It is obvious that on the question of war the Marxist tradition presents neither unity nor clarity. One point was common to all the Marxist trends: the explicit refusal to condemn war as such. Marxists — notably Kautsky and Lenin — willingly paraphrased Clausewitz’s formula, according to which war merely continues the politics of peace times. War was to be judged not by the violence of its methods but by the objectives pursued through these methods.
Simone Weil, “Reflections on War,” Politics, February 1945.
Sweden has transferred (or is the process of transferring) 5,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. As a student of Swedish arms exports, I found this development interesting and potentially troubling. In order to put this transfer into the proper context, we need to review the scale of this transfer, some key elements of Swedish history, how some on the “left” respond, and the implications of arms transfers (and related moves) for Swedish security. Some will argue that Sweden needs to defend Ukrainian democracy against an aggressive, Russian state militarist invasion which has been linked to war crimes. Others may argue that Sweden’s incremental moves away from neutrality and non-alignment are dangerous, immoral and counter-productive. Whatever you believe, it is still necessary to present a larger context for deliberating on this question. There is no doubt that Russia’s cruel invasion should be opposed, the question for Swedes is whether transferring weapons is the best way to do so. Sweden has gradually, but increasingly quickly, moved closer and closer to NATO, part of a decades long movement in which military leaders from Sweden cooperate with NATO and the U.S. military.
The Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson argued in a press conference on February 27, 2022 that the Swedish government supported weapons transfers to Ukraine because Putin had upset the European security order (by attacking a democracy in a mass military attack), because Ukraine received mass support from the Swedish people, and because she deemed that this decision was in the best interests of Sweden’s security. The weapons transfers involve five thousand antitank weapons, a similar number of helmets and life jackets as well as freeze-dried food for soldiers.
Ewa Stenberg, a leading news analyst for Dagens Nyheter explained in a February 27, 2022 article that “even the Green Party, which has been a staunch opponent of arms exports, is behind the support.” Stenberg explains the Swedish government rationale as follows: “For Sweden, support for Ukraine is not just about supporting a democracy that has been attacked by Putin’s Russia. Sweden bases its security policy on a growing, but unfinished, military defense and on cooperation with Finland, NATO and individual NATO countries. If Sweden is to receive help, the country must also be involved and contribute.” The basic idea seems to be that Sweden wants support if it should be attacked by Russia in the future and somehow cooperation with Ukraine is part of some kind of signaling system to other NATO countries and Finland.
Morality: The Biography of a Weapon in Service of an Illegal War and a Human Rights Disaster
Let us start with the scale. A March 3, 2022 report in Forbes suggested that Sweden contributed about one third of the portable anti-tank weapons specified by exact amount. Here is the list in the Forbes article (notice how Sweden was ranked first):
Sweden: 5,000 AT4 anti-tank weapons,
Denmark: 2,700 anti-tank weapons,
Norway: 2,000 anti-tank weapons
United Kingdom: 2,000 NLAW short-range anti-tank missiles
Finland: 1,500 single-shot anti-tank weapons
Germany: 1,000 anti-tank weapons
Netherlands: 400 rocket-propelled grenade launchers
Belgium: 200 anti-tank weapons
Estonia: Unspecified number of Javelin anti-tank missiles
This makes a total of some 14,800 weapons, on top of Ukraine’s existing equipment.
One way to understand a military transfer is by examining the context in which the weapon is used. The other way is to understand the weapon itself, particularly using the weapon (technology) as the “unit of analysis.” The AT4 has been used by the US military, for example, to blow away buildings in Iraq as in an incident in 2010. A Dutch panel ruled that the Iraq war was illegal. Therefore, we can safely conclude that this Swedish-Saab made technology helped promote an illegal war. Similarly, Michael Wood, “one of Britain’s top legal advisers during the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq said…he believed the military action was illegal,” according to a report in The Irish Times.
