View from Stockholm: Not the time for frailty

Given Russia’s multiple moves to up the ante in recent weeks, Stockholm sees no reason for the EU to change direction.

Stockholm hopes that the European Council will come out with a clear and firm statement of the EU’s existing policy on relations with Russia.  Keeping the EU’s unity remains key for maintaining a credible line.

As with other European capitals, Stockholm finds Russia’s bombing campaign against civilians in Syria unacceptable. Foreign Minister Margot Wallström has accused Russia of committing war crimes and floated the idea of further sanctions, calling for the EU to hold Russia accountable for its actions in Syria.

Closer to home, Russia’s deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, less than 300 kilometres from Gotland, has raised tensions in the region. But previous attempts by Russia to intimidate its Baltic neighbours have tended to backfire – in Sweden’s case, support for joining NATO only increases when Russia rattles its sabre.

Stockholm remains staunchly committed to Ukraine. Since Moscow has done little to implement the Minsk accords but rather kept the war in the Donbas going, it is too early to start considering a lifting of sanctions. Stockholm would like the Council to reaffirm the line that economic sanctions will only be lifted once the Minsk accords are fully implemented. A clear and consistent position on this conditionality is necessary for the policy to be credible.

Now is not the moment to start pursuing new forms of “selective engagement” with Russia. There are clearly limits to the value of such engagement when fundamental differences exist – engagement with Russia on Syria is a case in point. And the war in the Donbas doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon despite regular engagement with Russia. Nevertheless, it is necessary to keep diplomatic channels open.

Sweden’s firm line on Russia derives from a long and complicated history with its large neighbour to the East. During the Cold War, Sweden was officially non-aligned and neutral in case of war but for all intents and purposes closely tied to the West. Today, Sweden remains outside NATO but cooperates intensely as an “enhanced opportunity partner”. It also has close defence ties with the United States.

As Sweden is not a member of NATO, respect for the European security order and international law – in particular territorial integrity – is seen as crucial for its national security. It therefore becomes a particular problem for Sweden when Russia undermines the European security order in Ukraine. Ukraine is no doubt important for its own sake, but also for the precedent it sets.

Sweden’s tough approach to Russia and sanctions has strong and broad support among the population and opposition parties. Sweden is not dependent on Russian gas nor does it share a border with Russia. Although Russia is Sweden’s 15th largest trading partner, Swedish industry has largely accepted the government’s line on sanctions.

The line on Russia is not likely to change any time soon – though there may be a push for more dialogue with Moscow as Sweden takes up its non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

With Brexit, Sweden will lose its strongest likeminded ally in the EU. It remains to be seen whether Sweden can fill some of the void left by the UK or will need to reposition itself.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.