A neutral country for decades, Sweden is edging ever closer toward NATO.
In 2018, the Swedish government sent a booklet to almost five million families. Titled If Crisis or War Comes, the brochure included information and instructions on basic wartime survival and “total defence.” It also informed Swedes of other threats like climate change, cyberattacks and terrorist strikes. Cold War bunkers, moreover, have been getting upgraded.
The last time Swedes got a similar booklet was in 1961 during the Cold War.
“A modern version of total defence must be able to protect from external attempts to influence democratic society,” said Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. He also announced the creation of an agency focused on countering psychological warfare and disinformation propaganda — both of which Russia has been accused of practising, namely on the U.S. elections and Brexit, Scottish and Catalan referenda.
“All of society needs to be prepared for conflict, not just the military. We haven’t been using words such as total defence or high alert for 25-30 years or more. So, the knowledge among citizens is very low,” added Christina Andersson, of the Swedish civil contingencies agency, regarding the booklet.
Although not a member of NATO, Sweden shares close ties with the alliance. Sweden has already signed a cooperation agreement that allows NATO troops access to Swedish territory in the event of war. Swedish soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan and, reportedly, to Africa. Swedish special operations forces (SOF) have been quite active in Afghanistan. Moreover, conventional Swedish forces are increasingly participating in NATO exercises. For example, Swedish forces participated in Trident Juncture exercise, the largest NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War, which took place in October and November of 2018.
Sweden is at a crossroads. Faced with a resurgent Russia, the Nordic nation is rethinking its defence and strategic approach. Sweden is contemplating NATO membership, with all of Sweden’s centre-right parties agreeing to pursue membership. (The Social Democrats disagree — they argue for closer ties with NATO, but not membership.)
Swedish society is divided. If you argue for joining NATO, you’re seen as a nationalist warmonger. If you’re against NATO, you’re seen as a dove. A poll conducted by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper shows this division: 44 percent against NATO, 31 percent for NATO. It should be noted that Swedish society greatly values debate and consensus. Thus, the decision to join NATO will probably take the form of a referendum.
“What was unthinkable five years ago is no longer unthinkable, even if it’s still unlikely. This has very different policy implications,” said Martin Kragh, head of the Russia programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
But some politicians, mainly from the centre-left, think otherwise. They don’t seem to believe that an attack from Russia, even if it’s a cyber attack and not a conventional one, is probable.
Following the end of the Cold War, Sweden cut military spending and focused its economic resources toward upgrading its public and social programs.
The 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea changed everything. Since then, the Swedish defence forces have received a generous boost in their budget. Conscription was re-established, troops deployed to Gotland, a strategically located island in the Baltic Sea and as mentioned above, Sweden joined NATO forces in the biggest military exercise since 1995. The Swedish government is also considering purchasing Patriot missile batteries to boost its anti-air capabilities.
But a Russian invasion in Ukraine isn’t the only source of concern for the Swedes: Recently, Russian aircraft and submarines have been quite energetic around the Swedish airspace and the Baltic Sea. Last September, Moscow conducted the Zapad war games near Minsk, the capital of Belarus. During the exercises, thousands of Russian troops rehearsed attacks on Poland and the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. Of course, such war games are common. But if Russia is so willing to intervene abroad, we can understand why the Swedes — and, indeed, the region — might be concerned.
A recent report by the Defence Commission, a cross-party body that influences government policies, highlighted that in the face of Russian aggression “an armed attack on Sweden cannot be excluded.”
“We have a statutory obligation under international law to assist a member country. That same obligation does not extend to Sweden [but] we are prepared to cooperate if a conflict were to break out,” NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg had said.
Russian diplomats have implied that if Sweden were to join NATO would hurt their bilateral relationship.