After Crimea, Sweden Flirts With Joining NATO

Officials worry that the Swedish military is woefully unprepared for a Russian attack.
A warship of the Royal Swedish Navy on patrol in 2002. (Claus Gertsen/Reuters)

It's a good time to have friends in Eastern Europe.

Leaders in the region, who have reacted to Russia's occupation of Crimea by expressing fears that they could be next, are now taking solace in their alliances. "Thanks be to God, we are NATO members," exclaimed Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite last week. This month, Norway is hosting 16,000 NATO soldiers for previously planned cold-weather training exercises on the Russian border, much to the Russians' displeasure. Among those participating in Operation Cold Response are 1,400 Swedish troops under the Nordic nation's limited partnership with the alliance.

Non-aligned since the early 19th century, Sweden's "splendid isolation" has endured two world wars and even the five-decade superpower slugfest that dominated the late 20th century. That could change, however, in the wake of Russia's intervention in Ukraine. Last week, Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg indicated that the defense budget, to which he had recently announced cuts, would be increased as a result of the crisis. Deputy Prime Minister Jan Björklund also publicly floated the idea of Swedish membership in NATO, warning that Russia could attempt to seize Gotland, a strategically located Swedish island province in the Baltic Sea, if it chose to attack the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Sverker Göransson, the supreme commander of Sweden's military, has rejected Björklund's call for a change to the country's defense doctrine.

Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea, is roughly 56 miles off the Swedish coast and only 155 miles from Kaliningrad, a major Russian exclave in Europe with a large military base. The island's position in the south Baltic gives it immense strategic value if a conflict were to break out in the Baltic Sea. "Today's modern air missiles and anti-ship missiles can hit targets in the order of 300-400 kilometers," wrote Karlis Neretnieks, a retired Swedish major general, for the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences last week. "Anyone who can group such systems on Gotland will be able to make it very difficult for an opponent to operate on and in the Baltic Sea. From Bornholm in the south to the Åland Islands in the north, from the Swedish mainland in the west to the Baltic states to the east."

Russia briefly seized Gotland from Sweden in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars, but Swedish forces expelled them one year later and have controlled it ever since. Unlike Crimea, there are no ethnic Russians on Gotland, but the island is still closely tied to Moscow's interests. Russia's Gazprom conglomerate owns Nord Stream, an $11-billion pipeline running along the Swedish island that pumps 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year to Western Europe. Russian President Putin vowed to defend the strategically vital pipeline with the Russian Navy in 2006, and in one March 2013 incident reminiscent of the Cold War, two Russian heavy bombers and their fighter escorts skirted Swedish airspace and simulated a bombing run against the island. NATO's Baltic air patrol responded. Sweden's did not.

The Crimean crisis has renewed the ongoing debate in Swedish political circles about the country's dilapidated military defenses. Military budget cuts by successive post-Cold War Swedish governments grew so severe that Göransson, the country's supreme commander, publicly estimated in January 2013 that Sweden could only hold out for a week if it were attacked. A Swedish military college later confirmed Göransson's analysis in a report titled "Can We Defend Ourselves For A Week?" and said that international help would be required because "the military does not have a credible ability to defend all of Sweden." (NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen later remarked that Sweden cannot count on military support from NATO unless it becomes a member state.)

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the National Channel and works on social media.

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