Stockholm seeks closer ties to Nordic neighbors and NATO over increased Russian activity in the Baltic, Ukraine and beyond.
LONDON (AA) - Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy is causing nervousness in one of its closest neighbors, Sweden. The Nordic country, which has historically remained neutral, has been seeking closer defense ties both with its Scandinavian neighbors and the NATO military alliance in response to perceived incursions of its waters and airspace.
Sweden is worried about Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria, according to Tomas Ries, a senior lecturer in Security and Strategy at the National Defence College, Stockholm. Ries says Russia has used its military in the region in a “provocative way”. Part of the Russian navy is based in the exclave of Kaliningrad, barely 500 kilometers [310 miles] across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm, and accusations of incursions in territorial waters have been common.
In Oct. 2014 Sweden spent a week and $2.75 million searching for a purported foreign submarine in the waters around the Stockholm archipelago. Military officials said at the time that they had received “credible reports of foreign underwater activities” around the islands, which extend from the Swedish capital out into the Baltic Sea, adding that they were prepared to use force if a vessel was found.
Russia denied the allegations, with Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov saying: “Such unfounded actions of the Swedish Defense Department, fueled by the Cold War-style rhetoric, are only leading today to escalation of tension in the region. “It might result not in the strengthening of a particular country’s security, but in undermining the principles of the naval economic activity in the Baltic Sea.”
But in the following months Sweden reported further violations -- this time, of its airspace -- and in April 2015 agreed with Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland to boost defense collaboration. In NATO’s annual report published earlier this month, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote that “the pace of Russia’s military maneuvers and drills have reached levels unseen since the height of the Cold War”. He said these exercises included simulated nuclear attacks on NATO allies and partners, including an apparent dummy run on a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea in March 2013.
“These actions, among others, have contributed to an increasingly unpredictable and unstable Euro-Atlantic security environment,” Stoltenberg said in his report. Sweden’s policy of neutrality in armed conflicts has been in place for over two centuries. It kept itself out of the fighting in the Second World War despite its geographical proximity to Germany, and never joined the NATO military alliance that was established after the war. But tensions have been rising in the Baltic. Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine “changed the entire view of Russia”, according to Ries.
“Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014 changed the entire view of Russia in Sweden and 'the west' west of Poland. Finland, the three Baltic states and Poland were always on their guard but before Ukraine 2014 no one else was,” he told Anadolu Agency. That transformation in perceptions led the Swedish Security Service (SAPO) to last year accuse one-third of Russian diplomatic staff stationed in Sweden of being spies. “They violate our territory every day…What's notable is that about one-third of the Russian diplomatic personnel are in reality not diplomats, but intelligence officers,” SAPO chief analyst Wilhelm Unge told Swedish reporters last March.
Unge said these officers were “highly educated and often younger than during the Soviet era. They are driven, goal-oriented and socially competent”. According to Ries, Russia is “not happy” with either Sweden’s public criticism of it nor the closer ties Stockholm is forging with NATO. Asked if Russia considers Sweden to be a threat, Ries responded: “Sweden alone no, but Sweden as a NATO member or allowing NATO to use her territory, yes. Russia probably considers Sweden a secret NATO member already.”
Ries said there was no formal application for NATO membership by Sweden on the cards yet and that any move in that direction would be taken jointly with Finland. Sweden's position was to “get as close to NATO politically and militarily as possible. Sweden has systematically developed very close military cooperation with NATO and the U.S. (and Finland) since 1992,” he said. “Sweden [is] not scared and not confused about Russia, but she is worried,” he added, describing Sweden as “basically disarmed” and unable to join NATO directly. “So Sweden is more-or-less stuck in her present situation, but with a more realistic awareness of her threat environment than before Ukraine. And very marginal military improvements in her defense”.