The island of Gotland, halfway between Sweden and Latvia, has always been strategically important. Some of the most significant archaeological finds of coins and other treasure have taken place on Gotland, as it was once a commercial centre for the whole Baltic Sea. Consequently the Swedish Army maintained a presence there for hundreds of years, only leaving its bases in 2005, long after the Cold War was over and all the Baltic littoral states bar Russia had aligned themselves with the West.
Now all that is going to change, at least according to Newsweek Magazine, as on September 14 a contingent of 150 Swedish soldiers who had been exercising on Gotland was ordered to stay there and form the basis of a new permanent deployment on the island. A decision had already been taken to redeploy on the island late next year, but this timeframe has now been brought forward, and is being justified by “countering the Russians”.
The actual threat Russia poses to Sweden can be seen in the banner headlines which scream from Swedish newspapers. They are all about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and local sports figures such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and various hockey stars. Russia has to compete on the inside pages with Björn Borg, the retired tennis legend and national hero who now designs sportswear and underwear. Even then Putin has to go some before he is granted newspaper space opposite a full-page Borg underwear advert, the ultimate accolade for a world leader in Sweden.
It is assumed that the Swedish Army must be doing this on the basis of intelligence, but when asked why, the response in the media is “because it’s the Russians!” No one can explain why Russia wants to attack neutral Sweden. Russia routinely complains about NATO encroachment ever nearer its borders, but Sweden is not a NATO member. It is effectively subcontracted by NATO to help guarantee the security of the Baltic States, but does not take orders from NATO and never will.
At the merest hint of being “used” by one side or the other this proudly non-aligned country will pick up its toys and go home. Sweden makes its own defence decisions, according to Swedish priorities, and is big and strong enough to continue getting away with that. So would Russia wish to outrage world opinion, and possibly start World War Three, by attacking a neutral country which will never attack Russia? It seems unlikely. But from NATO’s point of view, if no one else’s, this is where the problem lies.
Many non-aligned countries not only operate but thrive without the protection of one side or the other. NATO has been trying to recast itself as a heavily armed “Peace Corps” since the Cold War ended. If that is the only future it has, it does not want countries which already fulfil that function doing so successfully – and threatening the Western military-industrial complex, and its profits, in the process.
Windmills becoming tilters
The present Swedish government was elected in October 2014. It immediately came under pressure to increase defence spending, and agreed to do so. However this let the genie out of the bottle as far as its domestic position was concerned.
The pressure for more funding was immediate because the Swedish Armed Forces Command thinks it has to work harder to get money out of a leftist government. The government gave in because it wants to show that its traditional policy of arming to ensure peace and neutrality still works in an era when the Social Democrats are no longer the unchallenged party of government. But the Lövfen government has failed to manage the conflicting expectations this new commitment aroused.
The Swedish Armed Forces are equipped to fight rumours, not enemies. Sweden maintains a large army precisely to prevent problems between belligerent nations, such as those Russia is now involved in, threatening Sweden itself. But over the last twenty years Sweden has actively contributed to EU, UN and NATO operations in Bosnia, Libya and Afghanistan. The government of the day had no problem describing these contributions as an extension of Sweden’s traditional role of ensuring peace. But the nature of these campaigns destroyed any boundaries before they could be erected – if THESE are peacekeeping operations, what isn’t?
Consequently the opposition enjoys portraying the Social Democrats as soft, and demands more aggressive “peacekeeping operations”. This is the context in which the Liberals, an opposition party once as woolly as the name implies, elected the former Army officer and self-styled disciplinarian Jan Björklund as their leader and moved distinctly to the right. The Armed Forces meanwhile see a new international role for themselves, and with it more money than the traditional role implies they should have.
Furthermore, early modern Sweden had a history of involvement in NATO-type operations. Back in the 1780s King Gustav was looking for a way to unite an increasingly divided nation and raise his own political standing. What a better way than to use a war with Russia as a political distraction? Not having the guts to send the nation to war on his own he came up with a scheme for the head tailor of the Swedish Opera House to sew some Russian military uniforms. “Swedish troops were then dressed in the uniforms and sent to attack Sweden’s own Finnish border post along the Russian border. The citizens in Stockholm, believing it to be a genuine Russian attack, were suitably outraged, and the Swedish- Russian War of 1788-1790 began.”
Obviously NATO would be happy if history repeated itself. But Swedish governments are too independent to accept NATO control of their foreign policy. Therefore an enemy has to be created for a neutral country, and the historic one still fits the bill.
