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Explained: Why Sweden is afraid of Russian aggression in the Baltic Sea

Sweden has responded swiftly and decisively after noticing a number of Russian ships in the Baltic Sea and particularly large drones flying above its nuclear plants. Why are the Swedes afraid?

Written by Mira Patel , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 1, 2022 2:34:47 pm
Sweden’s response to Russia’s aggressive posturing in the Baltic Sea was swift and decisive. (Representational/Reuters)

The Swedish Armed Forces reported mid-January that six Russian Amphibious Warfare ships had left their naval base in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave located between Poland and Lithuania, and entered the Baltic Sea. Although it is not uncommon to see Russian vessels move into this area, a number of them moving in was surprising. Around the same time, Swedish police received several reports of particularly large drones flying above Sweden’s nuclear plants along with other key targets. The origin of the drones is yet to be identified.

Sweden’s response to Russia’s aggressive posturing in the Baltic Sea was swift and decisive. Within 48 hours of the Russian ships entering the area, Sweden boosted its military presence on the island of Gotland. Not since the Cold War had the 60,000 residents of Gotland seen such a large military presence patrolling the streets.

Signaling Sweden’s willingness to defend its boundaries, Michael Claesson, Chief of Operations at the Swedish military, said military resources would be “reallocated to strengthen operations in several different places.” Taking that sentiment forward, Micael Byden, the Supreme Commander of Sweden’s Armed Forces, warned that “Russia is ready to use military power to reach its political aims,” adding that Swedes “shouldn’t exclude any scenario, regardless of how high the risk is.”

Why are the Swedes afraid?

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Sweden’s fears of Russia date back centuries, stemming primarily from conflicting expansion plans over the area that is now Finland. Russia eventually won, deposing Sweden as a European superpower, and giving birth to the common Swedish phrase Ryssen kommer or, ‘the Russians are coming!’ While Russia morphed into a significant geopolitical player, Sweden became a small state, paling in comparison to Russia in terms of population size and military strength.

When the Cold War was at its heights in 1980, Sweden’s concerns over its proximity to Russia were elevated, compounded by the fact that a Soviet submarine ran aground near the Swedish naval base of Karlskrona in 1981. However, despite this threat, Sweden remained neutral during the war, as it had been since the Napoleonic Wars. In 2010, two decades after the Cold War ended, Swedish fear of Russia dissipated somewhat, and its government decided to end the mandatory military conscription that had been in place since 1901.

When relations finally seemed to be approaching relative normalcy, Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, leading Sweden to reinstate conscription and restore a garrison on the island of Gotland. The reason, according to its government, was fears over Russia’s increased military activities in Sweden’s vicinity.

Sweden has always been wary of having an aggressive nuclear power at its doorstep but concerns have reached a fever pitch in the last six months. Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine would have massive consequences for the EU and in the event of a physical conflict, Sweden’s national security would be considerably compromised. However, that only explains a part of the problem. Sweden’s most pressing concern right now is that Russia might attempt to seize control of the strategically significant Gotland, described by one US official as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Baltic Sea.”

Gotland is just 300 kilometers north of the Kaliningrad naval base, and faces the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to the east. Given that 100,000 Russian troops are currently on the border with Ukraine, and more are making their way through Belarus, there is a concerning possibility that Putin may resort to military action in order to combat what the Kremlin perceives as NATO overreach.

Recently, Estonia’s Prime Minister asked NATO allies to increase their presence in her country while Lithuania’s Defense Minister has said that Russian troops in Belarus were a “direct threat” to its safety. All three of the Baltic states are NATO members which means that an attack against one would require fellow alliance members – including the US – to come to their defense. That’s where Gotland comes into play.

To help its allies, America would have to swiftly send jets over the Baltic Sea. However, if Russia seized control of Gotland, it could use anti-aircraft missiles and coastal robots to make it difficult for any American forces to reach and defend the Baltics.

While the idea of Russia being so openly antagonistic is hard to comprehend, it is not unforeseeable. According to one Swedish Defense Research Agency report, published in 2019, “Russia, in a crisis or war, might grab the island of Gotland and forward-deploy air-defense systems there in order to close the A2/AD-ring around the Baltic states.” For context, A2/AD is shorthand for anti-access and area denial, a common military term used to describe Russia’s land based coastal defense systems.

Earlier this year, German tabloid Bild alleged that according to an anonymous government official, Stockholm is on alert in case Putin uses the Amphibious Warfare ships to invade Gotland. According to the official, if Putin were to plan anything against the Baltic countries, it would have to first take Gotland.

War games

Having established Gotland’s strategic significance, the next question is whether or not the Russians would be able to seize it in a land grab. As recently as 10 years ago, a prominent Swedish General speculated that Sweden would be able to withstand an attack for only one week without external help. Since then, Sweden has increased its military capabilities, spending over $30 billion and restoring mandatory conscription.

However, recent clashes with Russia have not been promising. Sweden was unable to scramble jets as Russia simulated an attack on Stockholm and searched unsuccessfully for a suspected Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea. Moreover, while Sweden increased its military spending considerably in recent years, it still only spends $6 billion in defense, whereas Russia spends close to $62 billion.

Somewhat promisingly, however, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a hypothetical evaluation of any Russian land grab of Gotland, and found that the balance of power is not as lopsided as it may seem. The report notes that in order to guarantee success, the Russians would have to maintain a 2:1 ground troop ratio, something that may prove difficult considering that their forces are spread across the country. While Russia may have sufficient numbers in Kaliningrad, “it has major transportation issues” meaning that Sweden may be able to reinforce the island before Russian troops made their way to Gotland. In order to change the force ratio to its advantage, the report states that Russia would have to transfer troops from elsewhere and would “suffer from a corresponding reduction in the element of surprise, given Sweden the opportunity to augment its defense.”

Sweden has also formed very strong ties with NATO, despite declining to join the alliance. In 1994, Sweden signed up for NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and in 2016, signed host nation support agreements which would offer alliance forces access to Swedish territory in the event of a military emergency. It already seems likely that NATO would intervene in the face of an outright invasion and that likelihood is further bolstered by the fact that Russian aggression has fuelled discussions in Stockholm over whether Sweden should join the alliance.

A majority in Sweden’s parliament is in favour of membership but the ruling center-left Social Democrats are notably opposed. Regardless, last week, Sweden’s Foreign Minister along with her Finnish counterpart, met with NATO’s Secretary General in Brussels for a “dialogue” on their “deepening partnership.” This calculated show of solidarity may prove to be a tacit deterrent against any potential Russian aggression however publicly, Putin has maintained his bravado, threatening a sharp response were Sweden to join the alliance.

It is unclear what lengths the Kremlin is willing to go to protect its access to Crimea, keep former Soviet states in its orbit and combat any perceived or actual NATO expansion. Unlike EU countries like Germany which rely on Russia for natural gas, Sweden’s energy supplies are not dependent on Russian pipelines. This, along with Sweden’s hope for NATO assistance, signals that the country is prepared to defend itself militarily were the situation to come to it. The cost, however, would be the biggest destabilisation of Europe since the Second World War.

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