Security alert brings back Cold War memories for Sweden

In Gotland, troops return to the streets after Russian military activity triggered an alert.


9/4/20, 4:02 AM CET

Press play to listen to this article

Voiced by Amazon Polly

GOTLAND, Sweden — On Sweden’s Baltic Sea island of Gotland, Cold War-style security alerts are back.

Last week, a mixture of Russian military maneuvers and Western nations’ offshore training operations triggered a rare mobilization of Swedish troops, with tanks sent to guard the main Gotland port and jet fighters flying overhead.

The Swedish military presence continued in the days that followed, with surveillance planes circling offshore and troop carriers trundling along the island’s picturesque highways.

“What we did on Gotland was to show that we have built up our military capacity,” Mattias Ardin, who leads the recently reestablished Gotland Regiment, told POLITICO in an interview at the island’s main military base. “It shows that the reestablishment of the military here has made good progress, that we are here.”

For Sweden, the security alert was an opportunity to road-test five years of military rebuilding on an island that for a decade from 2005 was largely demilitarized.

For the wider Baltic Sea region, it was a further demonstration of how the security picture has dramatically deteriorated since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

For the wider Baltic Sea region, it was a further demonstration of how the security picture has dramatically deteriorated since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 ushered in a new era of instability along Europe’s eastern edge.

Pictures of heavy artillery providing cover for troops disembarking the Gotland ferry from the Swedish mainland were front-page news here, with experts saying the Swedish military action was without parallel since the end of the Cold War.

“This is the highest level of readiness I have been aware of since 1991,” Johan Wiktorin, a fellow of the Swedish Royal Academy of War Sciences, told Swedish daily Aftonbladet.

Reporting of the alert began with news that Swedish troops were on one of the regular ferries to Gotland, which was being escorted by warships and fighter jets.

Videos uploaded by the Swedish military to social media showed that tanks had been stationed on Gotland’s coast to support the troops' arrival, and soldiers permanently stationed on Gotland were patrolling the island’s streets.

The Swedish military’s operations chief Jan Thörnqvist issued a statement saying the mission’s aim was to strengthen surveillance of the Baltic Sea.

“Military activity is underway in the Baltic Sea region, both by the Russian and the Western sides, in a way which in some respects has not been seen since the days of the Cold War,” he said.

Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter reported on August 25 that three Russian military craft sailing close to Gotland had triggered the alert, but the Swedish military declined to confirm the story or say what their operations entailed.

The next day, the military shut down public access to a harbor on the northwest coast of Gotland, saying the facility was part of the ongoing operation.

By Monday, the situation appeared to have calmed down. The military said the operation was still ongoing, but tanks were gone from the port area.

At the military harbor on the north coast, things seemed quiet. Private boats bobbed close by and no military craft were visible.

Soldiers at a base near the town of Visby, Gotland, in February 2019 | Tom Little/AFP via Getty Images

In the main town of Visby, military-issue Volvo station wagons zipped between army offices and the main base at Tofta just south of the city. The occasional troop carrier could be seen.

At one point what looked like a surveillance plane took off from the military airport on the edge of Visby and circled the forested west coast twice before zooming out to sea.

Locals in the town seemed largely positive about the military ramp-up, which they believed was triggered by Russian activity.

“The Russians are out there doing their training, or whatever it is they are doing, so it is good that we show we are ready too,” said Jonas Eriksson, a 28-year-old archaeology student.

The Russian Embassy in Stockholm declined to comment.

Blast from the past

The maneuvers on Gotland are a significant milestone in the post-Cold War history of the region.

Sweden, like neighboring Finland, is not a member of NATO, but during the Cold War — as now — it was regarded by NATO as an ally and by Moscow as an adversary.

In the 1980s, Sweden’s navy regularly dueled with Soviet submarines off the Swedish coast, with Swedish military helicopters dropping mines into Baltic Sea trenches where they suspected Soviet vessels on intelligence-gathering missions were hiding.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was widely assumed that the days of cat-and-mouse war games between East and West in the Baltic Sea were over for good, and in 2005, Sweden judged troops on Gotland to be a waste of resources and pulled them out.

In the years that followed, a chilling of relations between Moscow and the West — hastened by Russia’s annexation of territory in Georgia and Ukraine — led to questions about whether the decision to redeploy the Gotland regiment had been wise.

In October 2014, a frantic search for a hostile submarine among islands close to Stockholm brought the debate to a head and in 2015 it was decided to redeploy troops to the island.

“Starting with Ukraine in 2014, we have seen a worsening of the security situation in the Baltic Sea region,” Ardin, the military chief on Gotland, said. “We have seen increased military activity, more exercises, more exercises undertaken at short notice; the security situation has both worsened and become more uncertain.”

Located in the middle of the Baltic Sea, midway between Stockholm and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Gotland has long been recognized as a strategic asset.

The island is a key site for any army or merchant fleet seeking control of the surrounding waters, which link Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg with six Nordic and Baltic capital cities as well as northern Germany and ultimately the North Sea.

Over the past five years, Sweden has tightened its military hold here.

A Swedish soldier in Visby, Gotland, in July 2019 | Henrik Montgomery/AFP via Getty Images

The Tofta base has been transformed from a firing range for the home guard into a modern garrison for the reestablished Gotland Regiment.

Since 2015, the number of full-time military personnel on the island has gone from around 50 to over 300 plus a home guard contingent.

This summer, the regiment took in its first conscripts performing national service, which was reintroduced nationally in 2018.

“A lot has happened in five years,” said Ardin.

Sweden’s government is currently working on its spending plan for the years to come, which strongly suggests a continued remilitarization of its Baltic Sea territory is likely.

At the Tofta base on Tuesday, tanks could be seen rumbling between their newly built garages and maintenance areas. Large tarmacked areas linked a raft of new or partially constructed buildings, including a gym for troops and new offices.

Sweden’s government is currently working on its spending plan for the years to come, which strongly suggests a continued remilitarization of its Baltic Sea territory is likely.

Current assessments suggest a further hike in Swedish defense spending over the coming years of 5 billion kronor (€485 million) per year between 2021 and 2025, taking total spending to 85 billion kronor (€8.2 billion) by 2025.

“There is much to suggest a continued expansion here, and many people would be surprised if that wasn’t the case, but the political decisions have not been made yet,” Ardin said.

The Swedish military on patrol on the island of Gotland, Sweden in 2016 | Soren Andersson/AFP via Getty Images