Peace Time: Sweden Sends A Warning


February 21, 2018: For the first time since 1961 Sweden is preparing for distribution (to all 4.7 million households) a brochure describing what they should do in the event war (as in a Russian invasion). Reflecting the sharp political differences on the possibility of war, the brochure will also cover similar actions Swedes should take if the catastrophe is some aspect of the “Climate Change” threat or a massive hacker or terror attack.

Neighbors of Sweden have played down Climate Change, hackers and terrorists and concentrated on the Russian threat. Across the Baltic Sea NATO members Lithuania and Latvia has issued similar publications to all their citizens. Lithuania led the way when, in late 2016, a 75 page “how to survive another Russian occupation” manual appeared. What all citizens received was called; "Prepare to survive emergencies and war." Lithuania has plenty of experience with being invaded and occupied by Russia and wants to remind its citizens what works, especially now that Lithuania has a mutual defense treaty with the United States and all other NATO members operates (not fast enough to keep the Russians out). The “prepare to survive” guide provides tips on how to behave when dealing with the invader while also spying on the occupation force. The manual provides illustrations and description of most Russian weapons and details of how the Russians use secret police, local informants and special operations troops to try and control an occupied population. The manual also points out that Russia will send in agents (or activate ones it has already recruited) before an invasion and provides tips on how to detect the presence of these agents, especially in preparation for an imminent invasion.

Sweden is aware of all these threats the Baltic States publications discuss but for Sweden it has always been theoretical. Sweden has never been invaded and has not been involved in any wars since 1814. All of their neighbors have not that successful. For NATO members and nations that regained their independence with the Soviet Union dissolved, the threat of invasion and occupation is a recent experience. Combined, all three Baltic States have barely two-thirds the population of Sweden and less than half the GDP per capita as well. Despite this the Baltic States have been energetically expanding their military capabilities, something the Swedes used to a world leader at.

Throughout the Cold War (1948-91) Sweden actively prepared for the possibility of an attack by Russia. That ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union but the threat returned starting in 2008 and has grown since then. This is part of a basic shift in Swedish defense attitudes. Most Swedes now favor joining NATO. Even without NATO membership Sweden has entered into a growing number of military agreements with NATO members.

Since the Soviet Union fell apart many Russian neighbors have prepared for the worst. In 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined NATO, putting parts of the former Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) within NATO and on Russia’s border. Many Russians do not like this, for Russian policy since 1945 has been to establish a "buffer" of subservient countries between Russian territory and the rest of Western Europe (especially Germany). This attitude is obsolete in a practical sense but old habits die hard.

Russia is right about some things. Several of its neighbors can be a threat to Russia. Taking advantage of that in 2016 Sweden and Denmark agreed to a number of joint operating and cooperation measures that would enable both nations, which together control the entrance to the Baltic Sea, to more effectively employ that control in wartime. The agreement involves joint maintenance and basing arrangements as well as new rules that make it easier to ships and aircraft from both nations to easily operate in each other’s territory. Sweden has a larger problem because it, unlike Denmark, does not belong to NATO and is also a lot closer to Russia. Then again Denmark experienced German invasion and occupation during World War II and was one of the founding members of NATO.

The Denmark agreement, and several others, were the result of Swedish politicians finally, in 2015, agreeing with their military leaders about the fact that over two decades of reductions in their military had made the country unable to do much about any aggressive moves by Russia. This despite the fact the Russian armed forces have been reduced 80 percent since 1991. The massive cuts to Swedish defense were based on the belief that the post-Soviet and democratic Russia would not return to the threatening ways employed during 70 years of communist and centuries of tsarist rule. To the dismay of many (including a lot of Russians) the Russian leadership did revert and are now threatening their neighbors. The bad old days are back and the neighbors have to be prepared.

Even before the Cold War ended Sweden had begun dismantling its formidable World War II era armed forces. In 1990 Sweden had an active force of 63,000 troops, 75 percent of them conscripts getting their training before going into the reserves. That reserve force had over 700,000 troops. The armed forces had over 1,500 armored vehicles, even more artillery and mortars plus over 450 combat aircraft, over fifty warships (including twelve submarines) and well thought out and practiced plans to quickly mobilize and fight. Historically that was all fairly recent and came to be in the early 1940s. Back then, alarmed at how ill-prepared they were for a German invasion the Swedes declared themselves neutral in 1940, agreed to allow Germany access to Norway via Sweden and supply essential ores for German industry. Meanwhile before the war was over Sweden had quietly built up a large army based on the Swiss model. This force began to shrink in the 1980s and in 2008 it was decided to go even further by freezing the defense budget at about five billion dollars a year through 2014. At the same time it was decided to raise the readiness of its active duty units for deployment overseas on peacekeeping missions. To accomplish this the old self-defense forces was gradually disbanded. That meant the deactivation of several infantry and tank units so it could improve the readiness of the remaining 12,500 troops who were now eligible for peacekeeping deployment. The 2008 plan meant that some 30 percent of the infantry units were be cut along with half the 150 Leopard 2 tanks. With the Soviet Union gone Sweden did not see the need to have as many tanks on active duty. During the Cold War, the Swedes could mobilize up to a million troops. By 2008 this had been reduced to 330,000 and was to be reduced still more after 2008.

Military leaders are not happy with all this, but the politicians, legislature and voters had spoken. The Swedes were still able to mobilize over 30,000 troops in a few hours, for any military emergency or natural disaster. Unfortunately the 2008 plan was put together the same year Russia unexpectedly invaded its tiny southern neighbor Georgia. That made many Swedes nervous and they were right to be concerned because the Russians became increasingly aggressive and by 2014 were again secretly sending submarines into Swedish territorial waters and had openly invaded Ukraine (and annexing part of it). Russia began making public threats to most of their European neighbors and in 2015 was fighting in Syria and threatening to go to war with Turkey.

It was not easy for Sweden to rebuild its defenses. For example in 2011 Sweden realized it was running out of soldiers. This was mainly because in 2010 Sweden abolished conscription. Sweden had been reducing the size of its armed forces since the 1990s and has been discussing the mechanics of abolishing conscription for years. As a result of that by 2010 fewer (only 10,000 a year) young men were being conscripted, and for shorter (11 months) terms. With conscription gone, Sweden thought they could rely on volunteers, serving for longer terms of service. Sweden wanted a more capable force, and raised standards to get it. In 2000 Sweden was drafting 50,000 men a year. But the new plan, to recruit 16,000 volunteers by 2014, was soon in trouble. By 2011 only half the needed recruits are joining. Most of the new troops would be reservists, part-time soldiers who would only be called to full-time duty as needed (for an emergency, or a peacekeeping mission for which there were not enough "career" or active duty soldiers available.) The recruiting shortfalls meant that career troops will be going on peacekeeping missions more often, thus encouraging many of them to leave the military. Sweden revived conscription starting in 2018 and is trying to rebuild the Cold War era defense force. In 2017 it held its first large scale mobilization exercise since the mid-1990s.

Swedes now realize that the Russian threat is real and growing. The Swedes are now more aware of their precarious defenses but have not really done much to remedy the problem. Going back to the old “reserve army” will require the reintroduction of conscription and that is not popular. It is really all up to the Russians. If they become a scary enough threat the Swedes will rearm, otherwise it is mostly posturing and angst.

Denmark has always had a much smaller military (and population and GDP) than Sweden but even with NATO membership has been seeking ways to increase its security in the face of growing Russian aggression. Other Nordic nations (Finland and Norway) are also rearming and seeking allies to deal with the Russian threats. NATO is likely to do something it never did during the Cold War, welcome Finland and Sweden as members.


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