Sweden has stepped up its military readiness because of the “heightened security situation” in the Baltic Sea as tensions in the region reached their highest level since the cold war.
Swedish television on Tuesday broadcast footage of armoured vehicles disembarking from the ferry on the island of Gotland, alongside holidaymakers driving campervans, as the Scandinavian country sought to send a strong signal to Russia over its increased military activity.
Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times that the deployment was not related to the unrest in Belarus — where Stockholm is seeking to mediate following this month’s disputed election — but to Russian military manoeuvres.
“When Russia is doing a big exercise we have an interest in showing that we have a very strong military in Sweden and that we’re of course prepared for a heightened security situation in our area,” she said.
Johan Wiktorin, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences and head of strategic intelligence firm Intil, said Swedish fighter jets and tanks had been deployed on Gotland — dubbed an “aircraft carrier” in the Baltic Sea — while four corvettes were on exercise nearby alongside a Finnish minesweeper.
He also said a US special forces aircraft landed on Gotland over the weekend as Norwegian fighter jets flew alongside US long-range B-52 bombers in the Arctic.
“Sweden is showing it’s prepared. It’s always better to be prepared than surprised,” Mr Wiktorin said, noting that the last time Sweden publicly lifted its military readiness to this level was following the failed 1991 coup against then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
Jan Thornqvist, commander of joint operations for Sweden’s armed forces, said: “There is currently extensive military activity in the Baltic Sea, conducted by Russian as well as western players, on a scale the likes of which have not been seen since the cold war.”
The turbulence in Belarus, which has been rocked by protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, underscored how unstable events were becoming, he added. He noted Lithuanian claims that a Belarusian military helicopter had entered its airspace over the weekend.
Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister, told local media that the country was “not naive in any way” over Moscow’s assertiveness. “What we’re doing . . . is sending a signal both to our partners and to the Russian side that we stand up for Swedish integrity and sovereignty,” he said.
Ms Linde made the point that the situation was “much more tense in the cold war, and we managed then. She added: “Yes, there’s a little movement in some cases like a military build-up, but I think you might want to see it in a longer perspective.”
Sweden’s armed forces said the threat of a military attack on the country was still low, but Mr Wiktorin said they wanted to be ready to intervene if an incursion were to be made by another country’s vessel or aircraft.
On Belarus, Ms Linde said Sweden understood that neither the opposition nor Mr Lukashenko wanted external interference. She said that Sweden — as the incoming chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which Belarus and Russia are members — was thus already trying to bring the two sides together.
“We don’t see this as a geopolitical conflict where people are against Russia and in favour of the EU. We see this as the rightful claim for democracy and freedom in Belarus,” she added.
Russia’s embassy in Stockholm was not immediately available for comment.