Sweden Eyes Russia While Holding Its Own War Games

The neutral country reboots its military while inviting NATO members to join in a huge defensive exercise.

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.”

On the Beaches
On the Beaches

A soldier from Sweden’s Amfibieregementet, or amphibious corps, takes cover during Aurora 17, meant to simulate a defense of the Baltic Sea island against an unidentified invader.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Coastal Defense
Coastal Defense

Soldiers from the Swedish amphibious corps fight to keep a would-be enemy at bay. The drill took place along the harbor in Kappelshamn, in northern Gotland.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

A Better Place
A Better Place

Finnish soldier Jonas Saarinen took part in Aurora 17 alongside Swedish and international troops on Gotland. “It’s the first time we are doing cooperation with foreign forces,” he said. “I am normally based in southern Finland with my battalion. Here I have learned to cooperate with the Swedish radio troop and about the challenges we face when we use two units from different countries.” Saarinen said he would like to become a United Nations peacekeeper someday. “Let’s say that I want to make the world a better place.”

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Helicopter Battle
Helicopter Battle

Private Daniel Hansson helps operate a portable anti-aircraft weapon during an exercise involving Swedish defense forces squaring off against American combat helicopters. “It’s good to know that, in certain situations, the pilots think our systems are very difficult to handle,” Hansson said. It’s “great that we can make life a little bit tricky for them.”

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Littoral Exercises
Littoral Exercises

Swedish marines board a ship off of Kappelshamn.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Call of History

Mattias Ardin, head of the Swedish defense forces on Gotland, surrounded by portraits of his predecessors.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Call of History
Garden Party
Garden Party

Soldiers from an amphibious regiment of the Swedish navy take a knee in a private garden on Gotland.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Steering by Churches
Steering by Churches

Major Oskar Hullegard of the Swedish Air Defense Regiment, who helped lead the Aurora 17 exercise, trained with U.S. forces from Germany. “This is a unique opportunity from our side for our units to practice against sophisticated systems such as attack helicopters,” he said. “The helicopters fly from the church and over us,” beginning a simulated attack. “There are like 90 churches on Gotland,” Hullegard said, “and we use them for navigation.”

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Getting Around Gotland
Getting Around Gotland

A soldier from the amphibious regiment takes a break to get his bearings.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Different Direction
Different Direction

Gunnar Hellstrom, a retired islander, writes for a war museum magazine. “The reason that the Swedish defense was closed down here is that, at one point, it looked as if Russia would develop to become similar to a Western type of democracy,” he said. “But then things have turned in a different direction.”

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Triggering Action
Triggering Action

Ingrid Gustavsson, who helped start an eco village on Gotland, opposes the government’s renewed interest in defending the island. Authorities have said “there’s no direct threat against Gotland and Sweden, but at the same time they always mention Gotland as a strategically positioned island,” she said. “The more you build up, the more you prepare for war. You trigger each other, and it makes matters worse. Sweden has always been neutral—and should continue to be so.”

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Dark Clouds
Dark Clouds

Tanks and armored vehicles line up as part of the exercise involving Swedish anti-aircraft defense forces and American helicopters.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

“They Would Take Us in No Time”
“They Would Take Us in No Time”

Britt-Marie Berggren, with her dog Selma, in Visby, on the western coast of Gotland. She supports the military’s return. “They would take us in no time,” she said of the Russians. “I really don’t understand why they removed the permanent defense forces from here in the first place. Now it’s so expensive to rebuild it.”

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Boots on the Ground
Boots on the Ground

An American soldier from North Carolina takes a break during Aurora 17 drills on Gotland.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

American Participation
American Participation

A U.S. Chinook helicopter draws a crowd after it drops off soldiers in an open field.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

A New Kind of Threat
A New Kind of Threat

Swedish airman Markus Viljamaa takes up position in the woods.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Recruiting Opportunity
Recruiting Opportunity

Swedish military recruiters from a regiment in Skaraborg traveled to Visby to take advantage of the attention Aurora 17 drew from islanders.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Public Relations
Public Relations

Adrian Hellman, a 19-year-old student, tries on a bomb suit during Aurora 17’s Defense Day, when the public got a chance to interact with soldiers. “It’s really great that the military comes back to Gotland,” she said. “One definitely needs to have some kind of defense on this island.”

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Future Soldiers
Future Soldiers

During Defense Day, island children got to try out military equipment.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg

Casualties of War
Casualties of War

A soldier plays the role of a wounded fighter awaiting medics during the exercise.

Photographer: Loulou d’Aki/Agence VU/Bloomberg