Sweden, NATO and the irresponsible calls for more nuclear sharing in Europe


Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson recently stated that Sweden might be open to hosting American nuclear weapons now that it has joined NATO. Additionally, politicians in Poland, France, and Germany have been calling for further nuclear sharing arrangements. These developments are concerning as they could lead to increased nuclear weapons proliferation and further escalate an already tense situation.

Swedish PM won’t rule out hosting nuclear weapons in war time despite pressure

On May 13th, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson suggested in an interview that he would not rule out the possibility of hosting US nuclear weapons on Swedish territory during wartime. This comment came in the context of the upcoming parliamentary vote on a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) between Sweden and the United States. The agreement currently states that there is “no reason” for Sweden to host nuclear weapons during peacetime. Critics argue that this vague and noncommittal language, which is also found in Sweden's propositions on NATO membership, is too weak and could be easily altered by the government.

The notion of Sweden entering into nuclear sharing arrangements during wartime implies a willingness on the part of the Swedish government to accept the use of nuclear weapons. This is a significant decision that Swedish citizens have not been consulted on; they have not agreed to have nuclear weapons used in their name, from their lands, or to become targets in an armed conflict. By not ruling out the hosting of nuclear weapons, Sweden increases the risk of becoming a target during a conflict. Furthermore, since the impacts of a nuclear detonation are not confined by state borders, this stance undermines the policies of neighbouring countries Denmark, Finland, and Norway, which all have stricter policies against nuclear weapons on their territories. It could also be interpreted as Sweden’s willingness to use nuclear weapons from its soil. 

Civil society organisations in Sweden have expressed deep concerns over this lack of clarity as well as the position itself, with ICAN partner Svenska Läkare Mot Kärnvapen launching a campaign demanding written guarantees that nuclear weapons will not be placed on Swedish territory. 

The escalating rhetoric around nuclear sharing in Europe

While there is political pressure from NATO, driven mainly by the United States, on its member states to oppose resistance to its nuclear deterrence doctrines, there is no obligation for NATO members to be open to hosting nuclear weapons. Sweden, like all NATO member states, has the option to declare itself nuclear weapons-free both in peacetime and wartime. 

Of course, this discussion in Sweden is not happening in a vacuum. There have also been increased calls by prominent European politicians for more US nuclear weapons to be stationed in Europe, or for Europe to further develop a nuclear sharing practice of its own. 

President Andrzej Duda, for example, has said that Poland is ready to host US nuclear Weapons. In Germany, senior figures in both the opposition CDU and governing SPD parties have suggested the EU should acquire its own nuclear weapons or should be protected by France’s (and possibly the UK’s) existing nuclear arsenal, although German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has said this is not needed. In response, President Macron has reiterated his offer to discuss using France’s nuclear weapons to protect fellow EU states by providing a French version of the nuclear umbrella .

This worrying trend could undermine the security of European countries rather than enhance it. Any new nuclear sharing arrangements in Europe would not just further undermine the NPT and be  illegal under the TPNW, they could also be seen as a dangerous and escalatory move that could provoke a further response from Russia. In fact, the statements by the Polish president were explicitly mentioned by Russia’s foreign ministry in its announcement of nuclear exercises near the Ukraine border in May 2024. This kind of brinkmanship can escalate dangerously and puts all of Europe at risk. 

The Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty as the only sane alternative 

There has been no official discussion in Sweden, or any other European host state, about the implications of nuclear sharing arrangements for their citizens. Would Sweden become a direct target of Russia’s nuclear weapons? Could Swedish military personnel be prosecuted for war crimes if Sweden, like Belgium and Italy for example, were to be engaged in the use of nuclear weapons? The Swedish government has not been forthright about the truth of what becoming complicit in nuclear weapons actually means in reality – it instead chooses to repeat platitudes about security in the face of the Russian threat. 

To de-escalate the situation responsibly, states should follow the example of European Union countries like Austria, Ireland and Malta, as well as half of the world's states, by unequivocally condemning the threat and use of nuclear weapons. They should also join the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which explicitly prohibits nuclear sharing.