Not long after Russia began its massive troop buildup along Ukraine’s border, several Russian amphibious warfare ships briefly moved into Baltic Sea waters, some of them coming uncomfortably close to Sweden. That, and a series of recent drone flights of unknown origin over the country’s nuclear power plants, has put Sweden on edge, reawakening longstanding fears of a possible Russian incursion.
The Swedish Armed Forces reported in mid-January that six Russian Amphibious Warfare ships had left their naval base in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania, and entered the Baltic Sea. Although it is not unusual for Russian vessels to move into the area, the number of them moving in was out of the ordinary.
Sweden immediately took the move as a warning signal, referring to the “changing security situation in Europe and the Baltic Sea area” and responded by swiftly boosting its military presence on the southeastern Swedish island of Gotland. Within 48 hours, the island of 60,000 inhabitants swarmed with patrolling soldiers and armored tanks in a scene not seen in decades.
” It used to be quite common to see the military [here], but that’s really not the case anymore. These days it really surprises you,” one inhabitant told daily national newspaper Dagens Nyheter.
Around the same time, Swedish police received several reports of particularly large drones flying over Sweden’s three nuclear plants – Oskarshamn, Ringhals and Forsmark – as well as over at least two airports, the greater Stockholm area and the royal family palace in Drottningholm. The origins of the drones have not been identified and, on January 17, the Swedish intelligence agency announced it had taken over the investigation.
The incidents have made Sweden nervous. In the past few weeks, speculation has been running high about what a potential threat from Russia might mean for this small country of 10 million people. While some newspapers have been discussing how long Sweden’s defense could hold out in the event of a Russian attack, others have analyzed the underlying reasons for why Sweden might be an interesting military target. Some media have also hosted live chats in which defense experts have taken questions from worried members of the public about the increasingly tense security situation in the region.
Discussions over whether Sweden should join NATO have also resurfaced, as they do every few years. But this time around debate has been further fueled by Russia’s insistence that the transatlantic military alliance not take in any new members, notably Ukraine. Although the Socialist-run government has recently reiterated its long-held stance that Sweden shall remain “alliance-free”, most Swedes feel that NATO membership should be a Swedish, and not a Russian, decision.
On Monday, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde and her Finnish counterpart Pekka Haavisto, whose country is not a NATO member either, demonstrated this point by meeting with NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels for “dialogue” on their “deepening partnership”.
‘Spot the Russian submarines’
Sweden’s fear of Russia dates back hundreds of years, mainly stemming from conflicting expansion plans over what is now Finland. Russia eventually won, stealing Sweden’s status as a European superpower. Since then, “The Russians are coming!” (Ryssen kommer) has become a common Swedish expression.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, and as the former Soviet Union and the United States raced to become the world’s foremost nuclear superpower, Sweden’s proximity to Russia – and several sightings of suspected Russian submarines in the Stockholm archipelago – brought Swedish fears to a fever pitch.
Malin Rising, a Swedish journalist who grew up in the coastal town of Nynäshamn, recalled the tensions. “I remember how my friends and I would climb up on the cliffs and look out over the Baltic Sea to see if we could spot any [Russian] submarines. That was just how we played back then,” she said. “I also remember people discussing where to find the nearest bomb shelter in case the Russians came.”
Some of the shelters have since been converted into data server centers, a symbol of Sweden’s shifting perceptions of the dangers posed by Russia.
In 2010, more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Swedish fear of the Russians had dissipated somewhat, and the government decided to mothball the mandatory military service that had been in place since 1901.
But just seven years later the country decided to reactivate military conscription, citing Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and increased military activity in Sweden’s vicinity. The country also decided to make the conscription gender neutral and to restore a garrison on the island of Gotland.
All about Gotland
The island of Gotland, and its strategic geographic location in the Baltic Sea, is currently at the core of Sweden’s Russia fears: It lies just 300 kilometers north of the Kaliningrad naval base and faces the three Baltic (and former Soviet) states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the east.
In other words, whoever controls Gotland has free access to the Baltic countries.
But there is more to it: All three Baltic states are NATO members, meaning that fellow NATO members – including the United States – would be obligated to come to their defense in the event of an attack under Article 5.
“To help its allies, the Americans would have to send jets over – fast – and fly over the Baltic Sea. But if the Russians gained control of Gotland they could use anti-aircraft missiles and coastal robots, making it extremely difficult for the Americans to reach and defend the Baltics,” explained Magnus Christiansson, a researcher in military strategy at the Swedish Defense University.
Christiansson said a Russian takeover of the Baltic states would be devastating for the world order. “It would totally crush NATO’s credibility, there would be nothing left of it, seeing as it is built on Article 5, ‘All for one, one for all’. It would be a catastrophe,” he said.
Christiansson added that if it turned out that the Russians were actually behind the reported drone flights, it would most likely have been an attempt to intimidate the Swedes, nothing else. “Of course they already know where the power plants are, and doesn’t just about everyone know where the royal palace is?” he joked. “This is a just a really cheap way to get someone out of balance. It’s psychological.”
By January 18, all six Russian amphibious war ships had left the Baltic Sea. But the Swedish troops on Gotland remain in place.