Geopolitical Rivalry – Analysis

With Sweden’s admission into NATO, after Finland, the Nordic nation’s integration into the US-led Atlantic alliance extends the military tension into the Arctic region. This escalation introduces a new dimension of geopolitical rivalry between Russia and NATO, thereby exacerbating unrest in the security landscape in the High North. Sweden’s inclusion in the Atlantic alliance means that seven out of the eight members of the Arctic Council are now NATO Allies. This configuration poses a heightened strategic threat from the alliance to Russia in the Arctic region.

On March 7, 2024, Sweden officially became the newest member of NATO by depositing its instrument of accession to the North Atlantic Treaty with the United States government in Washington, DC. With Sweden’s accession, the total number of countries within NATO has now reached 32.  NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hailed Sweden’s historic accession, granting the nation an equal role in shaping policies and the protection of Article 5. Emphasizing Sweden’s capable armed forces, Stoltenberg asserted the strengthened security of both Sweden and the Alliance. The official flag-raising ceremony at NATO headquarters on March 11, 2024, symbolizes Sweden’s integration and the Alliance’s commitment to an open-door policy. 

According to Mike Winnerstig, the shift in the Swedish government’s stance towards NATO membership can be attributed to some key factors. First, the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, presented a significant challenge to European security, prompting a reevaluation of Sweden’s neutral policy. Despite historical security challenges, including world wars and the Cold War, Sweden had maintained its neutrality. However, the Ukrainian conflict prompted a shift in the official stance. Another factor was the internal study initiated by the government after warming up to the idea of NATO membership, with the report indirectly recommending it as the most suitable response to Russian aggression. The strategic alignment with Finland was yet another compelling factor, where close political and military cooperation made it apparent that a Finnish NATO membership would likely lead to a Swedish one. The importance of a ‘defence deficit’ factor also played a crucial role in the Swedish decision, even though it is not often explicitly stated. 

In joining NATO, Sweden integrates its air and naval forces into key command structures, enhancing capabilities in airborne incident response and maritime surveillance within the Baltic Sea and across the Arctic region. Leveraging its rich naval heritage, Sweden, as the newest NATO member, offers a well-crafted navy optimized for Baltic Sea operations. Moreover, it will bring to the alliance a formidable air force equipped with advanced Saab Gripen fighters, showcasing its self-sufficient defense industry. In the Artic, Sweden has also the flexibility to collaborate with NATO partners, allowing for the adaptation and enhancement of its capabilities. This may involve repurposing existing assets to align with the strategic priorities of the Alliance in the High North. 

Evidently, Sweden’s NATO membership marks a shift from its historically balanced defense and foreign policy stance. Committed to collective security agreements, Stockholm faces challenging decisions that may clash with its strategic priorities or affect commercial interests, especially in the Arctic and beyond NATO’s core. This transition limits Sweden’s ability to distance itself from potentially contentious US policies but offers an enhanced position to shape US approaches to critical strategic issues, courtesy of its NATO membership. 

Russian Response and Strategy in the Arctic 

A senior Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev criticized Sweden’s accession to NATO as one of the most reckless and shortsighted decisions in history. He pointed out that even as a ‘half-member’ of the alliance, Sweden was not viewed as a threat by Russia. However, with full NATO membership, Kosachev suggested that Sweden may now be perceived as a risk rather than finding security within the alliance.  

According to him, “it is obvious that Washington and its ‘European retinue’ see the Arctic as the main arena of future confrontation.” “This is a war for resources, northern transport routes, territories, influence, and so on. But I will repeat once again, Sweden will derive no benefits from this. This is a dangerous step by once sober-minded Swedish elites, a step that may turn out to be fatal,” he added. 

The top Russian leaders have already hinted at the heightened activity of the country in the Arctic region. For example, on 29 February, President Vladimir Putin,  elaborated Russia’s robust strategy in response to emerging geopolitical challenges, with a notable focus on the Arctic and Far East. This strategic move is in direct response to NATO’s eastward expansion concerns, especially with the potential addition of Sweden and Finland to the alliance. Putin hinted at the reinforcement of forces in the Western strategic theatre and announced extended support programmes until 2030, including those for the Arctic. The comprehensive plan encompasses major developments in transportation infrastructure, such as the Northern Sea Route, which has experienced a substantial increase in freight volumes. Putin outlined advancements in icebreaker construction and the upgrade of the commercial fleet, aiming to strengthen Russia’s international position amid evolving global dynamics.

New U.S. Sanctions and Russia’s Strategy 

In response to heightened geopolitical tensions and Russia’s military actions, the US and its allies, including the UK and the EU, have implemented over 16,500 sanctions on Russia. These measures target Russia’s financial resources, key industries, and specific projects like the Arctic LNG 2. Despite these sanctions, Russia has found ways to evade them, contributing to economic challenges. The US and UK recently announced a third round of sanctions, particularly focusing on Russia’s Arctic LNG 2 project, aiming to hinder progress and delay the first shipment. These sanctions extend to shipyards in Russia and South Korea, as well as holding companies linked to vessels constructed by South Korean shipyard Hanwha Ocean. The economic challenges, combined with the ongoing war, have prompted a significant outflow of people from Russia, particularly the young and highly educated, while the government’s redirection of funds from health to support the war disproportionately affects rural areas.

In response to what it perceives as the West’s containment strategy against Russia and China, Moscow has suspended its annual payments to the Arctic Council. The decision, following the cessation of cooperation within the Arctic Council since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago, has had significant consequences, delaying about a third of the council’s 130 projects last year. While Russia currently has no plans to leave the Arctic Council, recent statements suggest a potential reassessment of its position. The possibility of Russia withdrawing from the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) is also being considered, indicating a growing willingness to reconsider its involvement in international bodies. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov emphasized that, for now, Russia remains actively engaged in the Arctic Council. However, if its participation deviates from its interests or is perceived as ineffective or unfair, the country might consider special decisions regarding its continued involvement. The measured stance leaves room for potential reevaluation based on Russia’s assessment of its interests and engagement within the Arctic Council.

The Biden Administration has introduced the National Strategy for the Arctic Region (NSAR), a ten-year agenda prioritizing urgent climate action, sustainable development, and environmental conservation. The strategy positions the U.S. to navigate cooperation and strategic competition, especially in the context of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine and China’s expanding Arctic ambitions. The Implementation Plan for the NSAR (NSARIP) outlines over 30 objectives and 200 actions, emphasizing cooperation with Arctic Allies and managing risks of militarization. Despite challenges in cooperating with Russia due to its involvement in the war in Ukraine, the U.S. remains committed to collaboration in the Arctic. The Arctic and Far East have become strategic focal points amid escalating geopolitical tensions, reflecting big power forays and efforts to contain Russia and counter China’s Polar Silk Road vision. The region has gained significance with the Ukraine War and NATO’s expansion.