New Swedish defence policy: Baltic militarisation and the Russian threat


20 | 09 | 2021


Sweden has abandoned its historic neutrality to embrace an Atlanticism that could even bring it into NATO if Russian pressure increases.

In the picture

Swedish Army Special Forces [Swedish Armed Forces].

Swedish foreign policy since the 19th century has been based on a clear principle: neutrality. This policy was established by King Charles XIV (1818-1844) and has been steadfastly followed by Swedish rulers, especially during the Cold War era. However, things began to change with the collapse of the USSR and the rise to power of Carl Bildt in 1991, when Sweden began to move towards a defence policy more aligned with the interests of NATO, of which it is not a member.

Since then Sweden has gradually abandoned its strict neutrality. Already during the Bildt government (1991-1994), Stockholm began to assist the Baltic states in their accession to independence and their subsequent distancing from Moscow, both economically and politically. In addition, the Swedish army began to participate with troops in NATO manoeuvres.

Neutrality had been advocated mainly by the dominant Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP), while partnership with the Atlantic Alliance was called for by the conservative civil service examination Moderate Party, which eventually came to power under Bildt. In recent years, however, increasing the defence budget has become a consensus topic , although NATO membership is still a divisive issue.

This paper analyses how Russian foreign policy may have affected Swedish rearmament and the impact this may have on the Baltic security status for Russia, NATO and Sweden.

The Russian threat

Because of its geographical position as the country with the longest coastline on the Baltic, Sweden is an important player in US and EU relations with Russia. The fear of Russian invasion has historically been very present in Sweden, which is why Swedish leaders have preferred a policy of appeasement and neutrality. This, however, has not prevented the region from experiencing a relatively tense status today, with accusations of espionage directed at Moscow and Russian military activities in the Baltic.

Moscow espionage

On 26 February 2019, Yevgeny Umerenko, an agent of the Russian Federal Intelligence Service (SVR), was arrested in Sweden while interacting with Swede Kristen Dmitreivski, who had worked for Volvo and Scania and allegedly shared technological information obtained from his computer from work. The Swedish Intelligence Service (SÄPO) determined that the theft of information concerned the country's defence secrets.

SÄPO counter-espionage chief Daniel Stenling warned that this was not an isolated episode, but that "attacks on Sweden from other countries have broadened and deepened in recent years. They are aimed above all at our economic prosperity and our fundamental freedoms and rights. In the last year alone, the (service) has investigated both assassination attempts and illegal intelligence activities, and also espionage".

In addition to these statements , two reports have pointed to the risk posed to Sweden by Russian intelligence. The first, published by SÄPO in March 2019, identifies Russia as the main threat to Sweden's security. According to SÄPO analysts, Russia has developed a 'grey zone doctrine', an offensive designed to gain influence in Sweden and other countries without actually initiating a military conflict. Thus, the Russians are allegedly collecting sensitive data that can be used to destabilise the country. According to report, the activities of Russian agents are said to consist of propaganda information actions, cyber attacks and acquisitions of companies and strategic technologies, among others. For many Swedes this harks back to the Cold War, reminding them of cases such as Stig Begling, the SÄPO officer who for years spied in Sweden for the KGB.

The second report was published by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (Välisluureamet). According to agreement with Estonian officials, Russian agents have reportedly supported Eurosceptic parties in both Estonia and Sweden in recent years. The research also points to Russian preparations for military action against the Baltic states in case the Kremlin loses influence in the region with the fall of the Lukashenko government in Belarus.

Military movements

In addition to espionage threats, Russia has posed a military threat to Sweden since Moscow's attempts to re-assert itself in former USSR territories, such as the war with Georgia in 2008 and especially the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Swedish government has focused primarily on the activities of the Russian navy in the Baltic, especially in the waters around the Swedish island of Gotland.

Already in 2013 Russia was denounced by Denmark for having violated its airspace more than 40 times, and in March 2014 the Russian military conducted military manoeuvres very close to the Finnish border. Alarm bells began ringing in Sweden in October 2014, when SÄPO detected communications between Kaliningrad and the Stockholm archipelago and there was a sighting of what appeared to be a submarine, although the Swedish navy was unable to locate it.

Most recently, in August 2020, the Russian navy was making movements in the maritime area near the island of Gotland. In addition, on their journey from St Petersburg to Kaliningrad, Russian ships came very close to Lithuanian and Latvian territorial waters. This may have been a Russian response to the tension in Belarus at the time, either as a diversionary manoeuvre or as a warning that any European interference in Belarus could be met by Moscow with a threat in the Baltic.

At a virtual roundtable organised by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, the Swedish Navy's manager , Rear Admiral Ewa Skoog Haslum, warned that the risks for Sweden could be great if Russian military activities are not controlled, as they could lead to a blockade of shipping through the Baltic Sea, which is vital for Sweden's Economics . Haslum stressed the importance of partnership between Sweden and NATO, especially with the US Second Fleet, to ensure the protection of Sweden's long coastline.  

This Russian activity in the Baltic is viewed with concern by the Swedish population. A PewResearch poll indicated that only 12 per cent of Swedes have a favourable opinion of Russia.

Swedish political context

In recent years, both the attitude of Sweden's political class and the electorate itself have seen a shift towards a more Atlanticist tendency, in contrast to Sweden's traditional neutral stance throughout its history.

