Why Sweden Should Refrain from NATO and Support Democratic Movements in Russia

Jens Johansson

Summary: In the coming weeks it seems increasingly likely that Finland and Sweden will apply for membership in NATO. Here, we publish thoughts from a Swede who argues against NATO membership, while at the same time not refraining from criticizing Putin – Editors

Just as the first leaves on the trees sprout, flowers are popping up, and the birds are returning and are waking up Sweden with a beautiful choir in mornings, there is a dark reality confronting and puzzling the Swedish people’s mind. Since February 24, the assumption that has been taken for granted, that Russia won’t start an unprovoked war with another country, is no longer valid. The consequences of Russia’s invasion in the public mind have had the strongest effect in Finland. Especially after the reports of the Russian soldiers’ brutal war crimes in Bucha came out, the fear of the neighbor in the East grew rapidly. Finland’s border with Russia is 1340 km long. And it is only 105 years since Finland broke away from then Tsarist Russia and became a sovereign and independent nation. During the Second World War they were attacked by Stalin’s Russia but bravely resisted in a kind of ‘David against Goliath’ battle, and were at the end of the war still a sovereign and independent nation, albeit under rightwing leadership. These collective memories in Finland of war and fear of a Russian invasion have been triggered as a consequence of Putin’s order to attack Ukraine, and now the Finnish people are desperately seeking out ways to guarantee their security. Membership in NATO seems to many people to be the only alternative. Before February 24 there was no majority in Finland for joining NATO, now there is. This change in opinion is thus due to Putin’s actions only. He is therefore the one to be held accountable for this new situation.

Finland’s quick move also changes the situation in Sweden. As being the only two non-NATO Western countries in the north of Europe, besides Ireland, Sweden and Finland have for a long time developed a defense strategy that builds upon cooperation with each other. Now, if Finland would join NATO, those agreements to cooperate if either one would be attacked, would cease to exist. A Finnish membership in NATO would therefore pose a serious blow to Sweden’s capability of defending itself. Moreover, if Finland would join NATO and Sweden would choose to stay out, due to the geographical reality, it would make it complicated for NATO to defend Finland if Finland would be attacked by Russia. Thus, if Finland joins, they would really like to see Sweden to join as well.

This is how the reasoning sounds from leading Social Democrats in Sweden currently. While they are correct that there would be a complicated military strategic situation if Russia would attack Finland or any of the Baltic countries, and Sweden would be the only non-NATO member in the region, it is not necessarily true when they claim that a NATO membership would be what best guarantees the security of the people in Sweden and Finland.

From a short-term perspective, the risk of Russia attacking Sweden is right now lower than before February 24. Russian troops that previously were stationed at the Finnish border have been moved to Ukraine. The war has so far cost Russia an enormous amount of money, and it is not going as was initially planned. Starting up a new war on another front therefore seems unlikely. However, even if Putin had the means to fund a new full-scale invasion, Ukraine and Sweden are very different countries. From the point of view of someone who has no interest in democratic principles nor respect for people’s lives and independence but wants to resurrect a Russian imperialist superpower, attacking Ukraine makes sense. Putin has admittedly claimed that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe was the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wants to reestablish Russia as the big powers it once was. At the same time, he is challenged by internal opposition from liberal petty-bourgeois parties and factions who find Putin and his fellow oligarch’s extreme hierarchical state-capitalist rule to be its biggest enemy. This is a class angry by recent decreased standards of living and at the same time inspired by the development in Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, Putin’s attack on Ukraine needs to be seen in the context of his repression of forces who want to democratize and challenge the corrupt Russian system from which Putin and the oligarchs exploit.

And as everyone has learned during the recent weeks, Kiev was the birthplace of what today is Russia and therefore a symbolically important city for one who wants to resurrect a Russian imperialist superpower. But none of this applies to Sweden. Sweden has never been part of a Russian imperium, and there is no segment of pro-Russian communities in Sweden Putin could claim he needs to liberate. Conclusion, in the short term the threat of a Russian invasion of Sweden hasn’t increased, rather the opposite.

And nor in the long run would a membership in NATO benefit Sweden in terms of security. In the long run what would be needed to guarantee safety would be to get rid of Putin and the oligarchs and contribute to strengthening the democratic forces to build a new Russia. The fastest way to seriously threaten Putin’s income with which to fund his war, would be to stop buying Russian oil and gas. If Sweden would instead decide to join NATO that would only play into the hands of the Russian nationalists, making them feel more threatened by the West and therefore unwilling to cooperate to avoid escalation. The West would then risk that the ruling class in Russia further isolates the country and develops even more absurd schizophrenic ideas. And with more than 6 200 nuclear bombs ready to be used, there is a potential situation that could arise that could threaten the fate of the world. Jens Stoltenberg of NATO was indeed correct when he pointed out earlier this spring that Russia can’t win a nuclear war against NATO. But neither can NATO win a nuclear war against Russia, because in a nuclear war there are no winners, there are only losers.

