Neutrality in Europe is being reshaped by Russia’s invasion

Invasion has triggered a radical shift in how smaller countries frame their neutrality

Surprise – and more than a few sniggers – surrounded Sweden's decision four years ago toreissue a Cold War pamphlet called "If War Comes". In it, citizens were taught bunker etiquette and the rules of a well-packed refugee bag: well-folded clothes, blankets, toilet paper, cutlery and a torch.

“No more luggage than the family can carry itself,” it urged, “and a food bag, at least for two days”.

The flood of people westwards from Ukraine has shocked northern Europe – no strangers to Russian muscle-flexing – and has seen a rush to buy petrol canisters, crank radios and power-banks.

“Sweden is not exposed to any immediate threat, but we know that many want to improve their preparedness for when something happens,” said Christina Andersson, head of Sweden’s civil contingencies agency.


Two weeks in, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has triggered a radical shift in how smaller countries frame their neutrality in a time of war and their self-defence capabilities – alongside or inside Nato.

SWEDEN Swedes pride themselves on a long tradition of neutrality and military non-alliance which, for many, is as much about identity, self-image and ideology as security. So when Stockholm went beyond words to action – sending assault rifles and anti-tank weapons to Kyiv – it was a historic break with a policy that has held since 1939, when it supplied arms to Finland in its fight against the Soviet Union.

Sweden and Finland, both non-Nato members, are co-ordinating closely these days as war in Europe boosts public support for the alliance. A poll in late February for Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT indicated that 41 per cent of Swedes now support joining the alliance, while while 35 per cent remain opposed.

When talk of Nato membership prompted dark warnings from Moscow of “serious military-political consequences”, Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson hit back: “It is Sweden, itself and independently, that decides on our security policy line.”

At the same time, however, the Social Democrat leader conceded that Swedish Nato membership at present could have a “destabilising” effect on the region.

Her foreign minister Ann Linde agreed, noting how support jumped when Russia annexed Crimea: “The middle of a crisis is not the right time to make major changes in our security policy.”

Instead of Nato mutual defence, Sweden and Finland this week flagged article 42.7 of the EU Lisbon Treaty, last invoked during France’s 2015 terrorist attacks, obliging member states to assist “by all the means in their power” any other European Union state that is “the victim of armed aggression on its territory”.

Though wary of military alliances, Sweden announced plans on Thursday to increase defence spending by nearly 40 per cent, to 108 billion kronor (€10 billion) annually. The ambition is to reach 2 per cent of Swedish gross domestic product – the Nato minimum, without Nato membership.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not changed its 1,340km-long border with neighbouring Finland, but it has changed everything else in a bilateral relationship that is heavy with history.

Despite war and Russian occupation, the last century saw close economic ties, even in the Cold War, segueing to a cooler co-existence in recent years. But now all is changed: Finnish public opinion on defence has flipped with a majority of 53 per cent now in favour of Nato membership, the first time ever, with 28 per cent opposed. Before last month, even after years of Russian military manoeuvres on Finland’s doorstep, the numbers were the other way around.

“It is now more a question why should we not join Nato rather than why should we,” said Jyri Lavikainen, research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “Our political leaders are assessing risks and options at present. There is an expectation of a clearer picture by summer of whether we will begin pursuing Nato membership – or another option.”

Finland already co-operates with Nato and meets its membership criteria, he says, thanks to levels of defence spending and procurement policies in line with alliance standards.

As discreet political talks continue, pressure is building on Finnish MPs to declare their defence preferences. If membership is pursued, a referendum would be likely to give the outcome political legitimacy.

Last Monday, Finland took the unprecedented step of sending arms to Ukraine while, on Tuesday, all political party leaders agreed that Finland’s foreign policy reality had “changed significantly” – enough to warrant a discussion on joining Nato. Similar to Sweden, prime minister Sanna Maris is in no rush.  “The issue must still be carefully dealt with,” she said, “we will not base decisions on an opinion poll.”


