Sweden’s parliament has approved a deal with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to give the Western military alliance more access to its territory amid brewing tensions between the neutral Nordic country and Russia.
Swedish lawmakers on Wednesday ratified the accord proposed by the center-left minority government with a margin of 291-21, allowing NATO to use the country’s territory for training exercises and in case of a war in the region.
Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said after the vote that the move would not mean a serious shift in Sweden toward NATO.
“This deal will not change our relationship with NATO nor our security policy. We will remain non-aligned,” Hultqvist said, adding, “There will be no NATO troops on Swedish soil without an invitation.”
Sweden, an affluent state in Scandinavia, has traditionally distanced itself from NATO, but main center-right opposition parties favor membership to the military bloc. Polls also show that increasing numbers of Swedes agree with the membership although the government has said it will not join the alliance.
Russia, the main opponent of NATO’s expansion policy, has already criticized Sweden’s closeness to the body, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying in April that Moscow would take unspecified action if Sweden joined NATO.
Sweden has taken steps suggesting that it seeks closer ties with NATO, including its increasing military cooperation with the organization’s states like Denmark, Norway and Iceland, and contribution to NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Ties between NATO and Russia have been tense for the last two years over a crisis in Ukraine, where the Kiev government and its Western allies keep accusing Moscow of having a hand in the conflict in the country’s east. The Kremlin strongly rejects the claim.
The deal between NATO and Sweden comes as Russia is also angered by NATO’s expansion policy to include countries in the Western Balkan region, saying the move directly harms Moscow’s strategic interests in the area.
On May 19, NATO agreed to begin talks on Montenegro’s membership to the organization.