Categories: Archive

Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores VIII: Sweden (part 2)

The Warriors’ Sagas

February 27, 2013. As the world follows the crisis in Ukraine after the protests fueled by the desire of many Ukrainian people to have closer ties with the EU, armed men, said to be pro-russian, seize the Parliament of Crimea. The next day, more armed men – suspected Russian Special Forces – seize two important airports in the Crimean peninsula while the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine ,Viktor Yakunovich, reappears in Russia after fleeing the country. Events escalate further when on the 1st of March the Russian president Vladimir Putin asks his parliament for an authorization to send troops into Ukraine. At the same time, Ukraine asks for NATO’s help.

Crimea is still under occupation and dangerous tensions continue to build. But what does this terrible scenario have to do with Sweden and the Arctic?

Russia and Sweden have clashed before in the past both in the Baltic and Finland in wars started by both sides, and it is easily conceivable that the Arctic could simply become just another new theatre for those clashes of interest to take place[ii].

The Crimean crisis evidences Russia’s dismissal of cooperation in favour of the fulfilment of its own interests and Ukraine is perhaps the first step down a path that Russia might take from now on. Many of the Arctic nations (except Norway) rely highly on cooperation, dialogue and on Russia’s good behaviour in Arctic Institutions and its abiding by the rule of International Law[i]. But Russia has now shown that if it wants, it will use its armed forces (which are currently being modernized and expanded) and willingly break international law. [iii].

None of this is good news for Sweden, especially considering that its current state of defence is not prepared to handle such a complicated situation. This was seen when on two  separate occasions in 2013, Russian TU – 22 bombers, SU – 27 fighters and an ELINT IL-20 violated Swedish air space and the Swedish Air Force either reacted at a very slow pace or failed to scramble fighters to intercept altogether [iv]. This is a consequence of the downsizing and reforms made by Sweden and other European Nations immediately after the Cold War when there was the idea that Russia was a lesser threat. But, as Howorth (2007) remarks, such shifting was necessary because of the challenges that were taking place in the Balkans and other parts of the world at the time. Military reform was needed in order to transition from the national defence mentality of the Cold War to the development for overseas deployments capacities to accomplish other non-traditional missions  such as peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions.

Sweden’s defence policies from the 20th century to the present

Sweden has had a policy of neutrality since 1810, staying out of both the First and Second World Wars, that aimed to isolate the country from Europe. However, the policy has bias towards the West which as a result defines the country’s relations with Russia in regards to the aforementioned conflicts and the Cold War (Lundquist, 2013). In short, although Sweden is neutral, it has always been closer to the West rather than fully isolated.

It was during the Cold War that tensions between Russia and Sweden took a turn for the worse, since Russia perceived Sweden not as a neutral but as a “western nation”, and therefore a hostile one. Interestingly, even before this situation, Sweden had strengthened its armed forces to give credibility to its neutrality and even considered the possession of nuclear weapons. (Lundquist, 2013)[v].

Tensions between the two nations reached their peak on a number of occasions, most notably when the Soviet Union shot down an intelligence and a search and rescue airplane inside Swedish territory (near Gotland) in 1952. There were also frequent Soviet submarine intrusions in the 80’s and 90’s, the most remarkable incident being when a Soviet submarine became stranded outside the Swedish naval base in Karlskrona in 1982 (Lundquist, 2013).

The end of the Cold War meant for Sweden stronger cooperation with NATO and the EU, as it embraced the idea of interdependence and of a peaceful and stable Europe. Sweden, as a result, began to implement reforms in their security sectors transforming its defence forces into ones that would deal with fighting wars abroad, peacekeeping and domestic policing. Also, the idea of an independent EU being able to have a strong military collaboration was on the table at this time (Lundquist, 2013).

The elimination of conscription and the modernization of military hardware were the most prominent steps taken after the Cold War, the first boosted by the performance and outcome of the First Gulf War in 1991 (professional vs. conscript-based army) and the need for a transformation of the forces to execute peacekeeping operations by 1993[vi]. The second led Sweden to decrease its emphasis on quantity, opting instead for quality thus acquiring Leopard 2 (Stvr 122) battle tanks and JAS 39 Gripen multi-role fighters (Lundquist, 2013).

