Rear Admiral Ewa Skoog Haslum, Sweden’s navy chief, is overseeing a response to Russia

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Sweden is going through a sea change, and Rear Admiral Ewa Skoog Haslum is the woman in charge.

While “strategic autonomy” is a relatively new buzzword in Brussels, Fortress Sweden was once its embodiment: historically nonaligned, outside of NATO, with citizens prepared to fend off superpowers in a “total defense” posture. Yet today, Stockholm is emerging as a forceful advocate for deepening Western military partnerships in the face of growing threats from Moscow and Beijing.

So even as Skoog Haslum, chief of the navy since January 2020, oversees the biggest expansion of the marine defenses since the Cold War, she is keeping tight ties with the U.S. and Brexit Britain.

Skoog Haslum, 52, the first woman to lead a branch of the Swedish armed forces, is also waging a quieter campaign for a new vision of “total defense,” one in which citizens are hardened against disinformation, psy-ops and the personal instability that can fray society from the edges in.

“Globalization has of course made us dependent on others,” she said in a video call from Stockholm. “We can’t be independent as we maybe were before.”

The Baltic Sea is the blue front line in a gray war that threatens civilian shipping, undersea cables and political stability. Russia’s military exercises are increasing in frequency and competence, Skoog Haslum said.

And there are more power players in the region: With 80 percent of goods shipped over water, competition for transport routes through the melting Arctic is heating up as the planet does. That means Beijing is also starting to engage in the Baltic — and coordinating with Russia, not Sweden or its friends.

Sweden doesn’t have an Arctic coastline, and 30 years ago, the thinking in the Swedish Navy would have been “that is not our interest,” Skoog Haslum said. But the world is “so much smaller today.” Protecting merchant shipping access to Gothenburg, the Nordic region’s largest port, means stability in the North Sea and Arctic Ocean is crucial.

“The point, especially in that part of Europe, is there is no major power” to counter Russia, said Elisabeth Braw, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focused on deterrence of new forms of aggression. While much of the political emphasis has been on American troop levels in Germany and Poland, Sweden is the maritime bulwark. “We underestimate the logistics involved in traveling by sea,” Braw said.

Skoog Haslum is convinced that the most devastating threats will be the least obvious: hits on IT systems, destabilizing propaganda and other bits of subtle influence on public opinion that degrade trust in traditional institutions and media over a “very, very, very, very long time.”

As she commissions new warships and plans deployments along 3,200 kilometers of coastline, the rear admiral is trying to make the navy “present all the time,” to catch even the smallest sign of a threat.

“Our capability to identify and react to hostile actions of a more discreet nature … that is really a key bullet in the future,” she said.

Total defense vs. strategic autonomy

In many ways, Sweden’s newly defensive posture is a return to the past. The country’s defense ministry has spent the past few decades on something of a binge-and-purge cycle. During the Cold War, it was one of the most militarized countries in Europe, boasting one of the top coastal defenses in the world.

Caught between the West and the East, Sweden officially stayed nonaligned, declining to join NATO. However, its efforts to deter invasion were “grounded in the assumption that the enemy was located to the East and that Sweden’s defense efforts needed to be directed at the Warsaw Pact,” wrote researcher Barbara Kunz in a paper titled “Sweden’s NATO Workaround” for the French Institute of International Relations.

The early 1980s, especially, were marked by multiple underwater skirmishes, and a Soviet submarine even ran ashore near the Karlskrona naval base in 1981.

After the fall of the U.S.S.R., Stockholm’s worldview transformed. Sweden joined the EU in 1995 (it’s still not in NATO, nor does it use the euro). As the perceived threat of invasion disappeared, defense spending tanked through the mid-1990s and 2000s, with compulsory military service abandoned in 2010. It wasn’t merely a drawdown, critics said, but a “collapse” of the armed forces.

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a wake-up call.

“We were maybe a little bit naïve,” Skoog Haslum said.

Half a year later, a suspected Russian submarine was spotted off a Swedish archipelago. The unsuccessful marine chase was covered live on TV — and drew derisive coverage from Moscow. Skoog Haslum was in command of the naval warfare unit that led the hunt.

In 2014, defense spending started to increase again. And last fall, the government agreed to boost military spending by 40 percent through 2025 — not long after complaining to Moscow that two warships entered Swedish territory without permission.

“We have a situation where the Russian side is willing to use military means to achieve political goals,” said Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, announcing the budget boost in October. Military conscription was also reinstated in 2017.

It would be a mistake to view Sweden’s military buildup simply as a repeat of its Cold War approach, Skoog Haslum said. While the country’s historic neutrality is still a part of the Swedish national ethos, it doesn’t reflect reality anymore.

“We need to work together with others,” she said.

The Swedes may be the O.G. of today’s concept of “strategic autonomy” — hoping for help from the U.S. and other Western players, but fully prepared to go it alone if that falls through.

But while French President Emmanuel Macron has complained of the “brain death” of NATO and used the presidency of Donald Trump in the U.S. to promote the idea of European self-reliance, nominally neutral Stockholm and its partners in Helsinki signed their own bilateral agreements with Washington in 2018 to maintain strong U.S. engagement in the Baltic. 

In the interview, Skoog Halsum cautioned against protectionism and stressed the need for the EU to be “strong together,” while also talking up ongoing collaboration with the U.K. navy.

Sweden is still not a NATO member — a topic of perennial debate. But while formally joining the Western military alliance would be a powerful political statement, it wouldn’t actually mark a “great step” on a practical level, said Skoog Haslum. The Swedish Navy is already well decked out with NATO systems.

High water mark

Despite her status as a trailblazer, Skoog Haslum said she hasn’t confronted much gender-based resistance during her rise.

“When everything just exploded with #MeToo all over the world, I must say that I went to my husband and said, I can’t say #MeToo,” she recalled, though she acknowledged that her positive experience wasn’t universal.

Skoog Haslum got a taste of the sailor’s life when she joined the home guard, a voluntary youth service, in her mid-teens. (She’d originally dreamed of enlisting in the air force: Torekov, the small, southern fishing hamlet where she grew up, was near an airbase.) Military service was mandatory for men, but women were given the option to volunteer for the navy starting in 1980. Skoog Haslum signed on seven years later, at age 19. (Her three brothers, who bolted from the armed forces after fulfilling their requirement, “thought that I was very strange.”)

Her career includes commanding flotillas in the Baltic and helming the destroyer Sundsvall on a U.N.-backed mission off the coast of Lebanon in 2007.

The club of women leading military services is tiny. It includes Major General Tonje Skinnarland, the head of the air force in Norway, a country in the vanguard of recruiting women into the armed forces. But there are signs of growth, especially around the North Atlantic: Roberta O’Brien became the Irish Navy’s first female commander last year, and the U.K.’s Royal Navy is frequently rated as one of the best workplaces for women. Women are making inroads in the more physically demanding services too: Women joined a Belgian special forces unit for the first time in January, for example.

Still, as relative novelties in the military, women are inevitably in the spotlight, Skoog Haslum said. “Everything you do and everything you say [is] monitored.” Recruiting more women will make it easier, she said, by diffusing that spotlight.

More diverse recruits, whether that’s of different genders or different backgrounds, mean better personnel, she said. The result: “We are less predictable when we are fighting.”

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