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Sweden beefs up Baltic Sea forces amid regional tensions

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STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden is beefing up its military presence in the Baltic Sea amid concerns over increased Russian activity in the region and heightened tensions in Belarus following a disputed election.

Sweden has been rearming in recent years after running down its military following the end of the Cold War, focusing on the Baltic Sea area, where the strategically important island of Gotland sits within easy reach of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Sweden’s military gave few details of the build up but said the security situation around its borders had deteriorated.

“The decision to adjust to a higher level of readiness and adjust force posture were not due to a single factor, but to an overall assessment of the current situation,” Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said in a written statement to Reuters on Wednesday.

Sweden’s armed forces said military activity in the Baltic Sea conducted by Russian as well as Western countries was on a scale the likes of which have not been seen since the Cold War.

“The focus of the high readiness action is to reinforce naval surveillance in the Baltic Sea, at sea and from the air,” Jan Thornqvist, the Swedish Armed Forces’ Commander of Joint Operations, said in a statement. “The military presence in Gotland is also increased.”

On a visit to Lithuania earlier this week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Washington had no indication of any Russian plans for military intervention in Belarus.

But Russia has accused foreign powers of interfering in Belarus and has said military support would be available, although it saw no such need for now. Belarus and Russia are close allies and members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

Sweden’s military said the risk of an attack on the country, a close ally but not a member of NATO, was low, but that given the uncertain security situation it needed a high level of preparedness.

Reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by David Holmes