Coastal states bolster their defenses as Moscow takes a more forward military stance.Charles Duxbury, Christina Zander and Juhana Rossi, Wall Street Journal
29 April 2015
GOTLAND, Sweden – Shots and shouts rang out among the trees as National Guard troops practiced defending this Swedish island’s communications infrastructure against invading saboteurs on a recent weekday.
On a recent weekday, members of the volunteer force swept through a clearing to flush out enemy stragglers before a call of “no sightings” brought the drill to an end.
Until recently, the arrival of foreign troops to this Baltic Sea outpost was seen as so unlikely that this force of part-timers, who get about a week of training a year, was judged adequate insurance against it.
That is now changing.
After Russia grabbed a piece of the Black Sea coast from Ukraine and ramped up its marine and air force exercises on and over the Baltic, the other eight countries with a piece of that sea’s shoreline have realized that this backwater isn’t as placid as it was.
“People believed in security mechanisms like the U.N. and EU and so on, but it has been shown that those don’t work – one country has invaded another relatively close to us,” said Hans Hakansson, the National Guard chief on Gotland. “If it can happen in one place it can happen in another.”
Last month Sweden said it would send a permanent force of professional soldiers – initially a company of about 150 – to Gotland for the first time in a decade as it refocuses its military on national defense and away from international missions in places like Afghanistan and Mali.
The Swedish plan to deploy even such a modest defensive force on this island near the Baltic Sea’s center is an eye-catching example of a militarization that evokes memories of the Cold War, when the Baltic was part of the front line between the Soviet Union and the West.
While military spending is falling in the U.S., the U.K. and France, the reverse is true in this corner of northeastern Europe.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank, said this month that seven out of the nine states around the Baltic Sea are set to increase military spending this year and that the other two are considering it.
Sweden will refit warships previously set for retirement and increase its submarine fleet while Poland is budgeting for new naval vessels, helicopters and coastal defense systems.
The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were long under Soviet control and joined NATO in 2004, are leading the push for stronger defenses against Russia and are eager to see the likes of Sweden get a tighter grip on its maritime assets.
The three small states fear becoming isolated from their NATO allies if Russia were to intervene within their borders to protect Russian minorities from discrimination – a move it has threatened to make.
Concerns about the strength of Western defenses rose in mid-October when Sweden confirmed a foreign submarine has sailed secretly into its territorial waters close to the capital, Stockholm.
Lawmakers suspected Moscow was behind the incursion, but the authorities there denied involvement.
A follow-up hunt was triggered a week later after mechanic Robin Klameth reported a 65-foot dark shape in waters near the boatyard where he works east of Stockholm.
“You could see it was a submarine,” he said in a recent interview. “When it moved forward, water was pushed up over its front and divided by a tower.”
Finland’s navy on Tuesday dropped small depth charges to warn off a suspected submarine detected near Helsinki.
Such incidents have sent a chill through a region already concerned about Russian aerial activity.
The number of interceptions of Russian aircraft in European airspace has been rising fast, according to NATO, and Sweden and Finland have complained of violations.
Analysts say Russia’s testing of its neighbors in this way is connected with the oil transports it sends over the Baltic Sea: More oil is shipped through the straits between Sweden
and Denmark than through the Suez Canal, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“They are training the defense of an important transport route,” said Stefan Ring, a military strategy expert at the Swedish Defense University.
As well as triggering a rush to spend more on defense, Moscow’s sabre-rattling over the Baltic has hastened the development of a patchwork of alliances among Russia’s neighbors.
Last month jets from NATO outsiders Finland and Sweden trained aerial interceptions with U.S. aircraft deployed temporarily to Estonia. The five Nordic states – Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland – plan more joint training and intelligence sharing.
Russia has expressed concern over such tie-ups. “Unlike in previous years, Northern European military cooperation is being directed against Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry said this month.
NATO itself has also increased its local presence, preparing a defense force of up to 30,000 troops with command-and-control centers in Poland and the three Baltic states.
On a recent weekday, NATO jets normally based in Italy were training at an air base in Estonia, 30 miles from the southern Baltic shore.
Two F-16s from the 510th U.S. Fighter Squadron flew in formation over a sparsely wooded plain, and puffs of white smoke showed where their bombs hit decoy targets as the planes banked and climbed.
While NATO says such training, taking place about 70 miles from the Russian border, is all about defense, Moscow has condemned it as aggressive and unnecessary.
Russia’s actions represent “the most serious challenge to European security,” the defense ministers of the five Nordic countries said in a joint statement this month.
The Russian side disputes that characterization. In a recent open letter published in a Swedish daily, Russia’s ambassador to Stockholm said his country was a “good and reliable neighbor for all time.”
On Gotland, 33-year-old nurse and part-time soldier Oscar Hedin rests between training exercises. He twisted his ankle and is getting it bound up by a colleague.
He said there is a new sense of relevance about this year’s training.
“It’s maybe not that I expect an invasion imminently but you never know,” he said. “With Moscow, you never really know.”