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Swedish military build-up on Baltic island 'a signal to Russia'

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In this photo provided by the Swedish Armed Forces on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, troops prepare in the Baltic Sea region.
In this photo provided by the Swedish Armed Forces on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, troops prepare in the Baltic Sea region.   -   Copyright  AP Photos
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At first glance, the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea may not look like a strategic military outpost.

But in late August this tranquil summer retreat was the stage of ballistic exercises on a scale not seen here since the end of the Cold War.

"That was an act to demonstrate that we stand up for Swedish integrity and sovereignty," said Sweden's defence minister Peter Hultqvist. "And that was what we can call a security signal from our side."

It was a signal aimed at Russia.

"Over time we have seen more military activity, more complex exercises, but also what we call provocative behaviour from the Russian side who have been flying in very close to aircraft - Swedish aircraft and also other aircraft - but also flying very close to NATO sea vessels," added Hultqvist.

Concerns about Russia’s intentions in the region have risen since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Russia’s - and Sweden’s - latest moves were a further demonstration of how the security situation has deteriorated along Europe’s eastern edge.

"For Europe we have tensions in the south with Libya, we have tensions with Syria, Greece and Turkey quarrel, we have Eastern Europe with Ukraine (Crimea) and now we have social unrest in Belarus and we have military activity in the Baltic Sea and in the Arctic as well," said Johan Wiktorin. Fellow, Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences

"So in the rim of Europe, we are seeing that tensions are building up. And thus the different powers are signalling their military readiness and they are probing each other’s their defences."

And Sweden is determined to not be caught off guard

Last week, parliament approved an extra €2.5 billion for defence spending over the next five years - some of which will go to the troops and installations on the island of Gotland.

The Swedish army's Gotland Regiment is being re-established after it terminated operations in 2005.

The objective is to expand military presence on the island over the next few years.

"The plan that I have seen is that we will continue the expansion on Gotland with more units, more personnel, more equipment and even more infrastructure," said Colonel Mattias Ardin, commander of the Gotland Regiment.

For now, 300 soldiers, combat fighting vehicles, air defence systems and jet fighters have landed on the 3,000-square kilometre island, fast becoming another piece of today’s geopolitical puzzle.

"If you have the control from the military perspective of Gotland you also have very big influence on the security situation in the whole area... and it’s important for the Baltic countries, it’s important for Finland and it’s important for the Swedish mainland," said Hultqvist