The Swedish Social Democratic Party has ruled the country for most of its recent democratic history. Social Democratic leaders such as Tage Erlander and Olof Palme established a foreign policy based on neutrality. The change began with the coming to power of Carl Bildt of the Moderate Party in 1991. Together with Denmark, Bildt supported the construction of the new independent Baltic states - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - and thus confronted Russia. This line of change was then followed by his successors, regardless of political colour, up to the current prime minister, Stefan Löfven.  

The position of Löfven's social democratic government is characterised by the "Hultqvist Doctrine", named after the current Minister of Defence, Peter Hultqvist. Under this doctrine Sweden will collaborate with the US and NATO in its activities in the Baltic, where it also cooperates with Finland, while at the same time significantly increasing the budget military. The goal is to guarantee the country's defence through strategic alliances, without Sweden being bound by any international treaty that might oblige it to become involved beyond the realm of national security.

On the other hand, since Ulf Kristersson's rise to leadership, the Moderate Party has radicalised its Atlanticist positions and in the 2018 elections proposed Sweden's membership of NATO entrance . The Centre Party, led by Annie Lööf and currently the government's main supporter, also advocates entrance. The third largest party in the Riksdag, Sweden Democrats, known for its sovereigntist and anti-immigration stances, has recently changed its position and is sample in favour of Sweden's entrance membership in the Atlantic Alliance. This means that the Social Democrats and the Left Party are the only parties in the Riksdag opposed to membership and thus there is an Atlanticist majority in the Swedish legislature for the first time in its history.

Public opinion is more divided than party opinion. According to a poll published in December 2020 by the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, 33% of Swedes would be in favour of a application of entrance in NATO, while 35% would be against. This represents a 50 per cent increase in support for membership compared to 2018.

Over the past year, polls have recorded an upward trend for the Moderates, which, given their clear Atlanticist positions, especially those of their leader Ulf Kristersson, may be related to Sweden's growing concern over the threat posed by Russia. However, the same polls specify that the Moderates' bloc with the Christian Democrats and Sweden Democrats would not be enough to defeat the bloc supporting the Social Democrats.

Swedish shares

Russia's military actions in the Baltics have had the effect of bringing sections of society and Sweden's political class closer to NATO and aligning Sweden with the United States. In this context, while remaining opposed to NATO membership, the Social Democrats have modified their traditional foreign policy and the Löfven government has taken a number of actions.

One of the first was the revival in 2017 of compulsory military service, which had been abolished in 2010. For this, 'national security reasons' were cited, in a veiled reference letter reference to the Russian threat. In 2018 the Swedish army enlisted 4,000 young people for a 12-month service.

The next measure was a large increase of expense in defence. In December 2020 the Riksdag approved a 40 per cent increase in the national defence budget , totalling 89 billion kronor (about $11 billion). "There are many indications that Russia's military capabilities in absolute terms will increase over the next 10 years," reads the proposal adopted. The plan will see the armed forces grow from the current 55,000 troops to 90,000 by 2030. Several disbanded regiments will be reestablished and the issue of recruits will increase by 8,000 annually, a doubling from 2019. The Navy will receive new equipment and there will be improvements in weaponry.

Another action was the 2016 troop surge on Gotland Island, a Swedish island in the middle of the Baltic. "We have a strong Russia that has much more military activity than before and we see what is happening in Ukraine, so we see a deterioration of the security status ," said Gotland garrison commander Mattias Ardin. In April 2019 the Swedish government began construction of new facilities for the 282 soldiers full-time that make up the garrison and to house several dozen tanks and armoured vehicles.

In addition, during Löfven's tenure, the Swedish Army has conducted a number of activities and manoeuvres in cooperation with NATO troops. An example of this is Sweden's cooperation with NATO in the exercise in March 2019. North Wind in March 2019, which involved 10,000 troops and partnership from Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. Another example is the docking in October 2020 of NATO ships in Swedish ports as part of maritime manoeuvres. Also in September 2017, the largest deployment of Swedish troops for training in almost a quarter of a century, operation Aura 17, took place in September 2017, with the deployment of 150 troops and the cooperation of units from several NATO countries, including the United States, Norway, France and Denmark.


goal The growing instability in areas that Moscow considers its "near abroad", such as Ukraine and Belarus, is perceived by the Kremlin as a threat to Russia, prompting President Vladimir Putin to increase the actions of Russian soldiers in the Baltics, with the aim of distracting NATO and the EU from intervening in his area of interest. These activities provoke tension and polarisation in Sweden that pushes public opinion and the political class towards Atlanticist positions. This prompts the Swedish government to act accordingly and increase its partnership with NATO, which increases tension with Russia, which in turn escalates its activities in the region.

While for decades Sweden represented neutrality in the region, Sweden's new defence policy, based on standing up to Russia, has all countries with interests in the Baltic aligned against Moscow (whether they are in NATO or not).

Although the government remains opposed to Sweden's NATO membership entrance , it cannot be denied that the Riksdag currently has an Atlanticist majority, so even if the Social Democrats remain in power after the 2022 elections it is likely that the country will eventually seek membership, especially if there is no change in Russian foreign policy. A Swedish membership of NATO entrance would have a double effect.

The first would be the total polarisation of the Baltic and the possible dragging into the Alliance of Finland as well, although this is not guaranteed given the long border between Finland and Russia, where there could be a future increase in militarisation. If both Stockholm and Helsinki join NATO, all countries with a Baltic coastline except Russia would be NATO members, increasing the potential for conflict.

At the EU level, Sweden's entrance in NATO would tip the balance of the common foreign policy towards the United States, maintaining a closer partnership with Washington, something towards which member states such as Poland and the Baltic states are already aiming.