In 2015, the latest version of Saab’s AT4, the Carl-Gustaf M4, made its Latin American debut at LAAD 2015. LAAD, known more formally as “LAAD Defence & Security – International Defence and Security Exhibition,” is a “the leading Latin America and Security event” and is “supported by the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, the Military Forces, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice and Brazil’s Public Security’s structure,” according to one news source. In 2019, the “share of population living on less than 3.20 U.S. dollars per day in Brazil” was 9.12% according to data compiled by Statista. According to the Economist Intelligence unit’s Democracy Index 2021, Brazil’s democracy ranking in 2021 was 47th (Sweden was ranked 4th, however). On October 20, 2021, Amnesty International issued the following report about Brazil’s human rights status: “Over a thousand days into President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, Brazil is considerably worse off than when he took office. Gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, the aggravation of a public security crisis, and vast environmental devastation are just three outcomes of a tenure that has been nothing less than disastrous for human rights.”
If AT4 were brought before a human rights commission, I sincerely believe that we could not say that it was on the side of the angels.
History: Sweden, Armed Conflict, and Weapons Transfers: Neutrality or Engagement?
The Swedish government argues that Ukraine must be defended with weapons as it is a democracy. This argument is somewhat novel, but a parallel was made to when Sweden last sent weapons to a country at war, in 1939 when Finland was aided to repulse a Russian invasion. Yet, the principle of sending weapons to democracies is not a universal principle, but rather the principle seems to be the following: Sweden will send weapons to democracies when they are opposed by Russia, but otherwise will claim that sending weapons is a risky escalation of war.
Just three years prior to the Finnish episode, Sweden signed the International Non-Intervention Agreement in 1936. This prevented Sweden from sending weapons to the Spanish Republic, a democracy threatened both by internal fascists and the Nazi regime in Germany. In 1937, Norman J. Padelford explained the reasons for this agreement in an article in The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 31, No. 4, entitled, “The International Non-Intervention Agreement and the Spanish Civil War.” On page 578, Padelford wrote: “The purpose motivating the accord was the desire to prevent Europe from becoming so bound up with and so divided over the ideological aspects of the conflict that the fighting would lead to a general European war.” This agreement did not stop supplies and fighters from entering Spain and “allowed unfortunate Spain to become a military laboratory for the testing of weapons and strategy.” Despite that, the agreement was “instrumental, along with other things perhaps, in averting for at least the first year of the Spanish war an extension of hostilities to other territories.”
In 1936, the Swedish state backed the idea that not sending weapons helped maintain the national security order. Then, in 1939, Sweden changed course and armed the Finns, even though the Soviets helped defeat Nazi, Germany, which Sweden did not oppose militarily in World War II. What this part of history indicates is that Swedish foreign policy adopts policies regarding what might upset the European order on a rather arbitrary, ad hoc, basis. There is no universal principle in Swedish history when it is judged over several decades.
Sweden even helped develop weapons for German war companies prior to World War II and helped Germany circumvent the Versailles peace accords (see E. J. Gumbel, “Disarmament and Clandestine Rearmament Under the Weimar Republic.” In Inspection for Disarmament, Seymour Melman, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958: 203-219). In this comprehensive study on clandestine rearmament under the Weimar Republic, E. J. Gumbel wrote: “Many of the major German arms manufacturers had subsidiaries in the countries neutral in the First World War, particularly Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, and Spain. These served as branches of the German parent companies engaged in armament production, research, and development. Thus the Swedish branch of Junkers, A. B. Flygindustri, in 1931 tested a pioneer two-seater fighter” (Gumbel, 1958: 215). He concluded his study by writing: “The Weimar Republic was killed by the great depression, which brought a revival of illegal party armies and their fight for power. When the Nazis took over, the secret armament stopped because armament became legal; the great powers had accepted the Nazi breach of the Versailles Treaty. The secret armament under the Weimar Republic is a link between the defeat of 1918 and the holocaust of the Second World War” (Gumbel, 1958: 217). Gumbel was a Professor of Statistics at the University of Heidelberg from 1923 to 1932.
