Last year Russia purchased four Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, allowing the Russian navy much greater latitude in responding to contingencies worldwide. In response to this event, Swedish Defense Minister Sten Tolgfors told a recent Stockholm security conference, "Mistral will contribute to the development of Russian military capability and we will need to relate to this as well. A strong Swedish air force with sea targeting capabilities and modernization of our submarine fleet are some of the decisions that I see as relevant when the effect of the Mistral is discussed." If one were to simply identify Mr. Tolgfors as a ‘Western European defense minister,’ his comments would seem unusually bombastic when addressing Russia. Looking into the recent past, however, this sort of commentary is actually not unusual for a Swedish official on issues of security.
In contrast to Scandinavian neighbors Norway and Denmark, Sweden chose not to join the NATO security collective during the Cold War. Nonetheless, Sweden maintained a strong defense capability during this period due to its close proximity to the Soviet Union. This also helped Sweden to develop a strong indigenous defense industry. Joining the European Union in 1995, the more independent course taken by the country was relaxed somewhat as the country joined efforts to stabilize Eurasia in the post-Cold War era. Despite not being a NATO member, Sweden has nonetheless made substantial military personnel contributions to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan as well. On March 23, Sweden's relationship with NATO was further strengthened by its participation in a NATO Baltic air forces exercise. This marked the first time that Sweden utilized its Gripen fighter aircraft, in operation since 1996, in a NATO exercise. Such an exercise proved particularly important given recent global events: on April 1, the Swedish parliament approved the government's proposal to contribute Gripen aircraft to the NATO-led enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya.
A lingering influence of traditional independence on foreign policy matters combined with the underlying complexities in Sweden’s geographical position have made it a more interesting case than may initially be apparent. This has also given Sweden greater latitude in developing itself as a leader on European security issues. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt asserted this tone in remarks to parliament, noting that Sweden must have an active role in the Libya crisis given the probability of the EU facing a refugee influx in the coming weeks. Such a statement is a positive step toward giving the EU a more unified voice on the Libya crisis as EU assertiveness on the issue has been questionable up to this point. Sweden has already taken the correct step toward a stronger relationship with NATO by agreeing to be part of the alliance's enforcement of the Libyan no-fly zone. As such, it would behoove both organizations to continue to give strong consideration to Sweden's pragmatic approach to security issues given the positive contributions by the nation to recent collective security efforts.
Mike McCormack is a graduate of Florida State University and the University of Denver.