Tensions rising in Baltic region

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Putin has Sweden worried, prompting it to bolster its defences and consider joining NATO, an example that Finland could follow.

In July the Russian ambassador to Stockholm, Viktor Tatarinsev, made it very clear: relations between Sweden and Russia are at the lowest ebb “in many, many years”. For Tatarinsev, “the Swedish Prime Minister often points to Russia as the biggest threat, without having any proof of this”. From Stockholm, a southern European diplomat, who preferred to remain nameless,confirmed that, “relations between the Swedes and Russians are very bad. And it’s understandable that Swedes are concerned about a very assertive Russia in the Baltic area.”

TheBaltic region, responsible for 5% of global trade, is crucial to Sweden that earns 46% of its GDP from exports. A total of eight EU countries face onto the Baltic, including Sweden’s major trading partner Germany, as do some of Sweden’s most important cities, including its capital. For Stockholm, the Baltic is for far more strategic than the Tyrrhenian Sea is to Italy, for example.

The list of Swedish complaints against Russia is rather long: from simulating a nuclear bombardment of Sweden during Russian war games in 2013 and the alleged sighting of a Russian mini-submarine in 2014, toRussian incursions into Swedish air space and the upgrading of military apparatus in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that is home toRussia’sIskander-M ballistic missiles.

According to the national press, for the Swedish Military and Security Service (MUST), Moscow is the main source of cyber attacks and operations to and spread fake news in the small Nordic democratic nation. For Säpo, the Swedish Security Service responsible for counter-espionage, there is a serious risk that foreign powers (i.e. Russia) interferein the country’s parliamentary elections in September.

Moscow, for its part does not appreciate Sweden’s support for the Ukraine, and that country’s dreams of joining the EU (Sweden, was the first Nordic country to recognise Ukraine’sindependence in 1991). Furthermore, Moscow fears that Sweden, a country that is non-aligned but rich and technologically advanced, might join NATO, a development that would significantly alter the geostrategic balance of the Baltic and set an example that Finland could well follow.

For Russia too, the Baltic is crucial. St Petersburg is situated on its shores and the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline passes through it (soon to be joined by Nord Stream 2, as well as its rival the Balticonnector that will connect Finland with Estonia to bring American liquefied natural gas from Lithuania).

When it comes to interactions between Sweden and Russia, “there are two basic facts that decides this relation. The first is that there are asymmetric power relations between Russia and Sweden. Russia has, since the 18th century when Sweden abandoned its great-power strategies, been the strong military power of the Baltic Sea region, while Sweden has been the peaceful small-state neighbour,” explains Klas-GöranKarlsson, Professor of History at the University of Lund. “The second fact is that Swedes have always seen Russia and the Soviet Union either as a threat or as a promise. For most Swedes, Russia is a threatening neighbour, with which we have very little contacts and little knowledge.”

Historically, pro-Russia sentiments came from two groups: left-wing activists and business interested in the Russian market. “My impression is that the “threat” group today is growing,” continues Karlsson. “It not only consists of members of the military corps and non-socialist politicians but the number of those who regard Russia in a negative and critical way has increased. Journalists write more critically than before about Russian threats, such as an information war and attempts to influence Swedish politics and the economy”.

“In Sweden you don’t find any outspokenly pro-Moscow political forces, even if the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats (currently polling around 20 per cent) take an ambiguous position in relation to Putin’s Russia,” Bo Petersson, professor of Political Science at Malmö University and expert in Russian politics explained to Eastwest.“They may not be as unreservedly in favour as their colleagues in the UK, France or Austria (at least not regarding security policy) but they certainly applaud Putin’s harsh language on migration and the spectre of Islamist terrorism, and take generally a rather unconventional view of what democracy is.”

According to historian and professor at the University of Lund, Dick Harrison, “If you want to find cordial relations between Sweden and Russia, you would have to go all the way back to the Viking Age, when Swedish merchants and warriors helped to create the Russian state in the ninth and tenth centuries. After that, especially since the mid-thirteenth century, our two nations have been enemies. The first big clash was a war in 1240, and between 1293 and 1323 there was continuous warfare along the present-day Finnish-Russian border (Finland was, in those days, an integral part of Sweden).”

“Sweden’s perception of, and policy towards, Russia reflect an old image of Russia as its arch-enemy, dating back from the early 18thcentury, but also from 1809 when Sweden “lost” Finland to its giant eastern neighbour,” explains Ole Elgström, emeritus professor of Political Science and specialist in international negotiations. “After Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the risk of conflict with Russia was seen to decrease dramatically, as Russia’s power position was seen to erode. Sweden saw a possibility to save money by dismantling most of its military forces. The effects of such decisions are of course extremely difficult to reverse.”

Russian military intervention in Georgia and Ukraine convinced Sweden to change course, speaking out against Russia in strong tones at international forums, expressing doubts about Nord Stream 2, and even questioning the stance of non-alignment.“While some non-socialist opposition parties favour NATO membership, the Government has opposed such a move, as this would risk rocking the boat. But in most aspects other than membership, Sweden is already fully co-operating with NATO,”says Elgström.

Stockholm has decided to reintroduce military service and increase funding for the armed forces (in 2019 this will exceed 5 billion euros, no small sum for a country with a GDP of 400 billion), and it has moderately remilitarized some sensitive areas of the country, such as the island of Gotland, which is considered the most strategically important island in the Baltic.

For Harrison, “Today’s fear is linked to the weakening of the Swedish defence forces during recent decades. In the 1950s and the 1960s, Sweden was strong. It was one of the most militarized nations in the world, with army bases all over the country and with one of the most impressive air forces on the planet. Today, it is one of the most de-militarized countries of Europe, and this – combined with the re-emergence of an aggressive Russia under Putin – has re-ignited the old fears. If Putin wants to take the island of Gotland (which was briefly Russian during the war of 1808), he can do so virtually un-opposed. Although it is extremely unlikely that he will, the psychological impact of Russian involvement in the crises in Georgia and the Ukraine has spread fear.”

A few months ago the Swedish government began sending each household in the country aleaflet with the alarming title “If crisis or war comes” explaining what to do in the case of bombardment or cyber attack. The news caused a sensation and many interpreted it as proof of Sweden’s concerns aboutthe threat posed by Moscow. There is no doubt, one of the richest and most democratic countries in the world is worried, seriously worried.

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