The Great Northern War may have been three centuries ago but it still resonates in Sweden as what created the country’s modern identity, including its neutrality. Invoking the Russian bogeyman is convenient for both sides. Those who support Sweden’s traditional role can point to how successful it has been in keeping the Russians out, in contrast to eighteenth-century policies and those adopted in countries nearby. Those who want more Swedish international involvement, or money for weapons, can cite every new development in Russia as evidence that this policy is now outdated.
There are indeed tensions in the Baltic region, and these tensions do involve Sweden – apparent violations of air and sea space, intelligence activity by both sides. But Sweden is not interested in attacking anyone, and Russia would find it diplomatically impossible to attack Sweden even if it wanted to. Only NATO has anything to gain from increasing threats in the area, as this might just bring Sweden into line.
More than five columns
In May this year the Swedish government once again ruled out applying for NATO membership, despite much diplomatic urging. The Swedish parliament did however allow NATO more access to its territory, seemingly as a quid pro quo.
Significantly, Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist explained the rejection of NATO membership by saying “We will not be part of a situation that could be used by others to create a higher level of tension”. There is indeed abundant evidence that the same playbook is being adhered to yet again.
Back in 2014 Wilhelm Unge, chief analyst of Sweden’s counterintelligence services, was warning that Russia was conducting air training exercises which indicated that it was going to try some sort of military action in the future.
As ever, no reason could be given for why any attack would be made, nor was it pointed out that both NATO and Swedish Armed Forces exercises are likewise based on theoretical scenarios. These are things an intelligence operative might be expected to know before making such statements, but not in soundbites aimed at influencing the public.
Newsweek has published an opinion piece on the relocation of troops to Gotland, explaining it as a rational response to Russian aggression. This article is swift to mention the fact that Sweden is not a NATO member, and then lists a number of supposed Russian “provocations” which has led to this decision being taken.
It is also co-authored by Daniel Kochis and Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation, the notorious neocon think tank which has been involved in the whole gamut of illegal arms trading, disinformation and “democracy promotion” exercises. Do an internet search and see for yourself how assiduously these two individuals have been promoting the idea of a Russian attack on the Baltic States, and where, and who must have invited them to.
Various articles have begun appearing on Swedish websites, including government-run sites, which originate from an organisation called Almedalsveckan. These purport to be about women’s rights, and other humanitarian issues, in Syria. The trouble is, their texts actually emanate from the Syrian opposition, the bodies being funded and armed by NATO, not independent aid agencies, and advocate helping that opposition and its helpers to achieve the goals of the organisation. Oddly enough these articles are linked to www.gotland.net.
At one time Western cities were infested with Hare Krishna monks, who were asking for money to feed the homeless but were actually raising money for their mission, whether or not it was used to feed the homeless, without announcing who they were. These articles are designed to serve the same end: if you support the good cause, you put yourself on one side, and must therefore support the strings attached, like the NATO position on invasion and continual war, without being asked your opinion.
Several members of the heterogeneous but permanent opposition coalition in Sweden have started to come out in favour of NATO membership, even though public opinion does not – yet – support that view. Even Ulf Holm, a prominent member of the Greens who are in coalition with the Social Democrats, has connections with both the websites carrying the Syrian opposition material and NATO. It is not Russia but NATO which is attacking Sweden, albeit from within, and only NATO and not Russia which has an overriding motive for doing so.
Laying down your friends for your life
No country would be neutral if it didn’t work. For some it doesn’t. Belgian neutrality was breached in both world wars because the belligerents were defended against each other, and it isn’t going to make the same mistake again.
But what we are seeing now is a repeat of what happened in the 1980s, when Cuba had the rotating leadership of the non-aligned movement. In NATO thinking, an avowedly Communist country which repeatedly attacked American “imperialism” must be on the other side rather than non-aligned. Cue a slew of press stories about “international concerns” over Cuba’s leadership of the non-aligned movement and where it was heading, from the same media which welcomed equally-Communist China’s desire to join the non-aligned movement to counter the Soviets.
NATO can’t be what it wants to be now because the non-aligned states got there first. They are already the peace promotion body NATO now wants to be. They reject the NATO way of peace and do it successfully. Therefore for NATO to work they have to be brought under its umbrella, or split off to create new killing fields, as Iraq was.
Sweden can afford to ignore NATO and NATO knows it. It is not economically dominated by either NATO countries or Russia, and is an export-oriented country which is doing better out of the EU than most. Furthermore, its own defence needs would drop ever-further down NATO’s list if it joined, for reasons Sweden’s independent-spirited electors would find difficult to understand.
Unfortunately however there will always be lots of willing targets within Sweden’s military and political classes for this latest assault on a sovereign nation, as long as the Russians can be held responsible. This is the ultimate proof that Russian aggression against Sweden in a fiction. Why would Russia try and destroy Sweden when NATO and some Swedish egos are doing it for them?
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.