Summary: Sweden is a non-NATO EU nation that has always had a complicated relationship with Russia. Since 2014 events in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Sweden condemned the act and began rethinking its defense policy, examining the country’s strategic vulnerability after a series of Russian military probes in Swedish waters and airspace. Sweden’s interest in Russia is primarily concerned with human rights, economy and energy, but the latter plays a far less significant role, since Sweden’s energy import is very diverse.

I. Relationship Parameters

History: Sweden has been a historical rival of Russia since the times of Peter the Great and King Charles XII up to the Napoleonic wars. During the Winter War of 1939-40 between Russia and Finland, Swedish volunteers went to Finland to help defend it against Russian aggression. However, Sweden managed to avoid both world wars, and maintained a policy of neutrality in the Cold War as well, following examples of Finland and Austria by never joining NATO, unlike its other Scandinavian neighbors.

Economy: IKEA has invested substantially in Russia in the past, becoming the biggest non-energy foreign investor in the country.[1] Low presence of Russian goods on the Swedish market is met with asymmetrically large presence of Swedish companies in Russia, making Sweden one of the largest sources of investment in Russian economy, but without making the two economies mutually dependent.[2]

Energy: Sweden maintains a low level of energy import from a diverse range of sources, with renewable and nuclear energy amounting to total of 65% of its overall energy sources (34% and 31% respectively), with oil following only at 27%. However, in 2014, Russia was the biggest oil source (42% of the share of imported oil), with Norway and Denmark providing only 25% and 15% respectively, and the rest coming from Nigeria and the UK.[3]

Syria: Sweden’s has officially condemned Russia’s and Assad’s actions in Syria, stating that they threaten peace process in the war-torn country.[4]

Tensions: The sharp rise in Russian military activity in the Baltic region prompted Sweden to boost its defense spending and deepen its cooperation with NATO by 2015.[5] In October 2014, Swedish navy engaged in a hunt for a Russian submarine that intruded into Sweden’s territorial waters, but Russia denied that such incident ever took place.[6] In 2015, Russian diplomats were asked to leave Sweden in the midst of the tensions between the two countries.[7] In July 2015, Russian bombers have been spotted patrolling near the island of Gotland, located in the middle of the Baltic Sea.[8] Sweden’s military experts assessed that Russia aims at gaining control of Gotland in case of open warfare, alarming the nation’s government that unless it is fortified, the island would be quickly occupied by Russia.[9] This key security concern prompted the Swedish military to start deploying permanent troops in Gotland in September 2016,[10] and the process is expected to have finished by 2018.[11]

Human Rights: Sweden, like Denmark, is particularly concerned with human rights abroad and in Russia in particular. Sweden refused in the past to extradite Chechens accused of terrorism in Russia, which led to Sweden being accused of harboring “bandits”, while the Swedes highlighted human rights violations in Russia.[12] In 2013 and 2014 Swedish government criticized Russia for deteriorating human rights conditions, increasing militarization, threatening Russia’s neighbours, and decline of the country’s civil society.[13]

View of Russia:

43% of Swedes have very negative view of Russia, and another 43% somewhat negative, according to the Eurobarometer. Only 1% has a very positive view, and 12% see Russia in a somewhat positive light.[14]

STRATCOM: Sweden has a seconded national expert working at the EEAS East STRATCOM Team. Sweden is a partner country of the NATO STRATCOM COE.

II. Expert Assessment

Power Audit (2007): Frosty Pragmatist. Sweden’s stance on Russia is characterized by criticism of internal policies in Russia, active support of the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood Policy with former Soviet republics, and environmental concerns over the Baltic area. Other important factors are the Russian timber tariffs, which hit Sweden and Finland, and generally low level of dependence on Russia in terms of energy imports. However, Sweden’s IKEA is among the biggest foreign investors in Russia, being the biggest one among non-energy companies.