Left Wing Militarism versus Militarist “Externalities” and Opportunity Costs
The argument made by one former leader of the Left Party, Jonas Sjöstedt, is that Sweden should learn the lessons of the 1930s. This argument contains these elements: (a) “Crucial to the victory of fascism in the Civil War was extensive military aid from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. At the same time, the Western democracies turned their backs on Spain, the country was not allowed to import the weapons it needed, and volunteers were forbidden to travel to Spain to defend the republic.” ; (b) “A strong Swedish defense is necessary at present, but it requires both the import and export of weapons as well as a certain domestic weapon production”; (c) “A halt to Russian gas and oil exports would be crucial in putting pressure on Russia”; (d) “Within the left there is a skepticism towards militarism, superstition about military solutions and excessive nationalism, it is a sound basic attitude. But there are situations where people and states have to defend themselves. There we are now”; (e) “the goal of disarmament and good relations with Russia remains, but as long as Putin remains in power, it will not be possible. Instead, concrete support for Ukraine and a strengthened Swedish defense capability is required. The same applies to arms exports.”
Let us look at this argument. What happened is that Sweden helped arm Germany prior to World War II, just as it helped arm Russia through oil imports. A barrier to the Germany war machine would have been a demilitarized Sweden. A barrier to a militarized Russia would have been a Green conversion in Sweden. Yet, Sjöstedt implies that Sweden should have armed Spain even as Sweden armed its opponent. Yet, Sjöstedt wants an arms buildup which is an opportunity cost on the green conversion to reduce Russian oil imports. Sweden refrained from arming Spain because of a fear of a broader conflict, but now Sweden and Sjöstedt does not learn this lesson and acts as if the best thing to do is to deploy weapons. Yet, Swedish militarism in the first Weimar German case helped facilitate the road of German militarism leading to Spanish tragedy (albeit indirectly, perhaps weakly, but still significantly in a moral way); Swedish trade aided the Nazis. Swedish oil dependency which is partially based on Swedish military budget diversion has fed Russian militarism in the second case. Somehow the opportunity cost between Swedish militarism and the possibility to delink from oil patronage of the Russian war machine is totally lost in Sjöstedt’s arguments. Somehow the dangers of expanding a conflict are totally lost. He calls disarmament a “long term” goal, but he wants to strengthen Swedish militarism “in the short run.” This reminds me of John Maynard Keynes’s famous expression, “in the long run we’re all dead.” In sum, Sjöstedt’s good ideas are overrun by his bad ideas, his proposals simply contradict one another, i.e. green transformation with Swedish military mobilization (as if there are no opportunity costs); democracy promotion and decrying weapons exports while legitimating the Swedish arms machine; security for Ukraine while ruling out Swedish diplomatic engagement through authentic neutrality, etc. One has only to reflect back to Simone Weil’s arguments, quoted above, to see how great the intellectual confusion here is.
Security and Diplomacy
On February 28, 2022, Svenska Freds, the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, explained why it opposed arms transfers to Ukraine. Among the many reasons, they noted: “Assisting Ukraine with weapons…weakens Sweden’s opportunities to be a voice for mediation and diplomacy.” One might also ask about the implications of such transfers for Swedish security. On March 2, 2022, Steven Erlander, a journalist at The New York Times, wrote an article entitled, “NATO Countries Pour Weapons Into Ukraine, Risking Conflict With Russia.” There Erlander wrote:
“whether European weaponry will continue to reach the Ukrainian battlefield in time to make a difference is far from certain. However proud Brussels is of its effort, it is a strategy that risks encouraging a wider war and possible retaliation from Mr. Putin. The rush of lethal military aid into Ukraine from Poland, a member of NATO, aims, after all, to kill Russian soldiers. Mr. Putin already sees NATO as committed to threaten or even destroy Russia through its support for Ukraine, as he has repeated in his recent speeches, even as he has raised the nuclear alert of his own forces to warn Europe and the United States of the risks of interference. World wars have started over smaller conflicts, and the proximity of the war to NATO allies carries the danger that it could draw in other parties in unexpected ways.”
Here we have an echo of the logic of fears that led Sweden not to arm Republican Spain. The counter-argument about appeasement of fascism by not arming the Republic is balanced by how Sweden aided German militarism and aided Finns who themselves would eventually aligned themselves militarily with Hitler. Swedish arms contractors first made money by arming German militarism, then claimed neutrality in Spain, then aided Finland which eventually aided German militarism. Can one say that this kept the European order in balance or was it the German European order or what?
