VISBY, Sweden — Sheep, churches and small-town amenities abound on Sweden’s largest island. A sense of geopolitical tension? Not so much.
But if Sweden’s political and military leaders are to be believed, Gotland today marks the first line of defense against a foe whose powerful Baltic fleet anchors just 200 miles across the sea.
“Russian aggression” has destabilized the region, Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist warned last month, adding with eye-popping candor: “An armed attack on Sweden cannot be ruled out.”
For skeptics of the rising concern felt across central Europe about the threat posed from Russia, Sweden is putting its money where its mouth is. Mr. Hultqvist made the comments as the center-left government announced the highest surge in Swedish defense spending since the 1950s: a $3 billion injection that will raise troop levels from 60,000 to 90,000 by 2025.
That follows the 2017 revivals of both the peacetime draft and the Gotland Regiment, a 350-member armored Army unit that was disbanded in 2004.
Across the political spectrum, the government, led by the center-left Social Democrats, has received near-unanimous backing for its push to bring Sweden’s defenses up to speed.
“There’s been a change of mood, and this has been brought about especially due to Russia’s aggressive behavior in [our] vicinity,” said Pal Jonson, who chairs the defense committee in Sweden’s parliament.
Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine, in particular, have changed the “security environment” in the region, the lawmaker of the opposition, center-right Moderates added.
“We notice that Russia has a low threshold for the use of military force,” Mr. Jonson said. “We notice it has a rather aggressive exercise pattern in the Baltic Sea [and] a substantial increase in defense capabilities.”
The lawmaker’s lengthy list of concerns includes Russia’s long-range cruise missiles, anti-access area denial weapons, electronic and cyber warfare, as well as reported systemic disinformation and large-scale espionage operations.
“We don’t see many good signals coming out of Moscow these days,” he said.
Two months ago, Sweden formally protested to the Kremlin after two Russian military vessels entered Swedish waters without clearance. Russian military planes frequently violate Swedish airspace.
To counter the threat, Mr. Jonson said, his country must commit to long-term funding for cyberdefense, civil defense and the intelligence services, and for new military hardware and additional garrisons.
For Gen. Sverker Goranson, director of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences and previously the country’s top officer, it all spells vindication.
During what he recalled as a “pretty intense debate” about funding levels in 2013, Gen. Goranson, at the time supreme commander of the armed forces, ruffled feathers by publicly warning that his troops could fight off an invasion for no more than a week.
“When things happened in Crimea and Ukraine, it was pretty obvious that I was correct and they were not,” Gen. Goranson said of those who opposed higher defense spending. “And since then, it has been slowly but surely a turnaround.”
What is key to understand, though, the general said, is that Moscow is already engaged in cyberwarfare and disinformation operations and that these ongoing attacks on Sweden could well be considered acts of war. The Russians, Gen. Goranson added, are operating in a dangerous “gray zone.”
Valery Gerasimov, Russian chief of the General Staff, has stated: “If we’re really successful, we will not need to fire a bullet. [But] if they are not able to succeed by using softer tools, they have shown [they] are ready to use more kinetic force as well.”
That scenario makes the beefed-up troop presence in Gotland far more than symbolic. “It’s like an aircraft carrier floating around in the Baltic,” Gen. Goranson quipped.
The armed forces now plan to reconstitute their footprint across continental Sweden. The air force will revive a wing near Uppsala, the navy an amphibian regiment in Gothenburg, the army a cavalry unit in Lappland.
One hundred miles north of Gotland, across hundreds of Stockholm streets and subway stops, a sleek ad campaign is urging young Swedes to join one of Forsvarsmakten’s four branches.
“RIGHT NOW,” screams one poster featuring a small vessel zipping through sun-drenched waters, the Swedish flag fluttering on its aft. “When the world is difficult to navigate, we hold the course. So you can continue your journey in peace.”
Despite the Scandinavian reputation for preferring peace to war (Stockholm has long resisted formally joining the NATO alliance), few Swedes seem to bat an eye at the martial tone and the rising defense budget.
The Swedish public has largely come to grips with the end of the supposed post-Cold War era of “eternal peace,” said Anna Wieslander, the Atlantic Council’s director for Northern Europe.
