A majority of Swedes for the first time now favor abandoning their country’s policy of neutrality in favor of joining the NATO alliance as a full member, according to a new poll. The change, which upends decades of military non-alignment for Stockholm, comes as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked a surge in public support for the Western military alliance.
A survey by the polling institute Novus found that 51% of Swedes favor joining NATO — up from 45% a week ago and the first time the pollster has recorded a majority on the issue, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Officials with Novus said they believe public opinion in Sweden is also being influenced by debate in neighboring Finland on joining NATO. Analysts predict Finland, which has also long pursued a policy of neutrality, will submit a bid for membership in time for a NATO summit in June.
The poll result is part of a major blowback to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine Feb. 24, with the proclaimed purpose of halting NATO‘s expansion in Ukraine and other countries close to Russia‘s borders. Analysts say the Russian military operation has only increased the attraction of NATO to countries that have long preferred not to join.
“Swedish opinion in favor of NATO is increasing because they believe it will be done together with Finland and [people] are then more positive to a Swedish membership,” Novus pollster Torbjorn Sjostrom said in a statement, according to AFP.
The percentage of pro-NATO Swedes increases further if Finland does decide to join the military alliance. AFP reported that 64% of those polled were in favor of joining if that was the case.
Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats said last week they would begin an internal debate on whether they should apply for membership in the military alliance. The Swedish parliament is expected to complete a security policy analysis by May 13 that will be used to guide discussion on the NATO issue.
“Finland has already published its analysis and there is a strong pressure on us to complete our analysis,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said, according to AFP.
The Kremlin has reacted angrily to the reports Stockholm and Helsinki are eyeing NATO. One of Mr. Putin’s closest allies warned last week Russia would have to bolster its own military capacity in the region — including possibly stationing nuclear weapons — if Sweden and Finland vote to join the alliance.
“There can be no more talk of any nuclear–free status for the Baltic — the balance must be restored,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia‘s Security Council and a longtime ally of Mr. Putin.
The Biden administration has said applying for NATO membership is a decision for the countries involved to make, but brushed aside Russian complaints that it would be a hostile act toward Moscow.
“Without speaking to any countries in particular, we would not be concerned that the expansion of a defensive alliance would do anything other than promote stability on the European continent,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in a briefing last week.