Russian threats: current developments in Sweden and the Baltic Sea region8 min read
The poisoning of Russia’s best-known opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August last year has caused growing tensions between the EU and Russia. Among the states with whom tension grew noticeable Sweden stood out. However, the strained relationship between the two countries runs deeper than the recent arrest of Navalny. On the one hand, it is associated with fundamental ideological differences that eventually shape their policies. On the other, it is directly linked with security challenges in the Baltic Sea region which affect Swedish security policy.
Navalny’s return to Russia and subsequent arrest on 17 January was followed by mass protests in January this year. These were some of the largest anti-government protests of recent years, with protests being held across 198 towns and cities across Russia. On 23 January alone, 4,000 people were detained.
In early February, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov accused diplomats from Poland, Germany, and Sweden of participating in the “illegal” protests on 23 January. On 5 February, it became known that the diplomats from the above countries would be expelled from Russia. Sweden rejected Moscow’s claim as “unfounded” and warned Russia that it was reserving the right for an appropriate response.
Then, on 8 February, the three EU Member States announced that they would expel Russian diplomats. Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ann Linde claimed that Stockholm’s action was a response to the unacceptable decision by Russia – while Moscow called the actions of Sweden along with Germany and Poland “unjustified and unfriendly”.
Amidst growing diplomatic tensions, at the end of February news broke that a Swedish citizen and former researcher and technology consultant would be charged with spying for Russia. In relation to the charge, the head of the Swedish Security Service’s (SÄPO) counter-intelligence unit, Daniel Stenling said that “attacks on Sweden from other countries have both broadened and deepened in recent years”, adding that “Russia represents one of the main intelligence threats against Sweden”. According to SÄPO, Russia followed by Iran and China spy the most on Sweden.
The post-Crimea effect
Tensions between Sweden and Russia is not a new phenomenon. Although it has been almost two centuries since the two had a military confrontation, the relationship between the two states cannot be described as friendly. Their positions on internationally important issues like the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, as well as the annexation of Crimea are opposing.
In 2008, Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt compared Russia’s intervention policies to Hitler’s while commenting on Russia’s attack on Georgia in the same year. He said that “no state has a right to intervene militarily in the territory of another state simply because there are individuals there with a passport issued by that state or who are nationals of the state”.
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, worries about security significantly increased in the Baltic Sea region. The Russian aggression against Georgia in August 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 showed that Russia is ready to use military force to achieve its political goals.
Another source of concern in the Baltic Sea region became the post-election events in Belarus in 2020. After the presidential elections in early August, Belarus was engulfed in protests over accusations that the election was rigged by incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko. Russia recognized the results of the elections and even expressed readiness to send police to Belarus if necessary.
In November 2020 Sweden’s Minister of Defence, Peter Hulqvist stated that if Russia will get access to Belarusian territory, it will create “uncertainty and ambiguity, namely the threat of moving military resources into Belarus if Moscow deems necessary”. Belarus is a neighbor of three NATO member states – Lithuania and Latvia along with Poland. It can easily be perceived as an attempt to aggravate the NATO-Russia tension, in light of the increased number of provocative maneuvers on the alliance’s eastern borders.
Keeping countries – and especially those who are territorially close to Russia alliance-free and minimizing their cooperation with NATO is strategically important for Russia. After the annexation of Crimea, theories that Russia will continue to increase its pressure on neighboring states by force have raised the need to think about expected security scenarios.
In academic circles, the Baltic Sea region is often viewed as an area where Russia could potentially escalate a confrontation with NATO in the future. Russia also actively uses hybrid warfare mechanisms, including interference in the internal affairs of democratic states, and fueling internal disorder. This has pushed the states around the Baltic Sea to look back on their security and defense capabilities.
Security challenges in the Baltic Sea region and Sweden
Although Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia are members of both NATO and the EU, Russia has not given up on its attempts to influence policies in the Baltic states as well as in Sweden and Finland. Even though they are not members of NATO, both Finland and Sweden are linked to the military alliance through regular political dialogue and cooperation on security matters in the Baltic region.
