Sweden shields the island of Gotland while accelerating the debate on joining NATO | International

Magdalena Andersson and Boris Johnson, this Wednesday in Harpsund (Sweden).
Magdalena Andersson and Boris Johnson, this Wednesday in Harpsund (Sweden).FRANK AUGSTEIN (AFP)

The peaceful life of the inhabitants of the island of Gotland has been altered in recent months. For the first time in many years, Swedish soldiers have patrolled the streets or the port of Visby, its capital. In its forests, hundreds of soldiers have been training for weeks with camouflage clothing and live ammunition. And in every house there is a brochure distributed by the authorities that indicates what to do if a war breaks out. While the old ghosts of the Cold War reappear in Gotland, the Swedish political class debates against the clock about the possible entry of the Scandinavian country into NATO.

Gotland’s strategic position, in the middle of the Baltic Sea, has made it a territory coveted by other states in the region for centuries. Its history is plagued by invasions repelled by Sweden. The last one, in 1808, when the troops of Tsar Alexander I of Russia occupied the island for 26 days until they were defeated. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stockholm began to reduce its investment in defense and to disband regiments. In 2005, the last remaining military left Gotland; the Achilles heel of the Nordic country was demilitarized.

Everything changed again in 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea. In the years that followed, Sweden reinstated conscription, reinstated the Gotland Regiment, with its permanent base three miles from Visby, and reinstalled an anti-aircraft defense system. Last January, when more than 100,000 Russian soldiers awaited orders at the Ukraine border, hundreds of Swedish soldiers flew to the Baltic island after the Defense Minister, the Social Democrat Peter Hultqvist, declared that the possibility could not be “ruled out”. of an attack on Sweden.

“We have grown remarkably strong so far this year, and we are going to grow much more in the years to come,” explains Magnus Frykvall, who has led Sweden’s best-known regiment for less than two months. Today he is in charge of some 400 professional soldiers and some conscripts. “We will be reinforcing until we reach 4,000 troops,” adds the 47-year-old colonel, with experience in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Mali, at the Officers’ Club. “It is not easy to quickly increase the military presence on an island, we have to displace the military from other parts of the country”, explains Frykvall, who considers that he has “the most interesting position that exists today in the Swedish Armed Forces”. Unlike in most countries, Swedish soldiers do not reside on bases, but in apartments. And rental housing in Visby isn’t plentiful.

The dozens of members of the National Guard battalion (military reserve force) on Gotland have also been taking part in a special training program since last week. Since the invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, the number of requests for volunteers who want to join local defense units has skyrocketed throughout Sweden.

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A Swedish National Guard volunteer during military training in Gotland on May 5.
A Swedish National Guard volunteer during military training in Gotland on May 5.STAFF (REUTERS)

“A gigantic aircraft carrier impossible to sink”

Gotland —with an area similar to that of Mallorca, but with a population 15 times smaller (just over 60,000 people)— has been defined by various analysts as “a gigantic aircraft carrier impossible to sink”. Frykvall assures that “who controls Gotland, can dominate the air and maritime space of the southern Baltic”. The possible entry of the Scandinavian country into NATO, an increasingly close option, would offer the transatlantic organization a privileged position for the defense of some of its allies, mainly Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Located 300 kilometers from the Kaliningrad enclave, where Kremlin forces store Iskander nuclear missiles, the island’s airspace has been violated since the start of the war at least four times by Russian fighters and electronic warfare aircraft (designed to degrade the effectiveness of radio and radar systems). In his speech before the Swedish Parliament, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, highlighted the vulnerability of the Baltic island: “In Moscow there is already a discussion about how to invade Gotland,” he said.

