Visby, Sweden – Having to defend Gotland against a foreign invasion was such a far-fetched notion for Swedish decision-makers at the beginning of the century that they demilitarized the Baltic Sea.
Now the Swedish Armed Forces is back, and they are practicing together with American troops not only how to defend the island with a population of 58,000, but how to take it back from a foreign attacker.
US Marines have carried out air drops and amphibious landings on Gotland as part of a NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea.
Although the annual BALTOPS exercise is not being held in response to a specific threat, this year’s edition comes amid heightened tensions with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. About 7,000 soldiers and 45 ships from 14 NATO countries as well as Sweden and Finland participated.
Despite their non-aligned status, the two Nordic nations have practiced regularly with NATO countries, and their governments decided in the wake of the Ukraine war to seek full membership in the Western military alliance.
‘I feel really prepared. I mean, we have made a big effort on Gotland, and we will defend Gotland, said Swedish Colonel Magnus Frykvall, the island’s regimental commander, while military equipment was deployed on the coast. “It’s a really difficult task to take a defended island.”
Strategically located in the middle of the southern part of the Baltic Sea, Gotland has seen foreign invasions throughout its history, most recently in 1808, when Russian forces briefly occupied it.
But after the end of the Cold War, Sweden felt that the risk of Russian aggression was so remote that it refocused its armed forces on foreign peacekeeping operations rather than territorial defense. Gotland’s regiment was disbanded in 2005 when Sweden reduced its military.
Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 led to some concern and a new regiment was established on Gotland in 2018. There are now around 400 Swedish soldiers permanently based on the island. Further reinforcements are planned after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, many Gotlanders believe that Sweden could not defend the island on its own.
If we were to be invaded, we would not have a chance because our defense is too small. We have a really modern and good defense, but it is too small, says Lars Söderdahl, 33-year-old chef in the island’s capital Visby.
Sweden, which has stayed out of military alliances since the Napoleonic Wars, applied for NATO membership with Finland in a historic move last month. NATO’s existing 30 members will discuss the issue this month. Turkey has threatened to postpone applications due to the two countries’ perceived support for Kurdish groups.
Finland and Sweden have applied for security guarantees from the United States and other NATO countries during the application period.
US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began the BALTOPS exercises last weekend in Stockholm, saying it was important for NATO allies “to show solidarity with both Finland and Sweden.”
Their membership in the alliance would leave Russia in a difficult military position, with the Baltic Sea surrounded by NATO members except in Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and the Russian city of St. Petersburg. Petersburg and its surroundings.
The strategic importance of Gotland, a popular summer holiday destination for Swedes, is often seen in relation to the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are particularly worried about possible Russian aggression after the invasion of Ukraine. Gotland is located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from mainland Sweden and 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the coast of Latvia.
– The thing is that from here you make supply and support to the Baltic states much easier or much more difficult, depending on who has control over the island, says Mikael Norrby, academic at Uppsala University, to the Associated Press.
In connection with the NATO exercises, Russia’s Baltic Navy began its own military exercises this week. The Navy’s press service referred to the maneuvers on Tuesday as a planned exercise focused on “various types of security tasks”, including tracking and destroying enemy submarines.
“There are more than 20 warships and boats in the Baltic Sea Fleet’s sea areas, which perform combat tasks both individually and as part of ship search and strike groups and ship strike groups,” the press service said in a statement.
It added that corvettes, patrol ships, small missile carriers, anti-submarine ships, minesweepers and landing hovercraft were among the ships that took part in the exercises.