Nordic neutrality is not a concern for Denmark, a founding member of Nato in 1949. But Russia’s invasion has forced Denmark to reconsider EU common defence policy and boost defence spending.

Echoing a similar move from Germany, Copenhagen has vowed to raise its military budget within the next decade from 1.44 per cent of gross domestic product today to the Nato target of 2 per cent.

The last time Danish spent more than 2 per cent of its GDP on military was in 1989 but, as prime minister Mette Frederiksen said this week, “Putin’s pointless and brutal attack on Ukraine has heralded a new era in Europe, a new reality”.

The Social Democrat leader has signed a pact with leaders of four other political parties, promising to confront a “new security situation . . . with our allies in Nato and the EU”.

Apart from Denmark’s far left, the move has been welcomed by all political parties and most Danish commentators. Few have any problems with plans to ease Danish budget rules to allow higher deficit spending for defence.

Next June, voters will be asked in a referendum whether to end Denmark’s EU defence opt-out – one of four negotiated in Edinburgh to salvage the Maastricht Treaty after it was rejected by Danish voters in 1992. Lifting the opt-out would allow Danish representatives remain in the room when EU members discuss Common Defence and Security Policy (CDSP), one of the main elements of the bloc’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) which has more than 5,000 military and civilian staff deployed in missions across the world.

A poll this week suggested that 55 per cent of Danes support an end to the defence opt-out, with 23 per cent opposed. The Berlingske daily has one word for the prospect of greater Danish defence spending and co-operation: “historic”.


Further south, Austria’s neutrality debate – and resistance to Nato membership – has the strongest echoes of Ireland. A leading politician from the ruling People’s Party (ÖVP) kicked off the discussion by warning how “a neutral or state without an alliance remains alone when it is attacked”.

That forced ÖVP chancellor Karl Nehammer to insist that: “Austria was, is and will remain neutral.” But he pointed out how military neutrality was “forced upon us” after the second World War “as the price for us getting back our freedom”.

The April 1955 agreement memorandum – promising “not to join military alliances or permit military bases on its territory” and instead “always exercise a neutrality of the kind specified by Switzerland” – was Moscow’s price for the withdrawal of Soviet occupying forces.

Despite Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the opposition centre-left Social Democrats say Austria’s neutrality is “non-negotiable” – reflecting broad political opinion.  But when Austrian’s timid neutrality debate prompted warnings from Moscow of “anti-Russian rhetoric”, Chancellor Nehammer hit back: “Whoever doesn’t respect international law doesn’t respect neutrality.”


Similar to Austria, the Swiss neutrality debate in the last two weeks draws a distinction between neutrality on political and military lines. Four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Switzerland took a “unique and difficult” decision to break with its long-standing tradition of political neutrality and adopt EU sanctions packages in their entirety, in particular freezing oligarch assets and halting banking business.

Bern’s embrace of its “moral imperative” came three days after it rejected the idea of such sanctions – and a weekend of intense political lobbying from other capitals. Given 80 per cent of Russian commodities are traded via Switzerland, and Swiss banks hold an estimated 30 per cent of Russian citizen foreign assets, eschewing sanctions risked the country becoming a war profiteer and pariah state.

For many citizens, neutrality is as Swiss as the country’s chocolate or cheese. Napoleon’s 1798 visit was the federation’s last taste of war and its neutrality was formalised by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The principle of neutrality has remained intact, however, because it has always been a moveable feast.

Though military neutrality remains untouchable and Nato membership unlikely, Swiss troops have been involved in alliance missions to Kosovo and Afghanistan.

A decade ago Switzerland revised its Cold War preparedness strategy and scrapped much military equipment and cutting military spending.  But a two-day emergency debate in parliament next week in Bern is likely to force a drastic rethink.

“As a sovereign and neutral country,” said defence minister Viola Amherd, “we must, first and foremost, be able to protect ourselves.”