It’s almost silent on the western coast of Gotland; just the hum of the forest, the singing of birds and the sound of army boots on the muddy road. Then there are shots and the smell of gun powder filling the air. A tank opens fire as a platoon of Swedish soldiers runs out of the woods – they’re surprisingly swift despite heavy rucksacks – and take cover behind an outcrop of rocks.
Watching the platoon reload their weapons, Major Henrik Andersson assesses how today’s training has gone. “It went well, as usual,” says the officer as the tanks roll back towards the base. In the distance is the Baltic Sea, obscured by thick mist, and it’s here that the engineer platoon has just simulated an enemy attack from the water. The Swedish Armed Forces conduct exercises here every day, from planting and disarming mines to occupying the likes of roads, airports and harbours.
The country’s most recent defence bill stated that the military should re-establish a permanent presence of 150 troops on Gotland after an 11-year hiatus, and the 57,000 islanders have become used to seeing army fatigues again.
It’s a timely decision. “Russia has shown clear ambitions to reach its political goals with military means,” says Marcela Sylvander, director of public affairs at the Swedish Armed Forces. She lists the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s growing defence budget. For these reasons, “parliament decided that the Armed Forces’ focus will return to defending our own territory”. A mere decade ago Sweden’s priority was peacekeeping overseas; since events in Ukraine that outlook has very much shifted. “We will retain some of our international work but the focus will be on building up the defence of Sweden,” says Sylvander.
Key to that is mapping areas of high strategic importance, namely the ports of Gothenburg, the Cap of the North counties and Gotland. The island has long had a special role: during the Second World War many refugees escaping by sea to Sweden landed on its sandy shore. “Whoever controls Gotland controls the sea and airways in the Baltic,” says Sylvander.
After the exercise on Gotland the soldiers meet on an icy field at the edge of the forest to debrief. The thermometer reads 2c but it feels more like minus 10c due to the merciless wind blowing in from the sea. Corporal Johan Dyborn grew up in the north of Sweden and says that on Gotland he misses the snow. “But it’s important that we’re here,” he adds. “It’s important for the entire Baltic Sea region.” A new sense of purpose is common among the soldiers. Sergeant First Class Daniel Zohrab served in Mali before coming to Gotland: “It’s different here, colder of course, but our work in Mali was peacekeeping whereas here we’re training for war.”
You’d be hard pressed to get a negative word about Russia from the soldiers or commanders but they are aware of the unstable situation developing around the Baltic. Lieutenant Colonel Carl-Axel Blomdahl, the highest rank in the engineer platoon, points out that the soldiers are carrying out the same exercises they would at their home base in Eksjö but says their presence on Gotland is symbolic. “We are sending strategic signals to the world,” he says. “The situation in the Baltic Sea area is restless. We want to increase the threshold on Gotland, the easternmost part of our country, and show that we’re prepared to defend the entire country. The message we want to send is that stealing a bit of land from someone else will cost you.”
In an age of hybrid warfare and missiles with the power to hit targets hundreds of kilometres away, are bases like this really so critical? Yes, says Lt Col Blomdahl. “Sooner or later you will have to establish control over the territory you want to conquer. And you don’t do that by sitting at a computer far away. A few years ago people were talking about next-generation warfare, where you wouldn’t need to have tanks and troops on the ground. But it’s still the tanks that control territory. Warfare on the ground is what it has always been; the difference today is that we have systems that can shoot much further away.”
In Stockholm, 200km north of Gotland, Sweden’s political parties are negotiating a new defence bill for 2021. For the first time in decades the government is spending substantially more on its defence. There are more drills and exercises taking place and the armed forces have ordered two new a26 submarines from Saab Kockums, an Archer artillery system from bae, plus new sensors, ammunition and trucks. The new-generation fighter plane jas Gripen is also in development. Sweden will also reactivate conscription, seven years after it was suspended, and if everything goes to plan the first soldiers will begin compulsory service from 2018.
Swedes are largely pleased with this decision. For the army, conscription would be a handy solution to its manning problems; it had a shortfall of 800 conscripts last year. The new bill also includes increased defence co-operation with neighbouring Finland, which shares a long eastern border with Russia. “Both countries are alliance-free and seem to want to stay that way,” says Matti Anttonen, Finland’s ambassador to Sweden, referring to their non-Nato status.
