A Swedish island ranked as a top tourist destination is being remilitarised amid concern over Russian resurgence in the Baltic Sea.
Gotland, with a population of just 57,000, is located in the middle of the Baltic Sea, east of the Swedish mainland, across from Latvia and about 340 km from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Euronews followed soldiers of the 61st air defense battalion of the Swedish army as they carried out a military exercise on the island, the country’s largest. Soon, a permanent force of some 300 soldiers will be stationed there.
“The reason for that is the unstable situation within the Baltics. We see more military exercises in the Baltic region,” says Commander Matthias Ardin.
Sweden, which has a history of neutrality and is not a member of NATO, has been ramping up its military capability since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and began carrying out military exercises in the Baltic Sea.
A Russian military intervention in Gotland is considered highly unlikely and Moscow has dismissed the idea as ludicrous. But Russia has deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, so the Swedes are on their guard.
Sweden recently strengthened ties with NATO, striking a controversial host nation support agreement that would allow Atlantic Alliance troops to deploy troops across Swedish territory, airspace and waters in times of crisis or war.
Fears of a resurgent Russia have even made joining the Alliance a major debate topic in the country in recent months. Latvia in particular has urged both Sweden and Finland to join NATO to reduce the Baltic states’ vulnerability to any potential Russian agression.
But Moscow has threatened to take new military measures of its own if the Scandinavian countries went ahead and joined the Alliance.
From tourist attraction to military training ground
In September, Gotland will be at the heart of a major military exercise involving some 20,000 Swedish soldiers, plus troops from the United States, France, Norway, Denmark and Estonia. At the same time, Russia is set to hold its own military exercise in Belarus and in Kaliningrad – with 100,000 troops.
Gotland played a key role in Swedish defense during the Cold War, but the island was demilitarised in 2005.
Tourists now come here for the medieval walls and towers of Visby, Gotland’s only town and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Lonely Planet travel guide has in fact featured it on its hotlist of European places to visit this year.
Locals are not particularly worried to see troops return.
“It’s good that they rebuild the military capacity here on the island. Not that I think there’s an imminent threat from Russia in particular. I don’t think it will happen, because I don’t really see a reason. But maybe something happens somewhere else in the world that has a snowball effect and maybe it can affect us,” said resident Egil Falke.
“When you decide to have more military presence, maybe then something else can happen,” said another local, Anne Scheffer Leander. “When you escalate, then someone will respond. So maybe things will change. But I wouldn’t say I’m afraid at this point.”
Free up those bunkers
The Swedish government has asked all municipalities to set up civil defense plans. It has also launched a nationwide awareness campaign.
Christer Stolz oversees contingency planning in Gotland. He and his team work to prepare the population for any type of crisis, including a military one. That includes drawing up lists of things to have at home in case of an emergency – such as warm clothes, matches, candles, a water container, something to cook with and canned goods to last for at least three days.
“There are different types of scenarios. It could be a power outage or anything that might cause a big disruption for society. Here, we’re on an island. So we depend on transportation; and if transport is suspended, we must be able to cope for three days or more,” said Stolz.
The government has also launched a national rehabilitation programme for the nuclear fallout shelters built during the Cold War. Sweden has 65,000 shelters nationwide – the highest per capita rate in the world.
In Gotland, Andre Samuelson checks on the state of the 350 shelters listed across the island – to assess whether they could be used again in case of an emergency. Many are currently used as storage space by the local population.
Samuelson said residents should be able to easily clear out all the clutter to have the shelters ready for use within 48 hours.
Conscription makes a comeback
The scenario of a military crisis was a fairly abstract concern for the Visby high school students we met at their athletics club. Yet they said they were reassured to have permanent troops return to the island.
They also see Sweden’s gradual reintroduction of compulsory military service as a wise move in a worrisome world.
“Before, it was felt like everything was very distant and far away. But recently we had a terror attack in Stockholm, and after that, we got a little bit shaken up, and we started to think more about it,” said student Johan Burvall.
Conscription was abolished in 2010, but the Swedish government said in March it would be reintroduced starting next year, and 4,000 men and women would be drafted into the defence forces.
“We can’t just sit and wait for something to happen,” said student Tristan Cales. “It’s a good choice to join the military and try to help the country as much as you can.”
With Natalie Huet
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