What kind of conflict is Sweden preparing for?

When Sweden’s centre-left government announced last month that it would boost military spending by 8.1 billion krona (851 million Euro) over the next three years – in addition to the 500 million krona already added last Spring – the country’s defence minister Peter Hultqvist said the move would send an “important signal”.

The signal, Hultqvist told local media, is that there is political stability in Sweden and that the country intends to expand its defence forces.

Another sign of that intention was the reintroduction this summer of military service in Sweden. Even if it is a milder form of the conscription system scrapped in 2010 – under the new programme, just 4,000 young men and women are selected for basic training and full military service – the government’s decision to introduce a partial draft was widely interpreted as part of an ambition to strengthen Sweden’s defence capabilities.

Why, then, is Sweden flexing its military muscles now and what, if any, are the new threats that the Scandinavian nation faces?

There are three main explanations behind the boost in military spending, Jacob Westberg, a lecturer in security and strategy at the Swedish Defence University, told Euronews.

First, the deteriorating European security order, second a new pattern of military training emerging in Russia, and third the fact that the Swedish Armed Forces do not have sufficient funds to meet their own goals.

“What is happening right now is a consequence of the redirection of the Swedish Armed Forces that begun in 2014 and was cemented in the 2015 defence bill,” said Westberg.

“From that point, there was an increased focus on developing military capabilities that can be applied in and around Sweden. By contrast, the 2009 defence bill had prioritised international military crisis management, with Sweden contributing military forces to foreign conflicts, for instance in Afghanistan.”

The change in Sweden’s military strategy, Westberg insisted, is a direct consequence of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014, and of the belief that there is a growing risk of inter-state conflicts in Europe. In the early 2000s, the chances of such conflicts erupting were seen as minimal and that risk assessment led to Sweden essentially dismantling its defence force, for instance by cancelling the draft.

“Moreover, we are seeing a different military training pattern now with Russian planes practicing in Sweden, intruding in airspaces around Europe and acting in a more threatening manner toward the Baltic nations,” said Westberg. That is another reason behind the changing risk assessment, he noted, and the growth in military spending.

Westberg also pointed out that the spending boost agreed on last month is in line with the goals set out in the 2015 defence bill. Back then, 10 billion krona were added to the defence budget and that turned out not to be enough to meet the goals that the Swedish Armed Forces had set out to achieve by 2020. Those goals include developing new Jas fighter jets and submarines.

Indeed, the military spending deal struck last month by the Social Democrat-Green Party coalition government and the opposition Moderate and Centre parties covers 14 areas, including investment in training and equipment.

Another key area is cyber warfare, with some voicing concerns about hacking, disinformation campaigns and attacks on key infrastructure ahead of Sweden’s general election next year. “How we handle the risks that digitalisation brings has great consequences for our ability to maintain and strengthen our welfare and security,” the government stated in its national strategy for information and cyber security published in June.

Niklas Granholm, deputy director of studies at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), points out that today’s security threats are more diffuse than during the Cold War era. There is a “gray scale” of risks today, he said, including cyber threats, disinformation campaigns and psychological warfare operations. In the interest of better preparedness, “it would be a good thing to have better coordinated police and military operations,” said Granholm.

In 2012, Sweden dismantled its auxiliary police unit called Beredskapspolisen, which was created during the Cold War and was made up of ex-conscripts who had received Police Academy training. The idea was that officers within the auxiliary unit could be moblised in the event of military attack or other major crises.

“The Swedish National Police Agency decided that the unit was no longer needed but now there is a burgeoning discussion about reintroducing it,” said Granholm. “At the same time, there is a general shortage of police officers in Sweden and much of the police’s resources have gone to dealing with the refugee crisis.”

In Sweden, domestic security is regarded as a police, rather than military, matter, Granholm explained, and while the capital, Stockholm, was the target of a terrorist attack when a truck rammed into crowds of people on a busy shopping street in April, we are unlikely to see soldiers deployed on the streets of Swedish cities, as in places like Paris and London, according to Granholm. “Instead, here the approach has been to improve collaboration between the police and the armed forces, where the latter assists with surveillance or supplying resources like vehicles, for instance.”

But, beyond the terrorist threat, does Sweden run the risk of a direct, military attack? According to Westberg, it is widely regarded as unlikely. “In this region, it is mainly the Baltic states that are vulnerable to threats from Russia and I don’t think there is any reason to expect an attempted invasion in Sweden. Even Finland, which has an 800-mile long border with Russia, has abandoned the idea of the next war being a major invasion.”

However, Westberg added a note of caution, and a point that is also outlined in Sweden’s 2015 defence bill: namely that Sweden could be pulled into a military conflict should one erupt in its neighbouring region.

“The Baltic island of Gotland [off Sweden’s east coast] is strategically significant. Whomever controls Gotland has an upper hand in this region,” said Westberg.

While Sweden is not a Nato member, the country actively cooperates with the US-led military alliance in peace and security operations. This month also marks the first stage of Sweden’s largest joint military drill with Nato in 20 years. The first exercise, called Aurora 17, is designed to strengthen Sweden’s defences and deterrence effects.

“It is designed to deter potential attackers, and force them to carefully consider the risks of attacking our country,” the Swedish Armed Forces said in a statement. The exercise comes after Russia’s Vladimir Putin vowed to “eliminate the Nato threat” if Sweden joins the US-led alliance.

“Considering Sweden’s geographic position, the make-up of the country’s neighbouring region and the structure of our economy and population, our defence is too weak,” said Granholm, who said that, for a long time after the fall of the Iron Curtain, participating in peace-keeping operations was regarded as Swedish Armed Forces’ main mission.

“Sweden did not heed the warning signals and did not act in time to strengthen its defence capabilities,” according to Granholm. “Today, we don’t quite project an image of security and stability and that is a precarious situation to be in. If a major crisis happens, Sweden will find itself in a tricky situation. The super powers will decide then.”
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