“We are all part of a bigger game. I think we are realizing that now,” Ms. Wieslander said. “And in that game, you need to be able to uphold your borders [and] protect your institutions and your population.”
Like it or not, Sweden and its neighbors will be forced to play for as long as Vladimir Putin remains Russia’s president, she predicted.
In fact, the Nordic region has become a geopolitical hot spot not unlike the Cold War’s East and West Germany, said Patrik Oksanen, a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum, a foreign policy think tank.
Melting ice caps in the Arctic will open up resources and shipping lanes that could be a game-changer for Moscow, he said.
“We have seen Russia moving forward with their military installations up in the very, very high north,” Mr. Oksanen said. “You cannot view the Baltic Sea without considering the Arctic, and vice versa.”
Russia still boasts the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and its overwhelming military might means “fighting is not an option,” Ms. Wieslander said, so the name of the game for Sweden and its neighbors is deterrence.
“For us, it’s a lot about showing Russia that we have strong muscle,” she said.
That muscle goes far beyond Stridsvagn tanks or Gripen fighter jets. Given Moscow’s tactics, it’s key to protecting physical and digital infrastructure and helping citizens identify propaganda, Ms. Wieslander said.
“To have strong, resilient societies,” she said, “is really becoming a large part of the deterrence.”
Scandinavia bulks up
Finland is now teaching government officials, journalists and teachers to identify and counteract disinformation and cyberthreats, Defense Ministry Deputy Director General Janne Kuusela recently revealed.
This kind of “whole-society approach,” Mr. Kuusela said, is “critically important to the survivability of any nation.”
It would be wrong to think of “traditional” and cyber warfare as anything but intertwined, Norway’s defense minister told The Washington Times.
“Cyber is equally important [as] tanks and fighter jets,” said Frank Bakke-Jensen, pointing to an ever-higher level of integration within the armed forces. “We’re building a network-based defense now.”
That is not keeping Norway from snapping up new planes and submarines after boosting its defense budget this year to almost $6.4 billion.
Russia may not be “a direct military threat to Norway,” Mr. Bakke-Jensen said, but he worried about ripple effects of faraway conflicts and underlined his country’s close ties to the United States.
“They are our most important ally, closest ally,” Mr. Bakke-Jensen said, noting that U.S. forces held regular joint exercises with their Norwegian NATO peers.
The peculiarity of the NATO split among the tight-knit Nordics, supposedly all part of the same “security complex,” has led Gen. Goranson and Mr. Jonson to call for Sweden to consider joining the alliance.
Although the country’s Cold War “neutrality” has long been forgotten, NATO membership seems to be one step too far for its center-left government.
“We know that in case of war, if anyone [were to] attack Sweden, we [would] need help from others,” said Niklas Karlsson, the defense committee’s Social Democratic vice chairman.
But given close ties with its neighbors — as well as with Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and NATO itself — membership need not be on the table, Mr. Karlsson said.
“The agreements and the cooperation that we have today, that is enough,” he said.
But the trans-Atlantic link is “indispensable” for Sweden, and President Trump’s demand that defense spending be equal to at least 2% of gross domestic product is a good idea even for non-NATO members, Mr. Jonson said.
“U.S. commitment to Northern Europe in military terms is vital,” he said, “[so] we also have to do our share of the burden.”
The outcome of the U.S. presidential election won’t change that, the lawmaker predicted.
“I don’t see those demands or expectations going away anytime soon,” Mr. Jonson said. “And I think it’s a healthy pressure on us Europeans.”
With defense spending hovering not far above 1% of GDP, Sweden has a long way to go. Although funds have been allocated for the next five years, it could take far longer to implement all the planned improvements, Gen. Goranson said.
With all the dire warnings, the general seemed to be losing patience with his countrymen’s trademark placidity.
“Shouldn’t we work faster if we’re worried [about] how things are looking at the moment?” he said. “It’s not always a wise thing to not pay the full insurance before the fire.”
That Gotland needs “firemen” has been known since the 1361 Visby plunder, when, legend has it, the town paid the Danes a huge ransom just to be ransacked anyway, Mr. Jonson said half-jokingly.
“We know that leaving Gotland demilitarized historically has not been favorable to Swedish security,” he said.