Anttonen previously served in Moscow. “In Russia it’s always highlighted that they are not the ones seeking isolation – that pressure is coming from the outside. Now everyone is just waiting to see what US foreign policy [towards Russia] will be like. In this insecure situation, co-operation within the EU and the Nordic countries is even more important.” Russian military planes violate Swedish and Finnish airspace about once or twice a year but the countries’ militaries won’t say whether that’s provocation or by accident.
“The probability of Russia or someone else attacking Sweden is low,” says Sylvander. However, a disturbance in the region would draw Sweden in, she adds, and those vital trade routes across the Baltic are fragile. “Our society, as we’ve chosen to build it, is based on global trade, energy transfers and a complicated network that makes us very vulnerable. Gotland is in the middle of that.”
Peter Hultqvist, minister for defence
Peter Hultqvist, a former journalist and longtime chairman of the municipality council in the small town of Borlänge, took over as minister for defence in 2014. While he gets his share of criticism from his political opponents – many think Sweden’s defence is still under-financed – he has stood his ground and insisted that building a solid defence takes not just money but patience, time and stability.
Monocle What threatens Sweden?
Peter Hultqvist: We don’t really speak in those terms. It’s enough for us to say that the security situation has changed. I’m thinking about Crimea, about Ukraine and about Russia’s increasing military exercises. Those are the reality. That’s why we are upgrading our military and seeking co-operation with other countries.
M: What do you think about Russia’s ongoing aggression?
PH: Russia is prepared to break international law and is investing big money in the military and building up resources. From time to time it also uses rhetoric where it points to its nuclear capacity. It’s an authoritarian society, signalling that it is willing to use military power to reach political goals. That has led us, and many other countries, to reassess our security standpoint.
M: How does Russia’s behaviour affect Sweden’s defence policy?
PH: We’re investing an additional sek17bn [€1.7bn] in defence between 2016 and 2020. Our total budget is now about sek50bn [€5bn] per year. We’re investing in next-generation Jas Gripen fighter aircraft, in new submarines, anti-tank capability, air defence, ammunition and vehicles – the foundations of our armed forces, one could say. We’re spending new money on new material and reactivating conscription.
M: How will conscription work?
PH: The plan is to have both professional soldiers and conscripts. Conscripts will go through a basic training period of nine to 10 months. They are then part of the reserve for 10 years, during which they will be called back for exercises. In the case of a crisis they can be mobilised. We’re going to start with 4,000 conscripts, both women and men.
M: Sweden has stationed troops on Gotland after an 11-year hiatus. What do you hope to achieve?
PH: Control over Gotland is about having control of air and sea routes in relation to the Baltic states but we are also marking Swedish sovereignty in the area. We also have an air-force base in Visby and naval operations in the surrounding area, and we are increasing our exercise activities. This has both symbolic and military value. Our battle group is training on the island in a completely different way from before. Through that we are making it more difficult for a potential aggressor.
M: Why did Sweden downscale its defence in 2005?
PH: I wasn’t involved in that so it’s hard for me to know what the thinking was. In my opinion, even if you are seeing a positive security situation, it’s important to understand that it can change. You don’t dramatically downscale just because the sun starts to shine; there could be something else around the corner. I’m not the first person in history to say that. That mistake has been made before.
M: How is Sweden seeking military co-operation with other countries?
PH: With the Finns we have the possibility to act together even in the case of a crisis, not just in peacetime. We are able to use each other’s infrastructure. We have joint exercises for our air forces, naval forces and armies. For instance, we train together with Norway and Finland every week at the Cap of the North. We’re also building a Swedish-Finnish naval task force. In September, Finland and other countries will participate in our largest military exercise in 20 years, Aurora 17, where 20,000 soldiers will take part. I think we’ll be seeing more Finnish staff in Sweden and vice versa.
M: Finland and Sweden are not Nato members, unlike Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Why has Sweden chosen this route?
PH: We are no longer neutral – that ended when we joined the EU – but we are militarily non-aligned. The reason is mostly geographical: if we were to join Nato we’d open the door to tension. Finland is alliance-free just like Sweden and our joining Nato would put pressure on Finland [to do the same], which has a long border with Russia. It’s better to update our military capability and deepen co-operation with other countries. This has broad support.