Despite a history of neutrality, Sweden has grown increasingly concerned about Russian expansion in recent years, prompting a growing relationship with NATO, and now, a large-scale military training exercise coinciding with Russia’s massive Zapad 2017 drills in Belarus.
An estimated 19,000 troops will participate in Sweden’s drills that will simulate an attack from the East on the Baltic island of Gotland, not far off the Swedish mainland. Sweden is located due West of the Baltics, which are the focus of concern for NATO, as Russia and Belarus conduct drills that would approximate war in the region. Russia has claimed that there will be fewer than 13,000 troops participating in the Zapad drills, which commenced on Thursday, but NATO officials believe the accurate number will be closer to a massive 100,000.
The security situation has taken a turn for the worse,” Micael Byden, the commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, said during a presentation of the three-week-long exercise. “Russia is the country that affects security in Europe right now with its actions – the annexation of the Crimea and continued battles in eastern Ukraine – so it is clear that we are watching very closely what Russia is doing.”
Although Sweden has expressed no interest in joining military alliances such as NATO, a mainliner from the alliance, the United States, will see over 1,000 troops participating in these drills, which promise to be the largest show of military force in Sweden in over twenty years. Around 500 more troops hailing from France, Norway and other NATO allies are also expected to take part in the drills as well, though, that participation is likely not a sign of Sweden changing its mind about entering into NATO.
It’s about handling the realities of the security situation in our part of Europe,” said Sweden’s Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist. “It’s an important signal to the Swedish population, and also to other countries and partners, that we take this security situation seriously.”
Sweden has indicated, however, that the nation’s military, which was once 600,000 strong but decades of cost cutting has left it with just 20,000 active duty members and 20,000 more in reserve, would be willing to support the nations that support it, if ever the need should arise.
Sweden has not fought a war since 1814, and officials from within the nation have made it clear that they have no intention of doing away with the policy of neutrality that has maintained that peace for centuries, but Russian aggression in the region in recent years has shifted Sweden toward an increasing level of cooperation with NATO, now going so far as to say they may be willing to aid the alliance if war with Russia were to break out.
“We are a sovereign country that takes care of and is responsible for our safety. We do this together with others, ready to both support and receive help,” Byden said.
Sweden isn’t the only nation growing increasingly concerned about Russia’s behavior. Norway recently began accepting rotating deployments of U.S. Marines for cold weather training that they claim has nothing to do with Russia, but is informally recognized as another facet of Europe’s bolstering defenses in the face of Russian expansion. Likewise, Finland has also been drawing closer to the NATO alliance.
Sweden, for its part, has begun a concerned expansion and modernization effort for their military, and plans to conduct further military exercises in the near future to better prepare its troops for the possibility of war. They have already begun planning another series of large-scale drills to commence in 2020.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons