Swedish Minister of Defence: Sweden eager to join NATO at upcoming Vilnius Summit

Mr Pål Jonson, Swedish Defence Minister. Photo Ruslanas Iržikevičius
Mr Pål Jonson, Swedish Defence Minister. Photo Ruslanas Iržikevičius

The Swedish Minister of Defence, Pål Jonson, spoke with the Lithuania Tribune at the Annual Conference on Russia organized by the Baltic Defence College at Tartu, Estonia, on 2-3 March. In this interview, Minister Jonson discusses Sweden’s potential NATO membership and the country’s readiness to join the alliance.

He highlights Sweden‘s close relationship with Finland and their joint efforts to implement the trilateral Memorandum of Understanding with Turkey. Minister Jonson also addresses the state of affairs between Turkey and Sweden and acknowledges the importance of the sovereign decision that lies with Turkey and its parliament to decide on Sweden’s NATO membership. Additionally, he speaks on Sweden’s defence industry, its adaptability in the changing Euro-Atlantic landscape, and the country’s strategic importance in regional security and cooperation.

Do you think that the NATO membership of Sweden will be signed in and confirmed in the Vilnius NATO summit on July 11-12, 2023?

The highest priority of the Swedish government is to join the alliance as soon as possible. We have a trilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Sweden, Finland and Türkiye, and we are working on implementing that we take note of the fact that the Secretary General of NATO, Stoltenberg, has stated that he thinks that Sweden and Finland are ready. We think so as well, but of course, we have respect for the fact that this is of course, a sovereign decision by Türkiye and that this is a matter for the parliament of Türkiye to decide this.

Was it a surprising moment for Swedish politicians that Turkey is upset about Sweden harbouring the terrorist organization in Sweden? Was it surprising that Turkey reacted like that?

That question has to be directed to Türkiye. What we are focusing on right now is on implementing the MOU and it entails various aspects, such as we have an overview of our export control regulations. It’s when Sweden and Türkiye have moved from being partners to allies, it’s only natural of course that we can have a trade when it comes to arms. We are reviewing our terrorist legislation and we have joined NATO’s Fund Against International Terrorism we have had contacts on various levels in order to do our share of this MOU and we think that we’re ready and we’re delivering results.

Let’s have a look at two scenarios, only Finland joins NATO or Sweden, and Finland joins NATO together. Let’s talk about the first scenario. How would this change the structure and overall defence and security situation in Northern Europe?

Sweden and Finland have a long tradition of cooperating in the field of security and defence, and during the last five years we intensified our defence planning, and we actually have joint defence planning. So Sweden and Finland are each other’s closest partners. I have a very close and trustful, and effective cooperation with my Finnish counterpart, and so do the Foreign Minister and also the Prime Minister. So that’s very important for us. We think it’s good if Sweden and Finland can join together since we started this and it’s my understanding that Finland has the same position. Now, this comes down of course to how Ankara wants to deal with our application. 28 out of 30 allies have ratified our application process at a record pace, and all of them have been put into the Parliament, the two applications at the same time. So, it’s of course up to Ankara if they want to divide us or not.

What I can say, in the long term, if Finland would join NATO and Sweden for, let’s say a year would remain outside of the alliance, it could complicate things for us because it would be more difficult for Finland to devote time and energy for the Swedish-Finnish defence cooperation and for obvious reasons they would, of course, focus on getting integrated into NATO’s joint defence planning. In addition, it would make, I think that the region as such would make it more complicated if Sweden could not join NATO at the same time because we provide the alliance with strategic depth, and we would be as pragmatic as ever possible in these matters, but it’s difficult for us to get access to NATO’s joint defence planning until we have fully joined  NATO’s common defence planning.