National Perspectives (2013): Though relations between Russia and Sweden were improving in the 1990s, which reassured Sweden to maintain its non-aligned status, Sweden’s increasing criticism of Russia’s slip into authoritarian rule under Putin has cooled two countries’ mutual relations. Sweden was a leading critic of Russia’s Chechen war and the 2008 war in Georgia. The two countries’ relations have also been strained by the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, going from Russia to Germany through Swedish territorial waters with environmental concerns for Sweden. Nonetheless, Sweden tried to improve bilateral relations with Russia, particularly by economically supporting Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave. Moreover, the relations have improved substantially after cooling down during the war in Georgia, and Sweden seeks cooperation with Russia in particular issues, such as environment, maintaining a pragmatic outlook in dealing with Russia overall.

Watch (2015): Sweden’s position on Russia is shaped by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which were strongly condemned by the Swedish government, and growing tensions in the Baltic Sea region. The island of Gotland remains a key security flaw for Sweden. Sweden backed the EU sanctions against Russia and increased military cooperation with Finland and NATO, to which Russia responded with hostile warnings. Still, although Sweden has suspended its military ties with Russia, it still keeps the door for dialogue with Russia open, but Swedes insist that whether situation improves or worsens depends on Russia.

III. Policy Documents

Statement of Government Policy (2016)[15]

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and military presence in eastern Ukraine constitute flagrant breaches of international law. This is the greatest challenge to the European security order since the end of the Cold War. The sanctions against Russia must remain in place until the terms of the Minsk agreements are met. Ukraine must be allowed to regain control over its internationally recognized borders.

Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016 to 2020 (2015)[16]

In its report, the Defence Commission outlined the deteriorating security situation in Europe, particularly in light of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Since the report, developments in the region have continued to worsen. The Defence Commission proposed a number of measures/actions for the Swedish Armed Forces. These included amongst others: a new system for the basic training of squad leaders, soldiers and sailors; upgrades of air defence capabilities; a reorganisation of the land forces into two mechanised brigades; increased presence in the Baltic Sea and on the island of Gotland; increased quality of home guard units; efforts to reinvigorate civil defence; a modern psychological defence; enhanced cyber capabilities and long range precision strike capability.

Security Service Yearbook (2014)[17]

In 2014 the Security Police could state that the biggest intelligence threat against Sweden comes from Russia. Russia’s espionage against Sweden is extensive. It has also increased in connection with the crisis in Ukraine. Illegal intelligence operations against targets in Sweden have increased. Such operations are often carried out by intelligence officers, who hide behind a diplomatic façade. Security Service counterintelligence operations are an important instrument to meet this threat; and another is a vigilant public.



[1] https://fride.org/uploads/file/A_power_audit_of_relations_eu-russia.pdf

[2] Etzold, T., & Haukkala, H., Denmark, Finland and Sweden, Chapter 9 in M. David, J. Gower and H. Haukkala, ‘National Perspectives on Russia: European Foreign Policy in the Making?’, Routledge 2013.

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/occasional_paper/2014/pdf/ocp196_en.pdf

[4] https://www.government.se/contentassets/6d43e67099e24441967be7c38b8888cc/statement-of-government-policy-in-the-parliamentary-debate-on-foreign-affairs-2016

[5] https://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/policy-budget/2015/06/27/finland-sweden-russia-nato-baltics-tensions-budgets-gdp/29289941/

[6] https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/15/swedes-find-definitive-evidence-of-submarine-russians-call-them-unmanly/

[7] https://www.svt.se/nyheter/inrikes/sapo-ryssland-bedriver-psykologiskt-krig-mot-sverige

[8] https://www.ibtimes.com/russian-bombers-spotted-swedish-coast-report-1995862

[9] https://www.ibtimes.com/russia-sweden-war-swedes-prepares-potential-military-invasion-baltic-island-2420967

[10] https://www.forsvarsmakten.se/sv/aktuellt/2016/09/tidigarelagd-etablering-pa-gotland/

[11] https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2016-10-26/gotland-and-aland-baltic-chessboard-swedish-and-finnish-concerns

[12] https://www.thelocal.se/20100309/25432

[13] Bengtsson, R. (2016). Sweden and the Baltic Sea region. In J. Pierre (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Swedish Politics (pp. 447-461). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[14] https://ec.europa.eu/finland/sites/finland/files/ebs_451_anx_en.pdf

[15] https://www.government.se/contentassets/6d43e67099e24441967be7c38b8888cc/statement-of-government-policy-in-the-parliamentary-debate-on-foreign-affairs-2016