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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Sweden covers the island of Gotland, accelerating the debate on joining NATO

Latest NewsSweden covers the island of Gotland, accelerating the debate on joining NATO

Magdalena Andersson and Boris Johnson this Wednesday in Harpsund (Sweden).FRANK AUGSTEIN (AFP)

The peaceful life of the inhabitants of the island of Gotland has changed in recent months. For the first time in many years, Swedish soldiers patrolled the streets or port of the capital Visby. In its forests, hundreds of soldiers train for weeks in camouflage clothing and with live ammunition. And in every house there is a pamphlet distributed by the authorities, which tells what to do if there is a war. While the old ghosts of the Cold War are resurfacing on Gotland, the Swedish political class is relentlessly debating the possible entry of the Scandinavian nation into NATO.

Gotland’s strategic position in the middle of the Baltic Sea has made it a territory coveted by other states in the region for centuries. Its history is replete with invasions repelled by Sweden. The last one, in 1808, when the troops of the Russian Tsar Alexander I occupied the island for 26 days until they were defeated. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stockholm began to cut back on its defense investments and disband regiments. In 2005, the last remaining military left Gotland; the Achilles’ heel of the Scandinavian country was demilitarized.

Everything changed again in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In the years that followed, Sweden reinstated conscription, re-established the Gotland Regiment with its permanent base three miles from Visby, and reinstalled the air defense system. Last January, as more than 100,000 Russian soldiers waited for orders on the border with Ukraine, hundreds of Swedish soldiers flew to the Baltic Sea island after Social Democrat Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said the possibility of an attack could not be “ruled out”. attack on Sweden.

“This year we have grown stronger, and we will become even stronger in the coming years,” explains Magnus Frykvall, who led Sweden’s most famous regiment for less than two months. Today he commands about 400 professional soldiers and several conscripts. “We will be strengthening the troops until we reach 4,000 troops,” adds the 47-year-old colonel, who has experience in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Mali, to the Officers’ Club. “It is not easy to quickly increase the military presence on the island, we have to push the military out of other parts of the country,” explains Frykvall, who believes that he has “the most interesting position that exists today in the Swedish armed forces.” “. Unlike most countries, Swedish soldiers do not live in bases, but in apartments. And there is not much rental housing in Visby.

Dozens of members of the National Guard Battalion (military reserve) on Gotland have also been participating in a special training program since last week. Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, requests for volunteers who want to become part of local defense units have skyrocketed across Sweden.

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A Swedish National Guard volunteer during a military exercise on the island of Gotland on May 5.STAFF (REUTERS)

“Giant aircraft carrier that cannot be sunk”

Gotland – with an area similar to Mallorca but with a population 15 times smaller (just over 60,000 people) – has been defined by various analysts as “a gigantic aircraft carrier that cannot be sunk.” Frickwall assures that “who controls Gotland, he can dominate the air and sea space of the southern Baltic.” The possible accession of the Scandinavian country to NATO, which is becoming a closer option, will give the transatlantic organization a privileged position to protect some of its allies, mainly Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Located 300 kilometers from the Kaliningrad enclave, where Kremlin forces store Iskander nuclear missiles, the island’s airspace has been violated at least four times since the start of the war by Russian fighters and electronic warfare aircraft (designed to reduce the effectiveness of radio and radar systems). ). In his speech to the Swedish parliament, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized the vulnerability of the Baltic island: “There is already a discussion in Moscow about how to capture Gotland,” he sentenced.

On the medieval streets of Visby (pop. 24,000) one can feel solidarity with Ukraine. Some windows contain the flags of the attacked country; and in others, posters insulting Russian President Vladimir Putin. In early March, more than 2,000 people expressed their support for Kyiv at one of the largest rallies ever held on the island. But in addition to fraternal gestures, new measures continue to be taken to strengthen the security of Gotland. Finance Minister Max Elger announced last week that 1.6 billion SEK (155 million euros) will be invested in the renovation and expansion of facilities and infrastructure used to protect the island. The provincial authorities have also launched plans to ensure that in the event of a crisis, there will be no shortage of medicines, fuels or chemical products needed to clean up the water.

Magnus Fryukvall in April at the base of the Gotland Regiment.Swedish Armed Forces

In the square next to the monumental ruins of the church of Santa Catalina, Jonas Persson tries to teach his four-year-old son how to ride a bike despite the rain. Persson, who moved to Visby 20 months ago, makes it clear that the Scandinavian nation should join the Atlantic Alliance: “It’s time for realpolitik; now they are not about philosophical disputes,” says this 38-year-old graphic designer. “Are there leftists among Ukrainians who do not want to join NATO?” he asks.

Another resident of Gotland, Linnea Lindberg, remembers well the Cold War years, when there were up to 25,000 Swedish soldiers on the island – almost one for every two inhabitants – and when the population was denied access to many areas. At 63, he comments in the Visby canteen that until this year he has always been “radically opposed” to Sweden abandoning its policy of non-alignment and joining NATO, but that “you can’t live in the past.” Lindbergh, who admits he stocked up on shelf-stable food in March and found out where the nearest air raid shelter is, calls for “clear security guarantees” though he adds that he prefers there are no permanent foreign troops on Gotland.

Collective therapy of social democrats

While it is clear that the majority of Gotland’s 60,000 people are in favor of joining the Atlantic Alliance as soon as possible, events are unfolding in Stockholm. This Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a declaration on mutual security guarantees with his Swedish counterpart, Social Democrat Magdalena Andersson. “If Sweden is attacked and asks us for support, we will give it to them,” the conservative president said, adding that the military support would not be linked to Sweden’s final decision to join the Alliance. The Social Democratic Party – the winner of every general election the Scandinavian nation has held since 1914 – is undergoing a kind of collective therapy this week in which it must decide whether to abandon a decades-old stance and opt for NATO membership. The party was not originally going to announce its final position until the end of May, but spokesman Tobias Baudin indicated on Monday that the result, after three days of digital meetings, would be announced next Sunday.

The presentation of a new analysis of the security policy of the Scandinavian country, scheduled for the end of the month and taking place this Friday in the Riksdag (parliament), has also been postponed two weeks ahead. Polls show that support for NATO membership among the Swedish population has doubled; according to an April poll, 57% of citizens are in favor of joining, compared with just over 25% who supported it at the end of last year; a radical change, although less than what happened in Finland, was reflected in the rush of politicians in Stockholm.

Social Democrats Lena Hallgren, minister of health and social affairs, and Ardalan Sherkabi, head of social security, have already said they are in favor of breaking with the traditional position of the minority ruling party. Four opposition parliamentary forces – the Liberals, the Moderate Party (conservative), the Center Party and the Christian Democrats – are demanding that accession procedures begin as soon as possible at the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June. And they added to the mix the far-right Swedish Democrats, the third party with the most representation in the Riksdag. The Left Party and the Greens continue to categorically reject the option of joining the transatlantic military bloc. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly said that the doors of the Alliance are open to Sweden and Finland.

Regardless of what is decided these weeks in Stockholm, Gotland and the Baltic Sea, there will be military exercises in mid-June (Baltops 2022) in which soldiers from 20 NATO members will take part, another example of the close relationship that Sweden and Finland has maintained a military organization in the last decade. “Cooperation is good, but being an Alliance member gives you security,” Colonel Frickwall emphasizes.

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