Polls about NATO membership in Sweden show different results. Yet, it seems that none has shown that there would be a majority for NATO membership. Most polls now show that around 40-45 % are for Sweden joining NATO, around 30-35 % are against, and 25 % don’t know. Does that basis really suggest that this is a good time to join, also considering that at the last referendum a majority voted for parties that were open with their aversion toward NATO membership? Among the politicians in the Swedish government now seems to be the right time to join. The Social Democrats, who have a minority rule, have not yet officially announced their position, but most of the important names have stated that now they are for a sending in an application for NATO membership. Be that as it may, in their party there is an opposition. S-kvinnor (the women’s section within the Social Democratic party) announced last week that they are against NATO membership. The Left Party and the Greens are the only parties who are openly against it. They would like to see a referendum on it in the fall, after the upcoming general election in September. Angry commentators are writing that the current leadership of the Social Democrats are only looking to the upcoming general election. They say that the reason they do this is only because the Social Democrats are afraid of losing voters to the right-wing block.

One common denominator amongst those who are against NATO membership is a general feeling of loss. The idea is that when for example Olof Palme was prime minister, Sweden was, at least in some dreamer’s consciousness, on the way toward some kind of democratic and socialistic society that would make up an alternative to the dictatorial Soviet Union and the brutal capitalist system in the West. Palme at least had a rhetoric about that first you establish a political democracy so everyone can vote, then you need to establish a welfare democracy so everyone have access to an acceptable standard of life, then in the last step you establish an economic democracy where the producers are in control of the production and the products of their labor. No doubt one can criticize the lack of what that meant and the reformist’s belief in reformation rather than revolution, but one still has to admit that among the Swedish Social Democrats there was a brief period of time when a dream of exiting capitalism actually existed. Löntagarfonderna, the employee funds of 1971, were the first step toward realizing their idea of economic democracy. But after massive mobilizations from the right, the motion never passed, and since the development in Sweden has gone in the complete other direction.

Today, we are fed everyday with news about the crisis in the healthcare system and how the ques for accessing care grow bigger and bigger. Moreover, it has been decades since the schools were actually providing children with the education they have the right to. And the housing question has gone completely out of hand, now almost all municipalities report a lack of housing which has the effect that young people and the poor can’t find a place to live. The welfare society as we used to know it has been disassembled bit by bit. Private corporations now operate in the welfare sector and are making enormous profits every year. The only thing that is increasing is segregation, shootings, and climate change. And now NATO? If Sweden now were to become a NATO-member then it is definitely good night with that Sweden which pointed toward another kind of development, instead it would just become like another mainstream Western country, as the journalist Göran Greider expressed it.

The Swedish self-image from half a century years ago of a small country far up in the North that had made this remarkable journey from being one of the poorest and backward country in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, a country from which almost 25 % of the population had emigrated, that just a couple of decades later was one of the most modern, richest, and most equal countries in the world, led by Social Democrats, a party which had a robust representation of trade union representatives, was something that made a strong impression internationally. Sweden became a country to which Jews escaped to during the Second World War, and later American Vietnam deserters, Chileans, Iranians and Afghans, Kosovo Albanians, Syrians, and Somalians, and also the place where members of the Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot, and the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaya decided to seek refuge. The fact that Sweden refrained from military alliances made it possible for Palme to march in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in the 60s, for the Swedish government support for the Kurds in their struggle, and now for sending military weapons and equipment to Ukraine, and to develop an own foreign policy they label as “feministic.” It has been more than 200 years that Sweden has stayed out of war and military alliances, that of course contributed to the international reputation.

Due to Sweden’s remarkable and original development, it became a symbol signaling that an alternative development was possible. However, at a closer look on the situation in Sweden several contradictions appeared. During the beginning of the Second World War the Swedish government made deals with the Nazi government, then later with the Allies. Class society, racist policies, and sexism were still deeply rooted and affected everyday lives. But symbols still matter. This author had a tough experience during a year of exchange in the US in 2015 while meeting lots of young, deprived students who had found hope in their struggle, canalized via campaigning for Bernie Sanders. The symbol of “Sweden,” which did not correspond with reality, was for them an idea that confirmed the possibilities and signaled a hope.

It should be stated clearly that Sweden has never lived up to the international reputation it has had as an equal society in which everyone has access to a high standard of living. It has always been a value producing capitalist society, dependent on colonization of natural resources in the North and energy from nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, the symbol signaling an alternative has still mattered. During the last decades the power of that symbol has been nibbled at the edges due to implementation of neoliberal policies and an attack on what made Sweden’s development original. Now, a NATO membership will definitely ruin all of what was left of that symbol. Those responsible for killing it are the current leaders of the Social Democrats. It will be a loss not only for progressives in Sweden, but for the world.

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