Due to Russia’s growing assertiveness and overtly expansionist intentions, many Baltic countries have become distressed in recent years by the instability fostered by their neighbour. Sweden has been especially affected by Russia’s unsettling activities.
On top of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which set a dangerous precedent for all those around, Russia multiplied instances of bellicose behaviour towards Sweden. It began by conducting a mock nuclear airstrike against Sweden in 2013 and flying threateningly close to its airspace a year later. The same year, Sweden suspected Russia to have stationed a submarine close to the Stockholm archipelago. Russia also conducted an important number of cyber attacks against the country; there have been 200 reports of such attacks on civil infrastructure and among them, 60 constituted serious incidents leading to technical failures or viruses.
There are a number of reasons that could explain Russia’s behaviour towards its Baltic neighbours but one thing is sure: Russia wants to keep NATO in check. While Sweden is not a NATO member, it has cooperated with the organization on many occasions, which is not to Russia’s liking. Additionally, Russia is desirous to convey its strength and Sweden has, in comparison, virtually disassembled all of its defensive capabilities, making it a very vulnerable counterpart.
In the face of Russia’s hostility and conscious of the void present in its defence, Sweden voiced its concerns last December and went as far as ordering its towns and villages to prepare for the eventuality of a war. Local authorities received a letter from the Civil Contingency Agency explaining the way in which such preparation should take place. Among the measures outlined in the communication, municipalities were asked to ensure the good functioning of emergency sirens, to maintain operation centres in underground bunkers, and to be open to cooperate on war exercises. What’s more, in a significant move, the government also decided to remilitarize Gotland, a large Swedish island south of Stockholm in the Baltic Sea, which is particularly exposed and used to be a Cold War stronghold.
In a more recent attempt to restore and heighten its defensive position, Sweden declared early in March that it would reintroduce conscription. After the system of compulsory enlistment for military service ended in 2010, the government encountered difficulties in staffing military units on a voluntary basis. With the new security environment demanding more preparedness for war, the government decided to call 13,000 young people born in 1999 to undergo a military assessment. Out of them, 4,000 men and women will be called for training in 2018.
Despite the fact that Svante Werger, the press officer for the country’s Civil Contingency Agency, told the Sysdsvenkan newspaper that “there is nothing to suggest that war is likely but we have been given an order by the government to plan for it,” it remains significant that a country like Sweden, known for its neutral stance and who has not fought since 1814, decided to issue such a dramatic call.