In the medieval streets of Visby (population 24,000), solidarity with Ukraine is palpable. Flags of the attacked country have been placed in some windows; and in others, posters insulting the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. In early March, more than 2,000 people showed their support for kyiv in one of the largest rallies ever to take place on the island. But in addition to the fraternal gestures, new measures continue to be taken to strengthen the security of Gotland. Finance Minister Max Elger announced last week that 1.6 billion Swedish kronor (155 million euros) will be invested in renovating and expanding facilities and infrastructure used to protect the island. The provincial authorities have also launched plans to guarantee that in the event of a crisis there will be no shortage of medicines, fuel or the chemical products necessary to purify the water.

Magnus Frykvall, in April at the Gotland Regiment base.
Magnus Frykvall, in April at the Gotland Regiment base.Swedish Armed Forces

In a square next to the monumental ruins of the church of Santa Catalina, Jonas Persson tries, despite the rain, to teach his four-year-old son to ride a bicycle. Persson, who moved to Visby 20 months ago, is clear that the Scandinavian country must join the Atlantic Alliance: “It is time for realpolitik; now they don’t touch philosophical debates”, says this 38-year-old graphic designer. “Are there any Ukrainians left who don’t want to join NATO?” he asks.

Another resident of Gotland, Linnéa Lindberg, remembers well the years of the Cold War in which there were up to 25,000 Swedish soldiers on the island -almost one for every two inhabitants- and in which the population was denied access to many areas . At 63, she comments in a Visby cafeteria that until this year she had always been “radically against” Sweden giving up its non-alignment policy and joining NATO, but that “you cannot live in the last”. Lindberg, who acknowledges that in March she stocked up on non-perishable food and found out where the nearest air-raid shelter was, calls for “clear security guarantees”, although she adds that she prefers that there be no permanent foreign troops on Gotland.

Collective therapy of the social democrats

While it is clear that the majority of Gotland’s 60,000 inhabitants support joining the Atlantic Alliance as soon as possible, events unfold in Stockholm. This Wednesday, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, signed with his Swedish counterpart, the Social Democrat Magdalena Andersson, a declaration of mutual security guarantees. “If Sweden is attacked and asks us for support, we will give it to them,” said the conservative president, who added that the military support will not be linked to the final decision that Sweden adopts on joining the Alliance. The Social Democratic Party – winner of all the general elections held in the Scandinavian country since 1914 – is undergoing a kind of collective therapy this week in which it must decide whether to renounce the position defended for decades and choose to support accession to NATO . Initially, the party was not going to announce its final position until the end of May, but its spokesman, Tobias Baudin, pointed out on Monday that the result reached after three days of digital meetings will be announced next Sunday.

The presentation of the new analysis of the security policy of the Scandinavian country, which was scheduled for the end of the month and will take place this Friday in the Riksdag (Parliament), has also been brought forward two weeks. Surveys suggest that support for joining NATO has doubled among the Swedish population; according to an April poll, 57% of citizens are in favor of accession, compared to just over 25% who supported it at the end of last year; a radical change —although less than what has been experienced in Finland— that is reflected in the rush of politicians in Stockholm.

The Social Democrats Lena Hallgren, Minister of Health and Social Affairs, and Ardalan Sherkabi, head of Social Security, have already announced that they are in favor of breaking with the traditional position of the formation that governs in the minority. Four opposition parliamentary forces — Liberals, the Moderate Party (conservative), the Center Party and Christian Democrats — demand that the procedures for entry begin as soon as possible, at the NATO summit to be held at the end of June in Madrid. And they have added to the cause the far-right Swedish Democrats party, the third party with the most representation in the Riksdag. The Left Party and the Greens continue to flatly reject the option of joining the transatlantic military bloc. The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, has reiterated on countless occasions that Sweden and Finland have the doors of the Alliance open.

Regardless of what is decided these weeks in Stockholm, in Gotland and in the Baltic Sea, military exercises (Baltops 2022) will take place in mid-June in which soldiers from 20 NATO members will participate, one more example of the close relationship that Sweden and Finland have maintained in the last decade with the military organization. “Cooperation is useful, but being part of the Alliance is what offers you security guarantees,” emphasizes Colonel Frykvall.

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