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How Sweden’s new military strategy affects life in the Gothenburg archipelago

The Swedish armed forces have been ramping up their military exercises in recent years to face a "deteriorated" security situation. But residents in the west coast archipelago say the growing presence of troops in the islands makes their home feel almost like a "war zone".

How Sweden's new military strategy affects life in the Gothenburg archipelago
A military exercise in the Gothenburg archipelago in spring 2020. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

The shooting was intensive today, the protest group Skärgårdsuppropet, (“the Archipelago appeal”) wrote on Facebook in late February.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, incessant gunfire could be heard in the southern archipelago of the west-coast city of Gothenburg. “The school on Brännö [one of the islands, ed.] reports that children have gone into hiding in fear of war. It took the staff a long time to calm them down.”

It’s an odd occurrence: the otherwise idyllic archipelago with its weathered rocks, expansive ocean views and absence of traffic can suddenly – and violently – be disrupted by the penetrating blasts of heavy artillery.

For the past decade, the units stationed at the army base in the archipelago have exercised for around 20 days a year. The islanders weren’t exactly keen on the sporadic exercises – but they could live with it. From this year onwards, however, the number of training days has been increased to 115 days. A total of 1.3 million shots may be fired annually.

“It’s totally unreasonable,” Klas Ålander, a Brännö resident and co-initiator of Skärgårdsuppropet commented, adding: “The dialogue between the authorities and the population has been substandard.”

The group is trying to reverse the political decision. But they think their chances of success are small, especially since Sweden decided to considerably expand the army, which has led to a new amphibious regiment in Gothenburg and the increase in military exercises.

After a 16-year period during which “a military attack on Sweden was deemed unlikely”, this view has reached its expiration date. Parliament calls the security situation “deteriorated”. “An armed attack against Sweden cannot be ruled out,” Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist stated last autumn.

Since the beginning of this year, there has been a complete turnaround in the risk assessment of conflict on Swedish territory. That is why the defence budget will be increased by 40 percent over five years, to 89 billion kronor in 2025. This is double the defence budget of the year 2016. “We are investing in new military units,” Hultqvist told me, “and we are aiming to increase manpower from 60,000 to 90,000″.

Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Military conscription was reintroduced in Sweden in 2018. Every year, 5,000 young people are selected for military service. That number will now increase to 8,000. There will be new jet fighters, submarines and long-range missiles. The country is investing in “innovative defence systems” and is preparing for modern warfare tactics, such as cyber attacks.

The new policy has been driven by recent threats, according to the minister. “Europe has a new security situation. Look at Georgia, Crimea, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Russia is conducting more military exercises, and the exercises are becoming more complex,” he said.

Sweden perceives Russia as the greatest risk factor, albeit an implicit one, not necessarily aimed directly at the nation itself, but “at Sweden’s neighbours in the EU and Nato”. There is a concern that Sweden’s military-strategic position in Northern Europe could lead to a race between world powers for control of Swedish territory.

The Swedish parliament’s recent decision on the expansion of the army marks a certain return to the Cold War era. The force will again have a “war organisation”, meaning that all troops must be able to be mobilised and deployed simultaneously within a week.

At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, the Swedish armed forces consisted of 850,000 troops. Defending the state had been the army’s main task until the early 1990s. But after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, peace was taken for granted. Military units were disbanded and the defence of Swedish territory was no longer the army’s raison d’être.

By the time 2010 came around, what remained of the army amounted to a task force consisting of some 33,000 soldiers and other defence personnel, some of whom were deployed on peacekeeping missions abroad.

Only with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 did the belief in eternal peace evaporate. Conscription was reintroduced, and the defence budget increased by 25 percent between the years 2015 and 2020.

Swedish troops exercising in the Gothenburg archipelago. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

Back to today: in addition to material investments, non-aligned Sweden is also investing in its relations. The country is “deepening its military cooperation with Finland,” Hultqvist said. It is also coordinating its defence strategies with Nato members Denmark, Norway, Great Britain and the United States, despite the fact that Nato membership – and with it the end of 200 years of official military neutrality – remains a taboo in government circles.

However, the door to membership does not seem to be locked shut. Recently, the Swedish parliament voted on a motion on the so-called “Nato option”, stipulating that the country could join Nato in the future if deemed beneficial or necessary in due course. The governing parties voted against, but a parliamentary majority of opposition parties (204 versus 145) voted in favour.

Minister Hultqvist organised a series of joint exercises with Nato countries in recent years, but has continued to underline Sweden’s non-alliance. The governing Social Democrats believe that joining Nato would amount to a move that could destabilise the already precarious situation in Europe’s eastern flank.

Why then military cooperation, but no alliance? Hultqvist: “We want to contribute to stability in our part of Europe, but oppose the obligation to assist any Nato country in a crisis situation.”

Meanwhile in the Gothenburg archipelago, military vessels speed along the coast, their wakes creating waves along the shoreline.

“On some days it almost feels like a war zone,” Brännö resident Klas Ålander said. “Then it’s not at all fun to be at home or to go to school here. The archipelago is part of the city of Gothenburg, only 15 kilometres removed from the centre. Would people accept military exercises, 115 days a year, 15 kilometres from Södermalm in Stockholm?”

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