With concerns growing about Russia, Sweden is placing a renewed focus on its own military capabilities.
EARLIER this month Apache attack helicopters began arriving on Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic sea some 350km (220 miles) from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
They came to participate in Aurora-17, the biggest Swedish military exercise in more than 20 years. It involved 19 days of manoeuvres by the country’s air force, navy and army, with seven members of NATO, plus Finland, also taking part.
The drill cost $73m, which might seem lavish given that General Micael Byden, the supreme commander of Sweden’s armed forces, complained earlier this year that his troops were seriously underfunded and understaffed. What was the rationale for this show of defensive capability?
The one-word answer would be: Russia. Sweden has had a long, often uneasy relationship with its near-neighbour. In the early 18th century the Great Northern War saw Russia supplant Sweden as the primary Baltic power after an unsuccessful invasion by the Swedes.
After Russia had captured Finland from Sweden in 1809, the Finnish capital was moved from Turku to Helsinki to reduce the risk of a Swedish invasion. Over the years relations recovered, but during Vladimir Putin’s presidency in Russia, they have worsened.
Four years ago Russian aeroplanes carried out a dummy nuclear attack on Swedish targets. In 2014 a Russian submarine entered the Stockholm archipelago and departed without being found. Russian fighter planes have also violated Swedish airspace. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Swedish authorities decided that the threat from Russia had diminished. They are now reconsidering.
Peter Hultqvist, the Swedish defence minister, cites the “deterioration of the security situation in Europe” (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea spring to mind) as the reason for the Aurora-17 exercise.
The official military explanation is that the show of force is “an important signal to those in the region that we are prepared to defend Sweden”. In all the information provided by both the army and the Swedish government about the exercise, no actual mention was made of Russia.
But Gotland’s mid-Baltic location is of particular relevance to considerations of how to defend against a putative Russian attack. The exercise also coincided with Zapad-17, a much larger exercise run by Russia and Belarus—and Russia is moving troops into Belarus.
Sweden has been studiously neutral for two centuries and is not a NATO member, though debate on that topic is growing.
Aurora-17 has been portrayed as a domestic exercise whose foreign participants were invited under bilateral agreements, not as NATO members. But as relations with Russia deteriorate, Swedish co-operation with NATO is increasing.
The invitation to members of NATO to join Aurora-17 has aligned Sweden even more closely with the alliance, and in the event of war it would be expected to support NATO. The Swedish government listened to Mr Byden and increased the military budget for 2018 by the equivalent of $331m.
Conscription is being reintroduced next year. Such moves send a signal to Moscow, which would view Swedish accession to NATO as a challenge. Retaliatory threats are a possibility.