ONCE AGAIN SWEDISH JAS Gripen fighter jets have been escorting an American B52 bomber over Swedish territory during NATO’s yearly Baltops exercise. One has to admit that there is some beauty in the picture, and as such it was merely a NATO PR trick, but a trick that was hugely welcomed by the Swedish government. They wish to reveal that they are keeping together in case of war, a war that could only be started by Russia.
This article discusses the security dilemmas of Sweden, a non-aligned but hugely strategically important nation caught in the middle of the increasingly tense security situation around the Baltic sea, foremost involving Russia and NATO. Military experts as well as politicians, for instance Swedish General Major Karlis Neretniek, today mean that Sweden can only avert a limited military attack from Russia if it spends around two percent of GDP on its defense, and if it’s spent right.
The Swedish military will need personnel, particularly to the army, and equipment beyond prestigious projects such as JAS Gripen jets and Swedish-made submarines. A proper missile defense is one example since a Russian attack would probably be preceded by a missile rain targeting Navy, air force and military warehouses. A better IT defense and a nationwide civilian defense are needed as well as a functioning defense organisation that is ready for the chaos that a military attack would cause, with an ability to regroup and recover.
Furthermore, the Swedish territorial waters of the Baltic Sea are of the upmost strategic importance, where especially the island of Gotland is located so that both aggressor and defender would want to secure it during an armed conflict in the Baltic Sea involving the Baltic nations.
That the Swedish territory is of crucial importance is proved by the so-called “host country agreement” between Sweden and NATO that was clubbed through in the Swedish parliament on May 25 2016. It means that Sweden can make its airspace, air force- and naval bases accessible to NATO forces during an armed conflict with a hostile foreign power (i.e. Russia).
The agreement entails that Sweden would be able to give as well as receive help, and also to invite a foreign power’s armed forces to its territory during military exercises. The agreement is important to NATO since Sweden’s territory would be crucial for warfare eastwards, regarding military response including deliveries of military equipment.
Russia’s aggressions – Causes
So why would Russia attack Sweden? Well, one scenario is that Russia would seek to cut off the flow of equipment into the Baltic Sea in case of an armed confrontation between Russia and NATO, in a scenario where Russia wishes to occupy the Baltic nations. And why would they want to do that? Several reasons for such a scenario can be displayed.
The current Russian government has its roots in the former Soviet communist regime including its armed forces during the Cold War. Russia’s aspiration is thus likely partly driven by patriotism and a wish for revenge to re-establish the super power status of the Soviet Union.
Furthermore, the Russian regime is based on some kind of “macho nationalism” to cite Sweden’s former secretary of state, Carl Bildt, when asked about the behavior of the Russian political elite. It is a regime that seems to be driven by emotions connected to conservatism, patriotism and vanity.
Simultaneously, Russia’s choices and how the government is trying to influence the attitudes of it’s population paradoxically seem to be awfully thought-out strategies. Russia’s regime has been called a kleptocracy, meaning that the political elite governs foremost for the sake of its own personal economic gains. And the fact is that Vladimir Putin’s government has silenced all opposition and made its inner circle extremely rich, while societal development is non-existent. And to hide this and to avert the attention from the government’s failures, or unwillingness, to work for the benefit of its people, it has created an outside enemy, and that enemy is NATO.
But the fact is that NATO has never threatened Russia, but merely invited it into the warmth. During the first decade following the end of the Cold War there was an era of cooperation and mutual understanding, and the EU and NATO met Russia with open arms, as long as it was developing in the right direction of economic and democratic reforms, and as long as it respected neighboring countries’ sovereignty. Following Putin’s admission as president in year 2000, however, that development started to take another direction.
Any other rational causes for why Russia would attack the Baltic countries I cannot find. Russia’s actions are not always obviously rational but are partly caused by the above mentioned factors. No governments or security services around the world really know what Putin is up to, and therefore Europe and NATO believe they must arm themselves.
We have seen aggressive, expansive actions against Georgia in 2008 and against the Ukraine in 2014 (occupation of Krim and etc.), and no-one really knows what the next step will be. Consequently there is a considerable uncertainty regarding national security among EU and NATO countries. So, if or when Russia during some circumstances would occupy the Baltics, is a question with no answer.
One factor that increases the risk of military confrontation is the increasingly tense situation around the Baltic Sea, with rising risk-taking activities from Russia regarding military provocations against NATO countries, Sweden and Finland. This increases the risk of mistakes and misjudgements, which could lead to a destructive domino effect.
