- - Tuesday, March 7, 2017

STOCKHOLM — Sebastian von Stedingk was among the last generation of Swedish military conscripts before officials created an all-volunteer force seven years ago. Now, Sweden has reinstituted the draft to prepare for a potential conflict with Russia.

Unlike most other Swedes of his age, Mr. von Stedingk re-enlisted for a second year. He believed military service was a positive force in society.

“In Russia and the U.S., it seems like people are more direct in saying the main point of being called up is about making a contribution to the country and personal progression alongside it,” said Mr. von Stedingk, a 29-year-old physiotherapy student in Stockholm. “In Sweden, military service created a cross-section of society, rich and poor, and made us work together.

“The camaraderie and feeling you were making a difference were a big factor in making me stay,” he said.

In a country with a reputation for progressive policies at home and neutrality abroad — and a country that hasn’t fought a war since 1814 — Sweden’s announcement last week that it was bringing back the draft has turned heads. Many see it as a sign of the region’s rapidly evolving security environment, which is being transformed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the east and President Trump across the Atlantic.

Sweden opted for an all-volunteer professional army and abandoned the draft in 2010. But the Nordic nation reintroduced conscription on March 2 with the goal of mustering 4,000 recruits annually.

The first candidates are those born in 1999. Women are now eligible for the draft on the same grounds as men.

Defense officials say one factor was a growing shortfall in meeting recruiting targets for active-service and reserve forces, but they acknowledge that a main driver of the shift was Moscow’s aggressiveness, particularly in the Baltic region but also in the Middle East and Ukraine, bringing a newfound urgency to maintain Swedish military readiness.

“Against a background of a worsening security situation in Sweden’s immediate vicinity and the military’s inability to fully staff units through voluntary recruits alone, those eligible for military service should once again be subject to an obligatory draft with a view to basic military service,” said Swedish Defense Secretary Peter Hultqvist.

The Russian threat is far more real to Swedes than Mr. Trump’s widely mocked references to Islamic terrorism perpetrated by the large number of refugees who have come to Sweden in recent years, although a recent street riot in a heavily immigrant neighborhood has tempered the derision.

Sweden’s military intelligence service MUST has announced a counterespionage strategy to combat any Russian influence on parliamentary elections next year.

Last year, while Russian jets were harassing vessels and making other provocations, Sweden increased troops and improved air defenses on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea about 200 miles from Russia’s Kaliningrad naval base. In 2014, Swedish officials locked down the waters around Stockholm when a suspected Russian submarine entered Swedish waters, an event Moscow blamed on the Netherlands.

Sweden has also provided weapons and military training to neighbors Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania along the Russian border, which have long histories of intimidation and meddling from Moscow.

Trumpian uncertainty

Mr. Trump has introduced a major note of uncertainty with his comments questioning the value of the NATO alliance and his demand that NATO partners devote more to the collective defense of the West. Some Swedes fear their country, which is not a NATO member and spends barely over 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, will be even lower on the priority list under the current U.S. administration.

“If Trump implies that NATO countries which don’t spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense will not be able to automatically count on American help despite the NATO guarantee, then the risk is much greater that the U.S. will not come to the aid of countries like Sweden, which aren’t even in NATO and pay even less,” Mike Winnerstig, a security policy analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, told The Local, a Web-based European news service, in January.

The U.S. went to an all-military force in 1973, and most West European countries abandoned the draft more than a decade ago — Germany in 2011. Supporters of the draft say it is a matter of fairness that builds a social consensus in support of the armed forces, but many military professionals say the draft is less effective in putting together the highly skilled, high-tech forces that modern armies and navies require.

Austria, Greece, Switzerland and Ukraine still have conscription. All able Estonian citizens enlist on a mandatory basis and are encouraged to volunteer for the Defense League, a force like the U.S. National Guard. Britain also maintains volunteer reserve forces instead of conscription to maintain troop numbers.

Recently, though, some countries have bucked the trend. Lithuania and Norway brought back mandatory enlistment last year, and Norway has made conscription mandatory for women also.

Military recruitment in Sweden remained robust until relatively recently in part because of the country’s deep history of regional wars and instability before the relative quiet of the post-World War II era. As far back as the 1600s, King Gustaf Adolf II mandated parishes to provide troops for his conquests in the Baltic Sea.

During the Cold War, neutral Sweden fielded an impressive army and air force and led in military technology. While still neutral — the country is not in NATO but has contributed to U.N. peacekeeping efforts — Sweden is a major weapons manufacturer that uses and sells its own weapons and fighter jets.

Sweden follows a “total defense” policy, whereby the entire country can go into a war footing immediately in the event of foreign attack. Asked whether he would rejoin if Sweden came under the threat of attack, Mr. von Stedingk answered, “Definitely.”

Despite Sweden’s pacific reputation abroad, opposition to reinstituting the draft is surprisingly low. The opposition Moderate Party abandoned conscription in 2009 but now supports bringing it back.

“I hope it serves to improve our defense capacity, but we need more and we can’t ignore military spending. We need investments here and now,” said the party’s defense spokesman, Hans Wallmark.

Around 20,000 Swedes will be expected to be called for duty, but many will fail the physical and psychological tests or receive exemptions for reasons such as college enrollment.

Many teenage Swedes will avoid service, and few will be forced to sign up against their will, said Annika Nordgren Christensen, the former legislator in the governing Green Party who authored the government’s recruitment plan. “The risk is low,” she said.


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