The Russian invasion of Ukraine raised new fears, and the Swedes, carried away by Finland, are expected to reluctantly apply to join the alliance and its collective defenses.
TOFTA, Sweden — The Swedish Army’s Gotland Regiment did its best to practice using its Swedish-designed lightweight anti-tank missiles, the NLAWs, which are proving so effective in Ukraine.
Resurrected in 2018 on this strategic island that helps control the air and sea space of the Baltic Sea, the regiment is rebuilding with the aim of expanding it to 4,000 soldiers out of the current 400 – still far removed from the 25,000 who served here during the Cold War.
In a major rethink of its security posture, accelerated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden is once again learning how to be a military power. And swept along by its strategic partner, Finland, it is about to apply to join NATO, ending more than 200 years of neutrality and military non-alignment.
The new commander of the Gotland regiment, Colonel Magnus Frykvall, has a clear idea of this mission to rebuild the defenses of Sweden, as well as the importance of the island that his regiment guards. “If you own Gotland, you can control sea and air movements throughout the southern Baltic states,” he said.
Joining NATO is a political decision, said Colonel Frykvall, 47, but he is in favor of it. “Collaboration is one thing, an alliance is another,” he said. “An alliance means you have guarantees.”
One of his troops, Pvt. Sara Karlsson, 20, artillery specialist, said that “Every soldier here now feels that we are making a difference, and I also feel it in my colleagues, a new sense of responsibility.”
The world is dangerous and there is always war somewhere, she said. “But Ukraine is not far from Gotland, and we can feel it.”
If Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was a silent wake-up call, February’s bloody, large-scale invasion of Ukraine was a five-alarm fire.
“We had our dream and now it’s time to wake up,” said Robert Dalsjo, director of studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “The dream is over.”
Sentiment in Finland, which has fought two wars against the Soviet Union, has soared in the past six months in favor of joining NATO led by Sauli Niinisto, its president.
Now nearly 80 percent of Finns are in favor of accession, compared to just 20 percent before the war. Thursday, Mr. Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin expressed support for the Finnish application, with a parliamentary vote expected on Monday.
“There is a before and after February 24, the security landscape has completely changed,” she said. “Given the situation, we really need to think about what is best for Sweden and our peace in this new situation.”
The Swedish public has followed, 52 percent now in favor of joining NATO, especially if Finland joins, up from about 27 percent before the war.
On Sunday, after talks with members from all 26 districts of the country, the Social Democrats will announce their decision, said Kenneth G. Forslund, member of the party executive and chair of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations. The consensus is that the party will reluctantly join NATO with Finland.
“We and the Finns belong together,” said Carl Bildt, a former prime minister. “If we were just outside, we’d be a 60s nostalgia museum.”
Few analysts in either country doubt that the two countries will jointly submit an application and that NATO will quickly accept it. Both Washington and London — Washington quiet, London loud — have given both countries bilateral security guarantees as their applications are ratified.
For Sweden and Finland, “times have changed,” says Bjorn Fagersten of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “It’s a new normal, a new world.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Stockholm decided that war was a thing of the past. It removed almost all of its troops from Gotland and reduced the National Army by about 90 percent and the Navy and Air Force by about 70 percent. It was a decision that a retired colonel, Mats Ekeroth, who runs a military museum on Gotland, dismissed as “absolutely idiotic.”
The last time Gotland was invaded was in 1808 – by Russia. The 1,800 Russians were driven out in a month, but as a parting shot, Russia wrested Finland away from the Swedes. Just six years later, in 1814, Sweden fought its last war.
So Russia has always been a threatening presence in the Scandinavian countries. The Russian fleet in Kaliningrad is just 200 miles away, and so are the nuclear-capable Iskander missiles.
“Russia’s conjecture goes back a long way, about 700 years,” said Niklas Granholm, also of the Swedish Defense Research Agency. He added: “This war against Ukraine will not be forgotten for a few generations, that this is how Russia really is.”
People were cold before the invasion when Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin warned Sweden and Finland of “retaliation” if they joined NATO.
“Putin’s direct threats have had the opposite effect,” said Mr. Dalsjo. “The perceived threat level has really risen,” propelling both countries toward NATO entry.
Sweden’s international reputation is one of neutrality, peacekeeping, nuclear disarmament, gender equality and a ‘feminist foreign policy’. Swedes in general, as Mr Bildt quipped, “consider ourselves as the enlightened voice of humanity.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
But the changes are not as sudden as they seem. Even under Olof Palme, whose sharp criticism of the Vietnam War vexed Washington, Sweden had a working relationship with Moscow, but also a close, silent, bilateral defense relationship with the United States.
It was a secret relationship for years, known as “the hidden alliance,” although it was revealed to Moscow by a prominent Swedish spy. As Mr Bildt said, “it was a policy that the Russians knew, but not the Swedes.”
Fighting for nuclear disarmament and peace while trying to “build bridges” to Moscow did not contradict ensuring Sweden’s ability to defend itself with American and British aid.
While Sweden does promote disarmament, it is quietly one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers per capita, with major companies such as Saab, which makes fighter jets, and Bofors, now part of Britain’s BAE Systems.
Sweden also became a major arms exporter; in 2021, the arms industry exported $2 billion worth of weapons, despite restrictions on sales to dictatorships or countries at war – Ukraine is now a big exception.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Sweden and Finland moved closer to the West, abandoning their neutrality to join the European Union in 1992 and NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, while they remained militarily unattached. Both countries participate in NATO exercises.
But even if Russia actually considers both countries to be part of the Western alliance, defense cooperation and guarantees are not guarantees — certainly not of the kind offered by NATO’s Article 5, which obliges member states to collective defence.
“In fact, we paid the costs, but without the benefits of Article 5, and we were not fooling Russia,” said Mr Fagersten. “We were as connected to NATO as a non-member could be.”
But the impending decision has sparked fear in many Swedes as they fear that membership in a nuclear alliance will limit Sweden’s ability to push for nuclear disarmament, arms control and peaceful settlement of disputes.
“That’s not how you build peace and security,” said Gabriella Irsten of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, which strongly condemns the Russian invasion but opposes NATO membership. “You create security together with your enemy – if your enemy is not safe, you are not.”
Non-alignment has served Sweden well “and kept us safe,” she said, so dumping it now seems wrong.
“I also think it would be a loss of our history,” she said. “We’ve been working for so long with the idea of how to build peace, and now it’s being thrown in the dustbin with no real discussion and with all this fear.”
Both the Greens and the Left are against NATO membership for similar reasons.
Marta Stenevi of the Greens said the Russian invasion represented “a re-evaluation of our positions on defense and security” but called for better Swedish defense and closer cooperation with NATO rather than membership, “which comes with certain obligations” , as to wage war in a crisis it does not choose.
And then there’s the daunting possibility, she said, of former President Trump’s return to power.
“We want to actively participate in the crises we choose,” said Ms Stenevi. “Keeping a strong voice for peace and democracy is easier outside the alliance.”
Christina Anderson contributed reporting from Bastad, Sweden, and Johanna Lemola from Helsinki, Finland.