Our Northern Ally in Sweden

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Written by Joshua Huminski and Nils G. Bildt

Up until 2014, Sweden maintained a sizable—for the Nordic country—presence in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Not many people realize that or appreciate the non-NATO ally. In an immediate post-9/11 solidarity move, Sweden contributed forces to the international mission and in the process, Sweden lost eight troops in Afghanistan and sustained several hundred wounded—something for which few have thanked Stockholm.

Fewer still realize that, albeit quietly, Sweden is preparing for the possibility of conflict with Russia. During the course of 2018 Stockholm will distribute leaflets to 4.7 million Swedish households advising them what to do in the event of a conflict with the country’s eastern neighbor.

The decision to warn its citizens of a conflict with Russia comes not out of the blue, but close on the heels of significant Russian wargames on the eastern border of NATO—Zapad—which involved over 110,000 Russian troops. This is not to mention the overt aggression shown by Russian mock bombing runs on Stockholm and the Danish parliament while meeting in Bornholm. Add to that continued suspected Russian submarine incursions, interference with mobile communication systems, and persistent intelligence activities targeting key Swedish military personnel, and the threat picture is real indeed.

In addition to this, you have Eastern Ukraine and the seizure of the Crimea, the all but open interference in foreign elections, and statements by Moscow warning against cooperation and/or involvement with NATO. Should Sweden join NATO, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev warned “we in Russia would take the necessary military technical measures” in response.

Sweden may be an odd point of reference when analyzing geopolitics, but it is one to which U.S. policymakers should pay greater attention. Neutral Sweden occupies critical territory in Northern Europe. Sitting across the Baltic Sea from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Sweden represents potential defense in depth for the NATO alliance in the event of a conflict with Russia. Even before a conflict with Moscow, partnering with Swedish military forces and deploying assets to Sweden offers a potentially less destabilizing path to signaling to Russia. Finland, Sweden’s immediate eastern neighbor, too is leaning closer to NATO despite its history of neutrality and necessity of practical accommodation with Russia, most recently attending a NATO heads of state dinner in Warsaw in 2016, as well as participating in joint exercises.

Stockholm clearly sees the threat on the horizon and despite political undercurrents that wish to maintain its neutrality, it is taking steps to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Sweden, also announced in 2017 that military conscription would return in 2019. The country is in the midst of a five-year $720 million defense investment program. This doesn’t include the $1 billion commitment Sweden made to acquire Raytheon’s Patriot missile system to replace the aging Hawk system currently in use.

In September of last year, Sweden held its largest wargames in recent years and reintroduced troops to the island county of Gotland. A token force of 150, it is a symbolic presence strategically located halfway between Sweden and Latvia in the Baltic Sea. Commenting on the deployment Micael Bydén, supreme commander of the Swedish Armed Forces said “External factors in the world have deteriorated over time.”

Messaging matters. While the President is articulating an America-first approach to international affairs, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said it best that America-first, doesn’t mean America alone. America can’t go it alone in Northern Europe. Our partnerships with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are critical to defending Europe against Russian aggression and influence. Norway and Finland are critical too, and so is Sweden.

While Secretary Mattis and the defense establishment realize this, it would further strengthen the partnership to hear similar statements from the White House. Sweden faces a complex domestic political situation, one that is coming to grips with an aggressive Russia and its own history of neutrality. Such messages from Mattis and McMaster help the case of those in Stockholm that want to join closer with the NATO-alliance.

The United States managed peace in the Cold War through alliances on the periphery of Russia’s spheres of influence. In the intervening years since 9/11, Washington seemed to lose focus and think that international norms and behaviors alone would staunch nation-state aggression. But that’s not the case. To confront the renewed realities, we need partners like Sweden.