In addition, Sweden right now is also having the chairmanship of NORDEFCO, the Nordic cooperation and I notice a much greater enthusiasm from both Norway and Denmark when it comes to Nordic and Nordic-Baltic cooperation because when we are going to have the same kind of security architecture in peace, in crisis and in war times and we’re going to all be part of NATO’s joint defence planning, that’s going to create entirely new avenues for us to deepen our cooperation and if we cannot do that, that’s going to be an impediment and a challenge for us.

So therefore, we want to join as quickly as possible.

If Sweden will not be admitted to NATO with Finland, do you think that this overwhelming support for NATO may decrease?

I’m not worried about that. I mean, the opinion polls have gone from about 30% support of NATO membership to 70%, and during the last few months, actual support has increased even further. So, the primary reason for that is that we understand the importance that NATO supports its partners, but it defends its allies, and if you want to have access to NATO’s common defence planning and you want to have access to Article 5 and you want to be a genuine security provider in the region, you have to join the alliance.

And it’s very apparent to many that Russia takes a great political and military risk, acting very recklessly, and that we need to become fully integrated into the alliance. So, I rest assured that there is solid public support that will remain for NATO membership. So, in that regard, I’m not worried.

What I can also say is that we are safer now than we were before we made the application because when we received the invitee status, we also got security reassurances from the United States, from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands and the other Nordic countries as well. In combination with the fact that we also have a much more extensive exercise pattern, not at least with the United States in our vicinity, and we’re grateful for both the Royal Navy and the German Navy and the Dutch Navy and the France Navy being much more present in our region and that builds capabilities, and it enhances our security.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Western world has really neglected defence, even though defence matters, even though Sweden is famous for its defence industry. However, now the Western world is experiencing problems with its defence industry. What about Sweden? Do you have the same issues?

Sure, let me just say that myself, I’ve been an ardent supporter of the Swedish NATO membership for well over 20 years. And you should also know that inside Sweden, the issue of NATO membership before the war was rather polarised. There were many of us who wanted to join the alliance, and then there was the former government. This was a difficult choice for them to make. And I respect the fact that they were able to change their mind. That’s difficult to do. I’m a politician, I know that, and it’s good that the Social Democrats and the Moderates have been cooperating extensively in this, and we do this on a bipartisan basis.

Now, regarding our defence industrial base, I claim that Sweden is a country that punches above its weight. No other country of 10 million can produce submarines, surface competence, advanced artillery systems, infantry vehicles and fighter aircraft. So, we score well regarding system integration and project management.

Now, all of us in the Euro-Atlantic community have to review our defence industrial strategies and ensure that we have the security of supply because a lot of the defence industry in Europe is based on peacetime rationale, not on consumption and warfighting. And therefore, we are looking into this matter in Sweden. We are looking on a Nordic basis. We have a security of supply agreement on the ammunition between Sweden, Finland and Norway. We’re working inside the EU. As you know, Sweden has the EU Council Presidency, and there’s also work being done inside NATO on the short security of supplies.  And I think that’s for excellent reasons. There’s an experience from Ukraine. It is scale, scale, scale, scale, as General Cavoli says, it demands volumes.

There is some talk about the gravity of power shifting towards Eastern Europe. Do you think that Sweden looks at it as a serious shift in defence capabilities and the importance of Europe? Let’s say I’m talking about the shifting to Poland and the Baltic region. How is Sweden looking at this, and are you ready to participate in this regional format inside of NATO or outside of NATO?

I will answer this question in two ways. The first is the reading of Russia. And I think I would commend Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland for providing essential lessons learned in the assessment of Russia. I always say there was no one in the west of Warsaw that wanted to listen to your assessment of Russia. You were right, and many were wrong on this. So that’s the first thing. 

When it comes to the military field, what is obvious is, of course, that Sweden and Finland joining NATO will provide the alliance with strategic depth and that will consolidate the Nordic-Baltic region. This is one single area for military operations. I think that the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, and the Arctic. It’s connected, and it’s going to be much easier for us to cooperate when we have joint defence planning, and we’re all part of NATO. 

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