Commentary: Why neutral, peaceful Sweden is preparing for war

Over the last two weeks, every household in Sweden received a booklet of instructions on how to prepare for war. Issued by the government and including instructions for every Swedish resident to resist an invader by all means necessary, it was a dramatic sign of just how quickly the recently unthinkable has become something Europe’s Nordic governments in particular feel they must address.

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“For many years, the preparations made in Sweden for the threat of war and war have been very limited,” says the Swedish brochure. “However, as the world around us has changed, the Government has decided to strengthen Sweden’s total defense… The level of preparedness for peacetime emergencies is an important basis of our resilience in the event of war.”

For most of the continent, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine four years ago was seen as a wake-up call, but not a potentially existential threat. Countries like Germany, Britain and France have reconsidered their defense postures, often also lightly increasing military spending. By and large, however, even within their security establishments, few see a genuine imminent risk of overwhelming Russian conventional military attack on their homelands. Moscow’s military might be at its most active since the Cold War, but its tanks and troops remain a comfortingly long way away.

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That clearly isn’t the case in the Nordics, much closer geographically to Russia. Norway has appointed a senior special forces officer to lead its Home Guard, a territorial defense force separate from the mainstream military and specifically intended to fight any invader. Finland has reorganized its military, forming its troops into larger companies to allow them to better handle the large number of casualties expected in any attack. Both countries have long had conscription for able-bodied young men – and now theoretically neutral Sweden is also reintroducing National Service for both men and women.

It’s a dramatic change from only a handful of years ago, when Nordic militaries were much more focused on humanitarian and counterterrorism interventions overseas, including UN peacekeeping.

Neither Norway, Sweden nor Finland could hold a Russian invasion at the border. To varying degrees, their strategy presumably would be to cede much of the country to invaders – then fight back with hit and run attacks, and gradually bleed them to death.

It is not that any of those countries think war is truly imminent – although one of Norway’s most popular recent TV shows, Occupied, revolves around a Russian invasion, a clear sign of how perceived risks have changed. Rather than launching an overwhelming military strike, most European security analysts expect Moscow to continue its current more asymmetric tactics, supporting extremist political parties, conducting periodic cyber attacks and other forms of disruption.

For NATO, a much greater focus is on defending the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, once part of the Soviet Union and seen as much more likely targets of Russian aggression, not least because of their geographic proximity and significant Russian-speaking populations. German, Canadian and British-led battle groups are now based in those countries, joined this month by a hefty U.S. and wider European military presence as part of major military exercises.

The Nordic states, too, hope they would not be facing any assault alone. Norway is a long-standing member of NATO, and while Sweden and Finland are not they are now discussing membership and have dramatically increased military and other ties to the alliance. All three nations are also members of the Joint Expeditionary Force, a UK-led group of Nordic, Baltic and northern European nations that could operate militarily separate to the NATO alliance.

What their preparations at home point to, however, is the largely unspoken nervousness amongst the Nordic and Baltic nations that those arrangements might not prove reliable. Such worries inevitably intensified with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as the rise of far-right parties in Germany, France and elsewhere. The Nordics’ real fear is that sometime in the not-too-distant future – perhaps in the next decade – the European and transatlantic structures they have long relied on could collapse.

“The purpose of a military is simply national survival,” one senior Nordic officer told me last year, making it clear that while it relied on allies, it would fight for itself alone if it had to.

Russia clearly isn’t the only danger to be worried about – the Swedish leaflet also explicitly refers to terror attacks as a danger, and refers throughout to the risks of unspecified “crisis” as well as war. But it’s apparent from the document what worries the Swedish authorities most – an overwhelming attack, coupled with a powerful foreign misinformation campaign that tells the populace the war is over and lost before it even starts.

The Swedish leaflet states explicitly that any messages of surrender after any invasion should be ignored. “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up,” says the brochure. “All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false.” For all the criticism of the leaflet and accusations of scaremongering, that is clearly a message the Swedish authorities want to get through. The leaflet has been translated into Arabic, Somali, and a host of other languages to reach recently arrived migrants, and those communities will also find their young men and women conscripted into the armed forces.

While much of the leaflet’s tone is reassuringly bland, the underlying message is unmistakable. In the event of attack, everyone in the country is expected to do exactly as they are told – whether that’s helping provide medical and other support, or fighting and dying.

It’s an unexpected throwback to the dark days of the 1940s, when Finnish and Norwegian resistance fighters battled Soviet and Nazi occupations and neutral Sweden feared both. But it’s also an alarming reminder that in this most liberal, progressive and peaceful corner of Europe, those in charge now fear an era of gloom could return.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.