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Long-neutral Sweden beefs up military defenses to face Russia threat

May 25, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Twelve years ago, Sweden demilitarized the strategic island of Gotland, deeming Russia a non-threat. But times have changed, and Sweden has been beefing up its defenses in the face of increasing Russian aggression. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: As we reported earlier, President Trump was at NATO headquarters today in Brussels.

The decades-old NATO alliance has found new meaning of late. The main cause? Russian muscle-flexing in Europe and beyond. Several European nations are not members of the alliance, including Sweden. And now Swedes are enlarging their military in new ways, preparing for an old threat.

From the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Twelve years after Sweden deemed post-Soviet Russia to be weak and demilitarized Gotland, the army is back. Times have changed. Gotland is no longer immune from danger.

A 300-strong battle group, including a part-time tank company, will be in place by July. Until then, the island has become a stage for war games, sending a deterrent message to the Kremlin.

Sergeant Major Henrik Wulff:

SGT. MAJ. HENRIK WOLF, Swedish Armed Forces (through interpreter): Now, this is part of their basic military training, training as squads and platoons. But, of course, Gotland is Swedish, and we will protect Gotland to any means necessary.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The recruits are learning to protect themselves from a surprise attack. For a country that epitomizes peace, that’s a difficult scenario to grasp.

Sweden has not fought a war since 1814. It has nurtured its neutrality for over 200 years. During the Cold War, it was neutral because it was suspicious of both the superpowers. But now Russian muscle-flexing is jangling Swedish nerves.

The government is promising to increase defense spending by 11 percent over the next five years and it is to reintroduce conscription. Gotland is a popular Nordic tourist destination. It’s main town, Visby, the best-preserved fortified commercial city in Northern Europe, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The island, a three-hour ferry ride from the Swedish mainland, is vulnerable because of its strategic location, close to Latvia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where a quarter of a million military personnel are based.

Colonel Matthias Ardin.

COL. MATTHIAS ARDIN, Swedish Armed Forces: Gotland is an area in the middle of the Baltic Sea. From this island, it is possible to influence both air and sea ways within the area.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Colonel Ardin commands Swedish forces on Gotland.

COL. MATTHIAS ARDIN: Russia is putting a lot of money into their military force. We have a deteriorating security situation within the Baltics. We are trying to enhance our military capabilities.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But do you think Russia is going to look at some of these exercises and just laugh because you are hopelessly outnumbered?

COL. MATTHIAS ARDIN: I think Russia follows the developments in the Baltic region like every other nation does.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Last week, the Swedish defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, was at the Pentagon, raising concerns with Defense Secretary James Mattis.

PETER HULTQVIST, Swedish Defense Minister: From my perspective, Russia is the main challenge. Russia challenged the European security order. This has a destabilizing impact on Northern Europe and beyond.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Four years ago, Russia simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden as part of a military exercise. Its submarines and agents have also reportedly been probing Swedish defenses.

But political scientist Mi Lennhag, a former Foreign Ministry Russia specialist, believes the Kremlin is bluffing.

MI LENNHAG, Lund University: I think that Putin and Kremlin, Russia, want a bipolar world again, where Putin is a greater man than Trump, and especially to destabilize Europe, to make sure that Europe and Sweden in this case and the Baltics actually know that Russia is strong and powerful — and it is — and that the major goal is to make people aware of it, not to really act on it.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Russia’s psychological offensive has forced Sweden to address defense personnel shortages caused by young people’s reluctance to sign up after the draft was abolished in 2010.

The government is introducing a form of targeted conscription that will compel 4,000 18-year-olds to undergo military training every year.

SGT. MAJ. HENRIK WOLF: Our professional soldiers are very, very good. But quantity is also a quality. And we need more troops in Sweden. And the conscript system is an excellent way for that.

MALCOLM BRABANT: High school student Albin Gahm is one of 100,000 eligible Swedes who’ll be subjected to what is effectively a draft lottery.

ALBIN GAHM, Student: Many of us don’t want to fight. I don’t want to fight either, but I know, if I have to, I will do it. But it’s really divided.

FABIAN LINDHE, Student: I prefer to spend my life as I want to and die when I want to, instead of having the chance of ending when I don’t want to.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This air vent represents another impact of the Russian threat. It’s happening underneath places like this government-subsidized housing project on the outskirts of Gotland’s main town.

Garage 71 has a dual purpose. Behind its heavy metal gate, it’s not only a repository for old cars, but also one of 60,000 shelters built during the Cold War, when Sweden feared being caught in the crossfire of a nuclear conflagration.

They were mothballed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but, as a result of the current tensions, the Swedish Contingency Agency has ordered that the 350 bunkers on Gotland be restocked and prepared.

This shelter is designed to protect about 200 people. We are about 10 feet underground. And this reinforced concrete is supposed to be able to take a direct hit in a conventional war.

In another part of the island at a Cold War military bunker, now a museum, custodian Kjell Pettersson laments the return of historical tensions.

KJELL PETTERSSON, Museum Custodian (through interpreter): I really hope that a conflict won’t happen. But in today’s world, where so much is happening in the world around us, you just don’t know. So, I am a bit worried.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The medieval walls that ring Visby were useless in 1808, when a Russian force temporarily took control of Gotland, before being expelled by the Swedes. In such tranquil surroundings, it’s hard for some residents to comprehend that this is once again a potential front line.

MARIA JAMES, Gotland Resident: I would say, as a Swede, we’re still in the mind-set that we’re a neutral country and war cannot happen to us. But I guess we have to reevaluate this.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Maria James is a planning official with the local government. She’s married to David James, an American security expert who hails from Virginia.

MARIA JAMES: If they want, they can take Gotland in a matter of days, I guess, or hours even. So I would probably more inclined just to roll over, because I don’t want any casualties. And I don’t want them to use force.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The family is standing besides a component of Gotland’s defenses. This unprepossessing garage also contains a bomb shelter.

DAVID JAMES, Gotland Resident: I’m not at all positive about the future, because, I mean, how can you be positive with Trump as president? He’s something of a wild card. And the combination of Trump and Putin and North Korea and others, it just really makes things seem like, well, anything could happen really.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Russia’s aggression is creating a dilemma for the Swedes. They’re being pushed ever closer to NATO, but are resisting membership, an act that President Putin would regard as hostile.

Gotland’s deputy mayor, Meit Fohlin, reflects the view of the governing Social Democratic Party.

MEIT FOHLIN, Deputy Mayor, Gotland: It is better to be free and to have our cooperations where we want them to be. I think that neutrality has served us well up to this day, and I think it is the right way even in the future.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Later this summer, these training exercises will be supplanted by a much bigger war game involving 20,000 Swedish troops, as well as 1,000 U.S. personnel.

Despite Sweden’s fears, it’s not about to join NATO, but Defense Secretary Mattis gave this pledge:

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Secretary of Defense: America will not abandon democratic allies and partners. And we will stand with Sweden, and all democracies will stand together.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The country’s best defense may ultimately be the neutrality upon which it’s relied. But being neutral doesn’t mean not being ready.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Gotland.

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