For many years, the Swedish Navy and the Swedish Air Force have been conducting exercises together with its Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts.
In the past these have ranged from minesweeping operations to close air support exercises. However, the Swedish army has had a scarce presence on Baltic soil, with a few and limited exceptions.
During the recent Council/Konrad Adenauer Foundation conference, held on December 12, 2017, the current Swedish Minister of Defence, Peter Hultqvist, was asked whether Swedish forces could in some way work together with the NATO enhanced Forward Presence troops in the Baltic states.1 He answered essentially in the affirmative, although it was not clear what kind of cooperation or common activities he foresaw.
In the subsequent panel debate, the author of this blog post expanded the idea and argued that it would be a very good idea to let regular Swedish ground forces train and cooperate with their Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts.2 First, undertaking regularized training would enable greater interoperability – facilitaing an exchange on tactics and strategy. Second, such an undertaking would allow the Swedish army to acquire practical experiences of – although that was not a word that was used in the debate – operating along the Eastern frontier of the Western states.
Finally, considering that troops from all the three Baltic states participated in the big Swedish Aurora exercise on Swedish soil in September 2017, reciprocity in training and exercises could continue to develop military-to-military relations.3
This idea gained considerable attention in Sweden. Dagens Industri, Sweden’s foremost business-focused paper, devoted an entire, highly supportive editorial on the topics the day after the conference.4 Several days later, the defence policy spokesmen of all the eight parties in the Swedish parliament were interviewed by journalists, and six of them – including both parties of the current government, the Social Democrats and the left-leaning Greens – supported the idea.5 Åsa Lindenstam, a member of parliament for the Social Democratic party and the vice chairman of the parliament’s defence committee,stated ”We have excercises with other countries. All forms of cooperation are good. To manage to cooperate in a real [conflict] situation, one needs to exercise beforehand, and then this [the prospect of the Swedish army’s peacetime military exercises with the Baltic states] is a good thing.”6
The only two parties that positioned themselves against the idea were, perhaps not surprisingly, the right-wing populist Sweden Democrat Party and the Left Party (the Swedish not-so-former communist party). Both have or have had close or indirect linkages to Russia, and essentially argue that all forms of Swedish military support to the Baltic states would be way too provocative vis-a-vis Russia.7 Of course, the ”usual suspects” within the traditional, but increasingly elderly and marginalized, isolationist and neutralist camp of the Swedish security policy debate also voiced their concerns regarding the suggestion.8
Thus, the ease with which this idea took flight proves another point about Swedish security policy: the profound changes it has gone through the last few years. Just five years ago, the mere thought of sending regular Swedish land forces to the Baltic states for training would have sent shivers down the spines of most Swedish politicians. The instinct of provocation aversion was deep-rooted among most Swedish decision-makers then.Now, Swedish army military cooperation with their Baltic counterparts on Baltic soil is considered a normal – and desirable – state of affairs by essentially all Swedish mainstream politicians. From now on it is up to the defence establishments of the countries involved to make this idea possible in reality. It should not be too difficult.
The author is a non-resident fellow of the ICDS. His views presented above are solely his own.
2 See the panel debate here, the idea in question being presented around 24:45 into the video: www.youtube.com/watch.
3 For more on the Aurora exercise, see www.icds.ee/blog/article/the-strategic-ramifications-of-the-aurora-17-exercise-in-sweden-1/.
4 See Frida Wallnor, ”Sänd svensk trupp till Baltikum [Send Swedish troops to the Baltic States]”, Dagens Industri, December 13th, 2017, www.di.se/ledare/frida-wallnor-sand-svensk-trupp-till-baltikum/.
5 See ”Majoritet av riksdagspartierna öppnar för att svenska armén övar i Baltikum [A Majority of the Parliament Parties Open to the Idea of the Swedish Army Exercising in the Baltic States”], SvT Nyheter, December 16, 2017, www.svt.se/nyheter/inrikes/starkt-stod-hos-riksdagspartierna-att-svenska-armen-bor-kunna-ova-i-baltikum-alt-majoritet-av-riksdagspartierna-positiva-till-att-svenska-armen-ovar-i-baltikum.
6 Ibid., author’s translation.
8 See ”Vi har inte i Baltikum att göra [We have no reason to be in the Baltic states]”, December 17, Bevara alliansfriheten, www.alliansfriheten.se/vi-har-inte-i-baltikum-att-gora/.