In recent months, the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea has drawn attention due to the Swedish government’s paranoid fear of a Russian invasion. Recently, the formerly demilitarized island has been visited by the Swedish Prime Minister, Defense Minister and a top US general in an attempt to bolster its image as an impregnable bastion.
Unproven accusations and unfounded fears have spurred Sweden into re-establishing a military presence on its largest Baltic island, which has a population of 55,000 and was previously described as a possible gateway for Russian “aggression,” however ridiculous it may sound. On Wednesday, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven visited the island in the company of Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist to collect reports from the Swedish Air Force as well as Navy and Army personnel and to bolster Gotland’s defense profile.
“We want to send a signal to anyone who has any intention of attacking our territory that it will be very, very painful. When you are about to defend your territory, you do it properly. Nobody will come here unbidden,” Stefan Löfven said, as quoted by the Swedish newspaper Expressen.
To prove his point, Löfven himself took a ride in a RG32 armored vehicle and a Stridsvagn 122 tank, which is the Swedish version of the German Leopard tank. However, the image of Löfven clad in a tank crewman’s helmet provoked mockery from Swedish social media users. “Beware, Russians, you stand no chance against Löfven,” a user tweeted, hinting at Sweden’s fears of a Russian ‘invasion.’
Most of Gotland’s regiments were retired in the early and mid-2000s, and military operations have been largely put at rest since then. The 2015 defense agreement, however, ruled that troops will once again be permanently stationed on Gotland. In 2016, the first regiment was stationed on the Baltic island on a rotating basis to speed up the rearmament process. Once again, deteriorating safety in the Baltic Sea region and Russia’s aggression were cited as the reasons. Stefan Löfven admitted that removing Gotland’s defense was erroneous.
“I have always thought that Sweden generally plunged itself too far into the disarmament process. <…> Now we see the need to increase our defense capability, we intend to adhere to our non-alignment policy through increasing our own defense capability and expanding cooperation with other countries,” Stefan Löfven told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.
Even Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said the visit was of great importance, stressing the significance of the recent decision to enhance the Swedish Armed Forces budget with an extra 500 million SEK ($56mln) in 2017.
“What we do on Gotland, and adding extra money to our spring budget, is a clear signal that Sweden has an ambition to defend the island. We realize Gotland’s strategic value, the fact that the control of the island is crucial for the control over the Baltic Sea and airways in connection with the Baltic States. Gotland is also important for Finland and mainland Sweden,” Peter Hultqvist said.
Earlier this week, US General David G. Perkins visited, among other things, the Tofta shooting range outside Gotland’s capital Visby, local news portal Hela Gotland wrote.
“Gotland is an unsinkable ship and has a strategically important position in the region. It’s not only important for Sweden to have a good defense here. We have a common vision of peace,” David G. Perkins told Hela Gotland.
General Perkins’s visit to Gotland may be seen as a prelude to a large-scale defense exercise with NATO forces scheduled later this year. Swedish Army Chief Karl Engelbrektson called the US “an important and strategic partner.”