The current regional instability in Europe, stemming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, can be attributed to the security dilemma created for Russia due to NATO’s eastward expansion following the post-Soviet era. Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO has notably contributed to this dilemma.

The historical rivalry between Russia and the West, as exemplified by the prolonged Cold War, underscores the situation. Both sides have been struggling to expand their influence and counter each other’s power.

NATO expansion and the Ukraine crisis

NATO was established during the Cold War as a response to Soviet expansionism. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an expectation that peaceful relations would prevail, leading to a perceived fulfillment of NATO’s original objective and a diminished need for the organization.

However, in 2004, NATO extended its reach to include the Baltic States, which are neighboring countries of Russia. This action significantly increased tensions between the Kremlin and its Western border countries and NATO. The Russian government argued that NATO had violated promises of non-expansion made after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In 2008, Ukraine expressed its intention to join NATO. However, due to domestic instability, this objective could not be realized.

In 2021, NATO reaffirmed Ukraine’s aspirations by endorsing the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine. This decision was met with strong opposition from Russia, ultimately leading to its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The security threat posed by Russia, a dominant actor in Eurasia, resulted in a significant shift in the foreign policy positions of previously neutral states, namely Finland and Sweden. In response to this threat, both countries pursued NATO membership.

In April 2023, Finland officially joined NATO, while Sweden encountered opposition from Turkey and Hungary, leaving its bid for membership in a more challenging position.

Sweden’s NATO membership

Sweden has adopted a neutral foreign policy for years and avoided military alliances. Even the cold war failed to push Sweden to join any bloc, but the tides have turned since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia presented a security dilemma for Sweden, prompting the Scandinavian country to seek a nuclear umbrella as a means to safeguard its security. It appears that joining NATO and benefiting from the collective defense provision outlined in Article 5 aligns with the best interests of Sweden.

Turkiye has been the primary impediment to Sweden’s NATO membership, citing the presence of the Kurdish Workers’ Party in Stockholm, an organization Ankara considers a terrorist group. Nevertheless, Sweden has demonstrated a resolute commitment to joining the Alliance by undertaking various measures to alleviate Turkey’s apprehensions.

This includes amending its constitution, implementing counter-terrorism operations against Türkiye-designated terrorist groups, and enforcing the Trilateral Memorandum concluded at the Madrid NATO Summit in 2022.

Hence, before the highly anticipated NATO summit, the trilateral discussions between Stoltenberg, Erdogan, and Kristersson on July 10, 2023, yielded a notable advancement for Sweden’s pursuit of NATO membership.

Turkey has approved the submission of Sweden’s Accession Protocol to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, thereby expediting Sweden’s membership process and creating a new opportunity for NATO expansion.

On July 11, Tobias Billström, the Foreign Minister of Sweden, announced through a tweet that after successful negotiations in Vilnius, an agreement had been reached with Turkey regarding Sweden’s NATO membership. As a result, the ratification process will now begin.

The Prime Minister and the President mutually agreed on the details.

The Unpredictable Path Ahead

When Sweden and Finland were granted accession protocols for NATO in 2022, the Russian Government expressed its position that it did not perceive any threat from their accession. However, it emphasized that there would be no concerns as long as Sweden and Finland refrain from deploying military personnel or establishing military infrastructure along the borders that could potentially threaten Russia.

Nevertheless, the stakes remain significant since the expansion of NATO toward Russian borders will inevitably give rise to security concerns for the Kremlin in the near future.

Given Russia’s ongoing conflict with Ukraine, initiating a war on another front is currently unfeasible. However, the future of the established global order appears uncertain, with the expanding NATO alliance on one side and the partnership between China and Russia, accompanied by some allied states, on the other.

The strategic Baltic Sea

The expansion of NATO to encompass the Scandinavian Peninsula entails more than just securing a defensive umbrella for Sweden and Finland. It also holds significant geostrategic implications.

Sweden is strategically vital along the Baltic Sea and close to the NATO Baltic States. These states have limited land connections with other NATO members, making them vulnerable to potential Russian aggression.

Including Sweden in NATO would provide it with convenient access to the Baltic Sea, where it conducts naval exercises and serves as a hub for valuable natural resources.

During the Cold War, the political ideologies of the Baltic region led to its division. The Eastern Bloc, including the Baltic States, was aligned with Russia, while Germany and the Nordic States formed part of the Western Bloc. As members of NATO, the Nordic States did not permit permanent military infrastructure to be stationed within their territories during that time.

To the north, Finland and Sweden remained neutral. As a result, the Baltic Sea was regarded as a Sea of Peace, without any single bloc exerting dominance over the region.

However, the current situation has changed with the status of Sweden and Finland. These new members have surrounded the Baltic Sea with NATO countries on all sides, except for a small portion that borders Russia and Kaliningrad. This development essentially transforms the Baltic Sea into a “NATO Sea.”

By expanding its reach to include Finland and Sweden, NATO can bridge the gap to the Baltic States and consider establishing a naval base on Sweden’s strategically located Gotland Island. This move would undoubtedly raise security concerns for the Kremlin.

The ongoing eastward expansion of NATO, with Finland and soon Sweden joining its ranks, and the potential future accession of Ukraine and Georgia, both neighboring Russia, represents a complex geopolitical maneuver that goes beyond mere nuclear defense capabilities.


**The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization neither endorses nor assumes any responsibility for the content of this article.