Sweden is about to say goodbye to more than two centuries of neutrality

Sweden, like its neighbor Finland, had long ruled out NATO membership. That changed virtually overnight when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The attack stoked fears across Europe about Moscow's resurgent imperial ambitions — an alarm that has grown since Russia's momentum on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Sweden's last war ended in 1814, and when the rifles and cannons aimed at Norway were lowered, this fighting power no longer took up arms.

For the next two centuries Sweden maintained a policy of neutrality, refusing to take sides in wars or become part of military alliances. It was an attitude that maintained peace in the country and contributed to the country becoming a welfare state and a humanitarian superpower.

This very long era of non-alignment is coming to an end as Sweden joins NATO. Ceremonial formalities are expected to take place soon after an 18-month delay due to Turkey and Hungary delaying ratification and demanding concessions from other Alliance members.

"Sweden is now leaving behind 200 years of neutrality and non-alignment," Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said after the Hungarian Parliament gave its approval on Monday. "This is a big step and we must take it seriously. But also what we are undertaking is a natural step".

Sweden, like its neighbor Finland, had long ruled out NATO membership. That changed virtually overnight, when Russia launched a breakaway of Ukraine in February 2022. The attack raised fears across Europe about Moscow's resurgent imperial ambitions — an alarm that has grown since Russia's momentum on the battlefield in Ukraine.

"It's the right path for us," said Jacob Frederiksen, a 24-year-old pilot who like many Swedes has welcomed membership in NATO, which has kept the peace for decades amid the breakdown of order after World War II. "I think this is a new era, it's better to be part of an alliance than to be independent and neutral."

The invasion had a "shock effect on the political life of Sweden", said Henrik Ekengren Oscarsson, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg. He has analyzed polling data which show that support for NATO membership has increased from 35% in 2021 to 64% after the invasion of Ukraine.

"It was the biggest and fastest change in opinion that has been measured in Swedish political history," wrote Ekengren Oscarsson.

Still, there are new concerns about being part of the Alliance, amid rising tensions between Russia and the West.

Ulrika Eklund, a 55-year-old bank employee in Stockholm, has said that she feels uncertain about NATO membership and the impact it will have on Sweden. But she understands why such a step was taken with "everything that is happening in the world and in Europe".

The country's neutrality has its roots in the early 19th century, when Europe was involved in the Napoleonic Wars.

Although Sweden ended up on the winning side of the battle against France's warlike emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, the loss of territorial possessions in Finland to Russia years earlier ended Sweden's illusions of continuing as a great power.

"Having won Norway, the policy aimed to stay out of great power squabbles and instead focus on developing Sweden as a country. And that's what we did," said Robert Dalsjö, analyst at the Swedish Research and Defense Agency.

The policy allowed Sweden to develop, Dalsjö said, putting it on the path to a modern state after "it was one of the poorest and most backward countries in Europe in the 19th century."

As Sweden adjusted to its new status, King Karl XIV John declared the country's neutrality in 1834. In a letter to the earls of Britain and Russia, he asked for respect for Sweden's desire to stay out of their conflicts.

Preserved in the Swedish National Archives and considered the oldest document regarding Sweden's neutrality, the text reads: "We will seek, as we are doing now, to stay out of this battle and that Sweden and Norway, keeping strict neutrality towards belligerents, may deserve, by our impartial conduct, respect and esteem for our system".

Along the way, Sweden's neutrality has been tested – especially during World War II, when it made concessions to Germany to stay out of the war.

"The Second World War was a deadly experience for Sweden", said Dalsjö.

Many Swedes believed they had kept the peace because of their neutrality, he said, but in reality "we were flexible in enforcing neutrality: at the beginning of the war, making concessions with the Germans, and later in the war, making concessions with allies".

During the Cold War, when Sweden and Finland were between NATO and the Warsaw Pact alliance, many Swedes – and Finns – thought that staying outside the bloc was the best way to avoid tensions with neighboring Russia. powerful eastern in the Baltic Sea region.

But this never meant a complete embrace of pacifism. In the 1950s and '60s, Sweden had the fourth-largest air force in the world and the ability to mobilize 800.000 men, including reservists, in the event of war, said Andreas Ohlsson, curator at the Swedish Army Museum.

"Being neutral does not mean being naive. In fact, it is a way of thinking that we should be independent in case of war", said Ohlssoni.

As the years passed, the idea of ​​Sweden as a voice for peace and nuclear non-proliferation became the core of Sweden's identity. The country's Nobel Prize institutions funded foreign aid programs, participated in peacekeeping missions abroad, and relied on neutral status to act as mediators in regional conflicts around the globe.

Olof Palme, Swedish prime minister in the 70s, described Sweden as a moral superpower that must “become active in situations where other countries, as a result of their foreign policy stance, have been unable to engage ".

Fear of Russia's military power dates back several centuries and continued into the Cold War years. In 1981, a Soviet submarine ran aground in the Stockholm archipelago, approaching the main Swedish naval base. Tense days followed.

After the Cold War, fears subsided and Sweden cut defense spending. But in recent years, Sweden has invested more in its military and built up contacts with NATO, participating in training with the Alliance.

The main trigger was Ukraine's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

In 2017, Sweden reinstated recruitment. Next year, a regiment on the strategically important Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, Gotland, northwest of the Russian territory of Kaliningrad, has been re-established after being disbanded in 2005.

Over time, for Sweden - clearly rooted in the West and a member of the European Union since 1995 - the word "disengagement" became more appropriate than "neutrality".

"For 30 years we have moved away from pure neutrality, which was never so pure, to a position of alliance," Dalsjö said. "And you can say that we finally finish it by joining NATO."

Prepared by: Latra Gashi