After the arms transfer to Ukraine was announced by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on February 27th, on March 2nd, the YLE news service (citing Swedish television, SVT) reported that “two Sukhoi SU-27 and two Sukhoi SU-24 fighter jets entered Swedish airspace east of the Baltic Sea island of Gotland.” While “the incursion was short-lived…the Swedish Air Force described the incident as being ‘particularly serious’ given the current situation, and called the Russian actions unprofessional and irresponsible.” If the incident was serious, given its timing one can describe what took place in the following ways: (a) Russia was trying to scare Sweden (the view of one Swedish security expert featured on SVT); (b) the arms transfer to Ukraine was associated with security risks; (c) the risks were worth it and Sweden was not in danger of an immediate attack (Andersson’s argument during her press conference announcing the transfer). Yet, in late February Russian foreign affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “Finland and Sweden should not base their security on damaging the security of other countries and their accession to NATO can have detrimental consequences and face some military and political consequences.” At one of her press conferences on Ukraine, Andersson argued or implied, more or less, that arms transfers to Ukraine are part of an effort to prevent Russia from threatening other nations (like Sweden itself).
Sweden has long engaged in an arms trade that provides weapons to non-democratic states, states plagued by horrible human rights records, or states like South Africa and Brazil which, though nominal democracies, have regimes that spend millions of dollars on weapons while a large share of their populations face poverty and economic insecurity. In essence, human rights were traded to benefit (Swedish) security: send weapons to poor and less democratic nations to reduce the variable costs of producing weapons, making it less expensive for Saab and Sweden to produce weapons. Now, the formula has apparently been reversed. Sweden will support human rights in Ukraine at the expense of Swedish security. The Russian statement and airspace incursion represent a form of psychological warfare against Sweden. Playing up these statements and tactical moves risks aiding such warfare. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the arms transfer to Ukraine contained risks, precisely the same risks which are used to: a) justify large scale military build ups in Sweden, b) justify Sweden joining NATO, and c) justify arms exports and transfers to Ukraine (and other nations). Sweden’s foreign policy now aims to link such risks to some kind of democracy maintenance, but the picture is far more complicated.
In conclusion, we must address a few key points related to how we frame the problem of militarism, security, and democracy. What is the best way to understand these arms exports? First, is Sweden engaged in a move towards democracy? There is no doubt that arms transfers have slowed the Russian advance in Ukraine as various reports in news agencies have explained. Even optimistic reports on the transfers’ effects suggest that this barrier to Russian incursion may weaken over time. From the vantage point of past practice, however, Sweden’s arms exports have neglected democracies (as in Republican Spain) or served clearly undemocratic aims (as in Iraq) or anti-humanitarian aims as in Yemen. In essence, whatever the merits of sending weapons to a besieged democracy, this arms transfer will help legitimate both past and future Swedish arms transfers in a diplomatic formula defined by the logic of what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky referred to as “worthy and unworthy” victims (as described in the book Manufacturing Consent).
Second, these arms sales can’t help but legitimate efforts to put Sweden in NATO and build up the Swedish military budget. These two efforts are designed (in theory) to make Sweden more secure, but Russian antagonism to Sweden is not simply based on the actions of a militarist, aggressive Russian state. Sweden has engaged in numerous military exercises against Russia and now sends weapons to Russia’s enemies. For example, Vladimir Yevseyev of the Center for International Security of the Institute of Global Economy and International Relations described the Cold Response 2012 exercise that took place in Northern Norway on the border to Russia as a provocation (see Trude Pettersen, “Russian military experts: NATO exercise in Norway a provocation,” Barnets Observer, March 14, 2012). Two years later, in March 2014, Norway hosted 16,000 NATO soldiers for a “planned cold-weather training exercises on the Russian border, much to the Russians’ displeasure.” A total of 1,400 Swedish troops participated in “Operation Cold Response…under the Nordic nation’s limited partnership with the alliance” (See Matt Ford, “After Crimea, Sweden Flirts With Joining NATO,” The Atlantic, March 12, 2014). Essentially, whether or not Russia similarly provokes Sweden, Sweden has provoked Russia. At Almedalen a few years ago, a reporter from Expressen argued that Sweden’s military exercises are not in secret, thus morally superior to those of Russia. A security analyst at the same event told me that Russia’s exercises were bigger than those of NATO, thus morally inferior.
