Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 607, 1 March 2024

NATO 32: Leaving neutrality, Sweden to join after Hungary's approval
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 26 February, Hungary's parliament voted (188 in favour and only six against) favouring Sweden to join NATO. Hungary is the last NATO member to approve Sweden becoming the 32nd member of NATO. During the press conference, Sweden's Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson, said: "…Nato membership means that we are coming home to a large number of democracies working together for peace and freedom." NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: "Sweden's membership will make us all stronger and safer."

Following the vote, Sweden and Hungary signed a military agreement to sell Sweden's four JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets. 

On 26 February, Hungary's Prime Minister Victor Orban blamed the EU and NATO allies for forcing his administration to vote for Sweden. The pressure increased after Turkey approved Sweden's accession on 23 January. Hungary's vote follows Kristersson's visit to Budapest on 20 February to forge cooperation. On approval, Orban said: "Being members of NATO means that we are prepared to die for each other. It is based on mutual respect."

Issues at large
First, the Hungary roadblock and the shift. Orban's tagging with Turkey in blocking Finland and Sweden's entry into NATO was mainly due to his close relations with Turkey and Russia. Budapest's major criticisms against Sweden were over the latter's accusations against Hungary of democratic backsliding and lack of mutual relations. To overturn Orban's objections, a military agreement was needed to win the opposition vote;  the fighter jet agreement with Sweden has made it possible, which also means a long-standing military boost. Hungary is also at odds at the regional level, isolated by the EU and NATO due to blocking EU's decisions against Russia and on Ukraine aid. It does not hold well amongst far-right leaders from France and Italy, as there is no interest in holding formal ties with Hungary. With no investment inflow from Russia, China and Central Asia, Hungary is left with no regional influence, leading to a block in the decision to get few favours. The shift in Hungary's decision to vote in favour of Sweden was possible for many reasons. Change in the government to right-leaning has withdrawn Sweden's criticism of Hungary for democratic backsliding and disregarding minority rights. Hungary's air force's demand for Sweden's Gripen fighter jets and condition to release EU-blocked funds being fulfilled by Sweden and the EU helped ease the decision. 

Second, beyond Hungary's opposition. It was not only Hungary that had opposed Sweden's NATO entry. Earlier, Turkey also had issues in getting Sweden on board. Turkey held its decision against Sweden for close to two years under a negotiation to lift the arms embargo and mainly to act against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The group is considered a terrorist by Turkey after a coup attempt in 2016. Another key condition linked to the decision is unblocking the US supply of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. 

Third, the divide within the NATO on Russia. Turkey's opposition and Hungary's delay in voting on Sweden's membership highlights the crack within the NATO alliance. It shows how a few NATO members do not see Russia as the primary security threat. Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden's domestic issues have been macroscopical, and several members view it as an opportunity to negotiate their domestic and military concessions rather than perceiving Russia's invasion as a prime threat.

Fourth, Russia's NATO expansion conundrum. Sweden and Finland joining NATO creates a direct threat to Russia at the land and sea borders. Given the neutral stance of the two Nordic countries until now and the years of relations with Russia, the leaders have indicated the membership only as a deterrence. Meanwhile, Russia has clearly expressed its intention not to launch a strike into Finland unless there is an attack. It has showcased its interest to be limited to Ukraine.  

In perspective
First, NATO's new ring of defence. The renewed borders of NATO and the Nordic countries' high-end technology and advanced military systems will be a boon to NATO's draining stockpile. Finland's border with Russia would act as a new defence zone for early alerts and detection to defend western and northern Europe.

Second, the challenge to two principal NATO adversaries – the US and Russia. Former US President Donald Trump's criticism of European members' support of NATO and the republican stand against sending aid to Ukraine underline a negative position within the US on Europe's threat perceptions. The US would have to re-think its approach towards NATO, considering the military advancement and geopolitical access that the Nordic brings. Regardless of the leadership, the US' access to the Baltic and Arctic would be an advantage to counter future geopolitical challenges.

For Russia, its key agenda to keep NATO away stands defeated. Finland and Sweden's membership has brought NATO closer. One of the primary objectives of Russia in Ukraine was to keep NATO away. Following the membership of the former neutral Nordic countries, Russia faces a geopolitical quest to balance or showcase its symbolic power against NATO.

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