Sweden considers itself a neutral country. Better known for participating in peacekeeping missions, its military has been largely passive of late when it comes to self-defense. But as tensions rise with a revanchist Russia, the Nordic nation has found itself moving in a new direction: preparing for the possibility of armed conflict.
Last month, tens of thousands of troops took part in an exercise held throughout Sweden. Aurora 17, one of the country’s biggest military drills in decades, involved soldiers from nonaligned neighbor Finland, the U.S., and newer NATO countries including Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The Swedish exercise commenced just as a massive joint military drill involving Russia and Belarus was concluding to the east of those three Baltic nations.
While the primary exercise areas of Aurora 17 were around Malardalen, Stockholm, and Gothenburg, the focus was on the island of Gotland, which sits a little more than 200 miles northwest of the heavily militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Beyond Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the ongoing conflict in the east of that nation, Russia has also engaged in aggressive air and naval drills close to Gotland. A nervous Sweden has been steadily raising its defense spending and reintroduced a military draft, which starts next year. A recent poll even showed Sweden’s populace warming to the idea of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Sweden largely dismantled Gotland’s defenses after the Berlin Wall fell. Now there’s an open question as to whether the country should bulk up again. Captain Henrik Hjulstrom, a special operations unit commander in the Swedish military, said his country’s dilemma is clear. “Either one rearms one’s own army or one joins an alliance,” Hjulstrom said. The Swedish defense forces have “given word that we will help other European countries,” he said, but “there are no guarantees, and vice versa.”
On Gotland, residents watched for three weeks as attack helicopters, armored vehicles, and thousands of troops flooded the island to take part in Aurora 17. Gunnar Hellstrom, a retired islander, said Gotland had historically been home to military forces, given its location opposite the European mainland. Among the locals though, there is disagreement about whether the exercise, or rearming, is a good idea.
“I would not say I do not feel safe here,” Hellstrom said of the growing threat from the east, “but we are aware of our geographic position.”