Compliance or the balance of terror?
Furthermore it is debated whether NATO’s, and Sweden’s, actions with large-scale military exercises (with Russia as an obvious target), rearmament and military terms of collaborations, can actually increase the risks for armed conflict instead of diminishing it. Here lies a security dilemma. Either you risk to escalate the diplomatic conflict with Russia by showing off your guns, or you risk looking weak and indecisive if you don’t.
And this I believe is an important aspect when discussing Russia, the nation where “macho nationalism” rules (if I’m allowed to borrow Mr. Bildts expression again). Russia would possibly react negatively on compliance tactics and could in such a scenario see it as an approval, and opportunity, to grab further territory outside its borders. On the other hand Russia instead seems to respect military power more than anything else.
This leads us to the term “balance of terror”, an expression that originates from the nuclear deterrence of the Cold War. It means that no-one dares to attack the other since the response from the other part would be far too powerful and costly, or utterly eliminating in the case of the two superpowers of the Cold War. This kind of balance of terror for the purpose of deterring Russia has been the choice of action by NATO, with intensive ongoing campaigns to strengthen the defense of the European NATO countries. NATO’s large-scale and recurrent military exercises are displays of this.
Sweden’s security dilemma – NATO or not
For Sweden the same kind of dilemma is a reality. To defend itself against the ongoing disinformation campaigns and spy activities that the Swedish security services have noted coming from Russia, is clearly obvious. The question of an increasing collaboration with NATO (and outmost a membership), is however another issue.
Should Sweden avoid a NATO membership in order not to provoke Russia, and has the mighty close collaboration with NATO gone too far for the same reason? The thesis reads that Sweden would cause a more intensive Russian grudge and would become a direct target if it becomes a member. It reads that Sweden should stay non-aligned and neutral in a military crisis between Russia and the West in order to avoid a possible attack.
But the question is if this discussion is relevant at all? In reality, Sweden couldn’t stand outside an armed conflict in the Baltic Sea area, partly because of its strategic importance, but also because it would automatically stand on the NATO side, which includes several EU countries. Sweden shares their values and their security issues and it therefore cooperates with them to be able to handle an armed confrontation between NATO and Russia. Also, Sweden has since long already declared support for the Baltic nations in case of a military aggression from a foreign power.
The current policy of the Swedish government is to stay outside NATO, however close the relationship has become, and instead seeks bilateral defense agreements with individual countries. It recently struck deals with three countries it already has previous deals with – The United States, Great Britain and Finland.
The terms of collaboration between Sweden and the US comprises of military equipment sharing regarding air-defense and submarine technology, common air-, ground- and naval exercises, sharing of intelligence and “interoperability” preparations in order for the two armed forces to be able to operate together. Especially the planned common military exercises are meant to “send a distinct political signal”.
Also regarding Great Britain the new agreement is mainly about “interoperability”, while there are six different focus areas that sum up the defense cooperation with Finland. These include the navy, air force, army, communication and common operative units. For instance, a common naval operative unit (Swedish Finnish Naval Task Force) as well as aims to achieve capacity for the Swedish and Finnish air forces to operate together, are planned.
I should add that the statement that Sweden will need to spend roughly two percent of GDP on its defense, is under condition that it would pull it off all by itself. But even without the protection of a NATO membership, Sweden would likely not stand alone in the case of war. As stated above, NATO and other neighboring countries regard Sweden as crucial in an armed confrontation with Russia and would hardly sit idly by should Russia choose to attack. Moreover, such an attack would in reality be possible only in a larger conflict scenario involving NATO.
On the other hand, large defense investments will still be needed for Sweden to be able to defend its strategically sensitive areas against an eventual future Russian aggression, or to reach the deterrence effect needed to avoid such an attack in the first place. The Swedish government has approved an additional ten billion Swedish crowns (approximately 1.3 billion USD) until 2020, which is roughly half of what the military demanded in order to be able to achieve its goals, to do the job as the government ordered.
Thereby one could argue that these means must be produced, which could possibly mean that the Swedish government would have to rise taxes and perhaps cut spendings in welfare, infrastructure and refugee costs, or perhaps take government loans. One can argue that the means for the above mentioned military needs are much about the existence of Sweden as a free, independent nation, and that they therefore should be highest on the list of government spending. Today there is no immediate threat of a Russian military aggression against NATO or Sweden, but it is like a fire insurance. When the fire has started it is too late to sign up for one.