Russian invasion of Ukraine forces Swedes to rethink NATO membership

Sweden's Air Force "Grippen" fighters are seen as they escort a Lithuania's Air Force C-27J plane during NATO joint military exercise in Siauliai
Sweden's Air Force "Grippen" fighters are seen as they escort a Lithuania's Air Force C-27J plane during NATO joint military exercise in Siauliai April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

STOCKHOLM/COPENHAGEN, March 4 (Reuters) - Russia's invasion of Ukraine has for the first time seen a majority of Swedes in favour of joining NATO, according to a poll, and signs are the political landscape could to change too in a country long known for neutrality.

Sweden has not been in a war since 1814 and has built its foreign policy on "non-participation in military alliances." It remained neutral throughout World War Two even as neighbouring Nordic countries were invaded, and during the Cold War.

A poll on Friday by Demoskop and commissioned by Aftonbladet newspaper showed 51% of Swedes are now in favour of NATO membership, up from 42% in January. People against joining fell to 27% from 37%. It's the first time such a poll has shown a majority in favour.

However, Sweden's Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said joining NATO was not an easy decision, nor one that could be rushed based on recent events alone.

"To change the defence doctrine, that is a very huge decision, so you don't do it overnight and you cannot do it because of opinion polls," he told a news conference in Copenhagen where he met his Danish and British counterparts.

However, the Sweden Democrats, the third biggest party in parliament, said on Friday it was reviewing its stance, which could give a majority in parliament to those who wish to join.

"We are analyzing the situation now, hour by hour more or less, looking at the NATO issue, looking at other security policy collaborations and what we can do," Aron Emilsson, foreign policy spokesperson for the Sweden Democrats told Swedish Radio.

"It is clear that everything is put in a completely different light right now," he said.

Sweden's centre-right opposition has long called for membership but the Social Democrats, the Left Party, the Greens and the nationalist Sweden Democrats have resisted the move.

The shift in opinion echoes that in close ally and NATO non-member Finland, where the head of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs described Russia's attack on Ukraine as a wake-up call and "Europe's 9/11 for Finns." read more

Claes Levinsson, director at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University said the close cooperation between Sweden and Finland, which include joint military drills and materiel purchases, meant that if Finland joined, Sweden probably would too.

"Sweden is closer than ever before to joining NATO but it would need a substantial majority both in parliament and among the people. It would require the Social Democrats changing opinion", Levinsson said, adding that NATO's process of accepting members could also take time.

Sweden and Finland already have very close cooperation with NATO and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in January the two countries could join the alliance "very quickly" if they decided to apply for membership. On Friday he said NATO had decided to strengthen coordination further.

"Both countries are now taking part in all NATO consultations about the crisis," Stoltenberg said.

Russia, which says it is conducting a "special operation" in Ukraine, has warned Sweden and Finland against joining NATO, saying it would lead to "serious military and political consequences."

Sweden took the decision this month to send weapons to Ukraine, the first time since 1939 Sweden sent weapons to a country at war. read more

On Friday British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said it

would be incomprehensible that Britain would not come and support Sweden.

"Sweden is part of the same family so we would stand by Sweden, we would do anything we could to support both militarily and in other ways," he said.

Reporting by Johan Ahlander in Stockholm and Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Stine Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Editing by William Maclean and Toby Chopra

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