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Sweden becomes the 32nd country to join the NATO alliance


A plaza outside NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, has a ring of flagpoles. They fly the flags of NATO allies. And today the alliance raises a new flag, the blue and yellow flag of the 32nd member, Sweden. For decades, the majority of Swedish citizens opposed being part of the military alliance. But as Teri Schultz reports from Brussels, Russia's war on Ukraine changed everything.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: A warm political embrace under the State of the Union spotlight last Thursday for a country which had decided the world's too dangerous to go it alone - outside NATO.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And just this morning, Sweden officially joined, and their minister is here tonight. Stand up.


SCHULTZ: Staying up into the early morning hours in Stockholm to watch President Joe Biden salute Swedish NATO membership was a man who dedicated himself to making that happen, which was once, against all odds, Defense Minister Pal Jonson.

PAL JONSON: It was a fantastic moment for me and it was a fantastic moment, I think, for the Swedish government. And I think many, many Swedes felt a great sense of pride when that happened.

SCHULTZ: Jonson has been advocating NATO membership since the early 2000s, warning that being just a partner didn't carry the Article 5 guarantee of mutual assistance in case of an attack. But back in 2000, only about a quarter of Swedes supported joining. Public opinion didn't change dramatically, Jonson notes, until Russia launched war on Ukraine.

JONSON: Then it became evident that NATO supports its partners, but it defends its allies. We, of course, looked at Ukraine, who was also a partner country to NATO. And they received support but they were not defended. And we were, of course, in a similar situation.

SCHULTZ: Sweden and neighboring Finland rushed to submit membership bids together in May 2022, assured by NATO that unanimous approvals would come quickly. That was true for Finland, which joined last April. But Sweden had to negotiate overtime to convince Turkey and Hungary, both of which only agreed in the last few weeks. The Turkish and Hungarian parliamentary votes were carried live on Swedish television in a sign of just how significant the membership issue has become.

ANNA WIESLANDER: A lot of people have been engaged that not normally, perhaps, watch these things.

SCHULTZ: Anna Wieslander is the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council think tank.

WIESLANDER: The shift is, you know, that we are better off being part of an alliance.

SCHULTZ: But ordinary Swedes aren't the only ones watching this play out, says Jim Townsend, whose Pentagon career focused on the Nordic countries and NATO. He says Russian military planners have nightmares now about the alliance gaining more territory close to the Kremlin's crown jewels in the Arctic.

JIM TOWNSEND: Their submarine-launched ballistic missiles are up there. That's where their second-strike nuclear capability is, off those submarines. Their surface fleet is up there. Their naval aviation is up there. The strategic bombers are up there.

SCHULTZ: The Russian Foreign Ministry says it will see how Sweden behaves as a NATO member in practice and then will decide whether to take military, technical or other retaliatory steps. Anna Wieslander isn't worried.

WIESLANDER: We have Article 5 and that's a good feeling.

SCHULTZ: Defense Minister Jonson's mantra used to be that Swedes could hope and they could wish for assistance in case of a crisis, but they couldn't know. Now they do as ally No. 32. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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