Murphy's Law: Nervous Nordic Neutrality


January 13, 2022: In late 2021 Sweden began receiving American Patriot air defense systems. In 2018 Sweden ordered four Patriot batteries and several hundred Patriot missiles, both the Pac-2 anti-aircraft version and the Pac-3 BMD (ballistic missile defense) version. Swedish Patriot crews have been training in the United States since 2018. Deliveries to Sweden are to be completed in 2022.

Sweden has been buying American air defense systems since the 1950s but held off on buying Patriot because the main threat, the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991. The Patriot purchase is the largest single foreign defense purchase Sweden has ever made. Sweden has also ordered fifteen UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters from the United States. Sweden will use these primarily for search and rescue, and medical evacuation at home, and on peacekeeping missions. Sweden has a local arms industry and has been placing more orders for Swedish weapons as it returns to Cold War era levels of heavily armed neutrality.

Sweden has been neutral in military affairs for over 200 years and maintained that neutrality during the two World Wars and the Cold War. But now Sweden is becoming an unofficial member of NATO. Historically, the Swedes have often cooperated with NATO countries without any intention of joining the alliance. Sweden is willing to cooperate with NATO in resisting Russian aggression, but does not want to become a NATO member because that would entail the obligation to automatically go to the assistance of any other NATO member who has been attacked. Sweden prefers to maintain its neutrality, just like Switzerland has done for even longer than Sweden. Both Sweden and Switzerland established their current neutral status in the early 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) ended. The Swiss had been actively neutral since the 16th century while Sweden was involved in wars until the Napoleonic Wars. Sweden and Switzerland adopted similar defense organizations, which consisted of a small peacetime force whose main task was to train conscripts for decades of service in the reserves.

Now Swedish and NATO forces are increasingly training and operating together. This includes joint training with American marines since 2016. The latest exercise involved American marines and Swedish troops operating together to defend or take back one of the many small islands off the Swedish coast. Swedish senior military commanders are meeting with their American counterparts to discuss joint operations to deter Russian aggression that now extends from Ukraine to the Baltic Sea and coastal areas of NATO member Norway. Sweden has to decide how they will coordinate operations with neighbors and NATO in general if Russia attempts to grab more territory.

East European NATO members, especially the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Poland, Denmark and Germany want to keep Russia from disrupting commerce in the Baltic, something the Soviets long threatened. Sweden leans towards doing all it can to curb the current round of Russian aggression, something the Swedes have dealt with for centuries. It began over a thousand years ago when Swedish Vikings traded and raided into what is now Russia via major Russian rivers like the Neva and Vistula, both of which allowed Viking longboats to travel deep into Russia. The earliest of these Nordic raiders were known as the Rus, who eventually became Russia because in the 800s they captured Kiev and used it as the center of a kingdom that came to include Kiev, portions of modern Belarus and Russia. This was the first Russian state and by the 1200s the locals were in charge although they maintained some Nordic words and customs for centuries after that. By the 1700s the Russians were strong enough to fight a series of wars for control of territories bordering the Baltic up until Sweden went neutral in 1815 and made it stick. The Swedes are not so sure the current Russian government is willing to respect Swedish neutrality and are preparing for the worst. While Sweden does not believe Russia is actively planning on invading Sweden, they believe Russians are serious about taking back the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and Polish territory on the east bank of the Vistula River. This part of Poland currently borders the isolated Russian Kaliningrad territory, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. This would involve bringing NATO into a major war and Sweden knows, and openly admits, which side it is on.

By 2020 the Swedish parliament voted to increase defense spending 40 percent during the next five years. By 2025 annual defense spending will be $11 billion. This was the largest increase since the 1950s and repeats a reaction not seen since then, when Sweden realized that Russia was once more a major threat. For 2021 the defense spending was $5.6 billion. The increased spending enables the armed forces to grow from the current 55,000 full time personnel to 90,000 by 2030. Many army units disbanded after 1991 are being revived. New warships and combat aircraft, as well as new weapons for the ground forces are on order. Conscription is being expanded to increase the reserves and the number of troops that can be mobilized in an emergency.

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. During the 1990s 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, these military preparations were fairly recent and first appeared in the early 1940s. Back then, alarmed at how ill-prepared they were for a German invasion after 1939, the Swedes negotiated a neutrality agreement with Germany in 1940. This included allowing German forces access to German-occupied Norway via Sweden and a steady supply of essential ores for German industry. Before World War II was over in 1945 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 were 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 operations overseas. The 2008 plan meant that some 30 percent of the infantry units were to be eliminated along with half the 150 German 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.

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. All of this contributed to a fundamental shift in Swedish defense attitudes. After 2014, with Russia declaring the West a dangerous foe of Russia, most Swedes favored joining NATO. Even without NATO membership Sweden has entered into a growing number of military agreements with NATO members.

There were some other reactions that were, literally, closer to home. In 2018 Sweden did something it had not done since 1961, it put together a brochure on dealing with a national emergency. The pamphlet was for distribution to all 4.7 million households. The brochure contained advice on what to do in the event of war, as in a Russian invasion. At the time there were some sharp political differences on the possibility of war, so the brochure also covered similar actions Swedes should take if the catastrophe was some aspect of the “Climate Change” threat or a massive hacker or terror attack.

Since 2018 Russia has pushed aside all other potential catastrophes and focused attention on how to prepare for an old, before the Cold War ended in 1991, threat. That explains and justifies the sharp increase in defense spending and the return of conscription.

Neighbors of Sweden have reacted in a similar fashion and concentrated on the Russian threat. The Baltic States have plenty of experience with being invaded and occupied by Russia and remind its citizens that the mutual defense treaty with the United States and all other NATO members will not keep the Russians out. NATO membership does not guarantee reinforcements quickly enough to keep the Russians out so the Baltic States organized their forces to delay the Russian advance and actively fight Russian troops for however long the occupation lasted.

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 willing to do something it never did during the Cold War, welcome Finland and Sweden as members either officially or unofficially.

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 been invaded or dragged into a war. For NATO members and nations that regained their independence when 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 be a world leader at. Now Sweden is returning to its traditional doctrine of well-armed neutrality, but with less emphasis on neutrality.

No one expected this after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That marked the end of the Cold War, followed by the Soviet era armed forces shrinking to 20 percent of its 1991 size during the 1990s. Massive cuts to Swedish defense were based on a belief that the post-Soviet and democratic Russia would not return to its 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. While current Russian forces are still a fifth the size of the 1991 forces, the Russians are seeking to modernize what they have and are acting like Russia was still a superpower. In that respect, the bad old days are back and the neighbors have to be prepared.




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