Russia deploys both conventional military and hybrid tactics to influence foreign and security policies in the Baltic Sea region. These include information operations, for example accusing the Baltic states of discriminating against ethnic Russians, as well as disinformation campaigns and espionage. Tomas Ries, a senior lecturer at Sweden’s National Defence College, describes the mix of conventional and unconventional tactics as a new form of hybrid warfare that makes it difficult to distinguish between war and peace.
For the last 10 years, there have been repeated complaints about Russian military planes and warships violating Swedish airspace and territorial waters. In March 2015, Russian soldiers conducted a military exercise in the Baltic Sea, aimed at practicing invading islands – including Swedish Gotland – which has a strategic military location for controlling the Baltic Sea. And early in 2020, Sweden protested against Russian warships entering its territorial waters.
Such events evoke memories of the Cold War when the Soviet Union repeatedly violated Swedish territorial waters. Despite its neutrality, Sweden was quite vulnerable. Later, experts and former military figures from Sweden have stated that the Soviet Union was trying to obtain information about NATO. They wanted to make sure that NATO would not use Sweden to attack Soviet positions in Central Europe.
In 2017, a study by the Swedish Institute of International affairs concluded that Russia’s wide range of activity in and against Sweden is aimed at lowering public support toward joining NATO – and thus minimizing its role in the Baltic region.
Response to security challenges
Despite the low likelihood of military confrontation between Sweden and Russia, the current developments in the Baltic region and Russia’s previous military intervention in Georgia and Ukraine have caused certain reactions. In 2018, four years after the annexation of Crimea, Sweden renewed its Gotland regiment, which had been closed down in 2005. The same year the government signed a deal with the US to purchase Patriot air-defense missiles. The decision was made after Russia deployed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad in February 2018. The purchase of Patriot air-defense missiles by the Swedish government is the country’s largest arms deal since the Cold War, aimed at modernizing Sweden’s air defense and counter modern weapons like the Russian missiles.
In 2020, the Swedish government announced that Sweden is planning to increase military spendings in response to the worsened security situation in the Baltic region. Defense Minister Hultqvist told the media that Sweden will increase its military spendings by 27.5 million SEK by 2025. In total, 79 billion SEK will be allocated to military defense between 2021-2025. This is a 40% increase in the defense budget and the largest investment since the 1950s.
The bill includes investments in military equipment, reinforcement of national cyber defenses, increasing foreign intelligence capabilities, and doubling basic-training volumes. As Swedish officials explained, this decision was made due to the experience that Russia usually uses force to achieve its political goals. Defense Minister Hultqvist specifically cited the events in Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus.
This move by the Swedish government has been assessed as a concerning development in Russia. According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, “These invented anti-Russia phobias are due in no small measure to deliberate external pressure on Stockholm, primarily from the North Atlantic alliance”.
Joining NATO is an undecided issue in Sweden with public opinion still divided over the question. According to the latest polls, 35% of the population is opposed to joining the Alliance, while 33% are in support and 32% remain undecided. However, the Swedish parliament made it clear in December 2020, that Sweden will consider the NATO option to strengthen the security in the region if it becomes necessary.
In sum, recent developments show that Sweden takes the security risks in the Baltic Sea region seriously. Russia uses hybrid tactics targeting Sweden as a Baltic Sea region state, as a NATO ally and EU member-state, with the aim of influencing its policies. Recent moves by the Swedish government show that it is ready to take new measures to ensure not only the security of Sweden but of the Baltic Sea region as well and to continue its partnership with NATO.
The recent expulsion of diplomats was another negative event in Swedish-Russian relations but it should be viewed as a part of a bigger picture. Sweden gives strategic importance to maintaining stability in the Baltic Sea region and increasing its security capabilities is also an answer to any potential instability.