Swedish elites always classify their moves as defensive and Russian moves as offensive. Yet, this classification system begs the question about security dilemmas created by Swedish strategic moves. As Charles L. Glaser explains Robert Jervis’s theory: “The security dilemma exists when ‘many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security decrease the security of others.’ It provides the rational foundation for what Jervis termed the ‘spiral model,’ which describes how the interaction between states that are seeking only security can fuel competition and strain political relations.” Yet, one might also argue that the Ukraine crisis revealed a problem of “mutually assured paranoia” which itself was tied to militarist managerial expansion by NATO (and Russia for that matter).
One could argue that the security risks from transfers to Ukraine are worth the price of defending democracy, but I have already clearly demonstrated that democracy promotion is not all that’s going on. The is democracy de-promotion (or relatively great human rights costs) associated with the NATO brand in Libya as described by Alan Kuperman (among others). Sweden and the US supported a NATO intervention that created a political vacuum leading to ISIS activity in Libya. As Azeem Ibrahmin explained in “Rise and Fall: The Rise and Fall of ISIS in Libya,” Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2020: “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) managed to exploit the chaos in Libya after the fall of the Muammar Gadhafi regime in 2011 and briefly carve out a degree of control over some coastal cities, especially Sirte, in 2014. By 2016, ISIS had lost control of all territory apart from a few isolated regions in the far south.” In contrast, Horace G. Campbell, a Syracuse University professor, argues that the NATO adventure in Libya led to many civilian deaths and wreckage of the country’s infrastructure. NATO’s failures are not widely known, are orchestrated by a cabal of military leaders, politicians and security “experts,” and there is little informed debate. The arms transfers to Ukraine are made in a political vacuum where there is little to no intellectual debate, merely politicians falling over each other to claim credit for expanding weapons sales, i.e. this parliamentary steam roller is not authentic democracy.
Finally, let us take up the argument about the opportunity cost to Sweden’s role as a potential “neutral” diplomat, a peace broker in the Ukraine crisis. As of this writing, Ukraine has slowed but not prevented what seems like an eventual Russian takeover, even if there is a glimmer of hope that Russia will somehow be stopped. We are waiting for the full effects of sanctions to take place, even as Russia has counter-weapons in cyber-attacks and control over oil (and other strategic trading assets). Some conclude Russia has given up totally on diplomacy, but if the sanctions and Ukrainian resistance provide leverage, some space for diplomacy might exist. Sweden, however, can’t play this role effectively because of its partisan role as weapons exporter.
Let us assume, however, that Russia would expand into Ukraine because it is an arbitrary imperialist or militarist power. Let’s just throw out the concerns they had about NATO expansion or nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil. We still can see that the Swedish military was angling for NATO expansion on its own account before the Russian invasion. General Per Micael Bydén, Sweden’s top military commander, said in January 2022 that “Sweden’s security strategy would be entirely undermined if NATO agreed to refrain from expanding further and curb some of its activity in Europe, as Russia has demanded” (reported on January 7, 2022 in Reuters). This was weeks before the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion. Bydén said that Sweden aimed “to become a stronger defence power in all categories and develop overall defence” and “that hinges on developed international cooperation.” This might sound reasonable, but consider how Swedish actions might be interpreted by Russia and shape its calculations in Ukraine. Russia has argued that NATO expansion itself threatens the post-Cold War order, and blocking expansion “essential for lowering tensions in Europe and defusing a crisis over Ukraine.” Of course, if Russia had no legitimate security interests, one can justify provocations of Russia which then encourage further Russian aggression, which you then can use to justify militarist expansion. All this is true even if Russia’s warfare state engages in barbaric and horrific militarism.
There are a series of articles which make the argument that the Ukraine conflict is based on large scale geopolitical interests who have joined forces with insidious factions in Ukraine. The large scale interests are centered in U.S. finance, the larger military industrial system, and Wall Street. The insidious factions are far-right elements in Ukraine, backed by the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. NATO expansionism appears to be part of an overlapping set of interests overlapping with these. At least, that is the argument put forward. Is much if any of this ever discussed in mainstream Swedish media? Answer: A resounding NO! Instead, we have so-called “left” and “green” parties falling into line, doing the bidding of entrenched corporate and military power coming from the U.S., but sold as another “human rights” effort.