In NATO, Sweden had an active participation in many of the missions carried out by the Alliance since 1994 and under the Partnership for Peace Program, where Sweden saw an opportunity to seek guidance and information for its forces’ adaptation and interoperability with NATO operation (Lundquist, 2013). However, a full NATO membership was ruled out for the sake of neutrality but enhanced cooperation with NATO and Swedish membership in the Partnership for Peace Planning and Review Process has  allowed the country to focus and gain security of Europe and the Baltic through cooperation.

This approach to NATO is most likely part of the reason for Russia’s distrust of Sweden. This coupled with the fact that Sweden has active interests in the Arctic means that it could be perceived once again as part of a hostile West by Russia, potentially marking it as a target where Russia can, in the best of cases, exert military pressure and in the worst of the cases, unleash a war[vii].

The Sweden-EU membership had a long debate on neutrality, given the country’s long tradition and the lack of will for any involvement in a conflict. The solution consisted of readapting the policy into a one where Sweden as a state would defend itself keeping the action within its territory. Later on, both Sweden and Finland both managed to shift the focus on common defence to a new one on crisis management and peacemaking operations with a special chapter of cooperation in non-military areas (Lundquist, 2013).

The War on Terror with its Afghanistan chapter and the financial crisis of 2008 also affected Sweden and its defence capacities.

Europe, along with Sweden, realized that to combat terrorism other tools that were a combination of military and civilian were needed, while the objectives to defeat terrorism consisted mainly of fighting terrorism itself, the decrease of WMD proliferation, and addressing regional conflicts and organized crime. This resulted in the inclusion of the nation without a formal membership to either NATO or the EU (Lundquist, 2013).

The financial crisis of 2008 forced Sweden to decrease its defence budget while facing the same dilemma as Europe of gaining better self-defence capabilities with a US that is also shrinking its military expenditures and shifting its strategic interests (namely towards Asia and the Pacific) (Lundquist, 2013).

In the meantime the Battle Group was launched with the intention of establishing rapid reaction forces with assets in the three military domains (Air, Sea and Land) and with the task of executing humanitarian aid, peace enforcement, crisis management and post-conflict stabilisation operations. But such initiatives never went beyond the blueprints (Lundquist, 2013). Thus the Swedish security concept was based on conflict prevention either in the vicinities or in another part of the world.

A strategy of Solidarity was adopted by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, where Sweden would collaborate on any UN, NATO and EU peace support operations, while at the same time launching the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) with the aim of setting a common defence framework to facilitate mutual defence, including operational cooperation and development and acquisition of material between the Nordic/Scandinavian nations (Lundquist, 2013). NORDEFCO is regarded as an important instance for cooperating in training, exercises and to manage resources, as well as in operations executed in international operations. Cooperation has so far been achieved with Finland, Norway and Latvia.

In 2009, Sweden issued its latest security and defence policy with the general objectives of safeguarding the population, the functioning of society and the protection of the Swedish ability to maintain values such as democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedom. Protection of sovereignty, rights and national interests, preventing and managing conflict and war, and protection of society and its functionality by aid to civilian authorities were also included. (Lundquist, 2013).

Interestingly, the Swedish Home Guard is considered as an important element for national defence, with national established forces permanent units on standby for fast availability and issued with modern hardware, equipment and improved training. Contracted personnel are also an organic part of the Home Guard and although based in the Swedish regions, they have a new concept of mobility that will allow them to support the tasks of the regular Armed Forces whenever and wherever needed[viii]. This is achieved by having a mix of contracted and voluntary units, as well as the Army, organized into battle groups with a “manoeuvre battalion” acting as a core of the group comprised of sections of different units. [ix].

The Air Force, in turn, is intended to develop capacities for multinational operations across Scandinavia & the northern countries, and even outside, and also to be able to execute operations within low-scale and high-intensity conflicts. The multi role SAAB JAS 39 C/D Gripen will be the core of Sweden’s air defence, while the helicopter battalion will have new models introduced[x].

Not to be left out, the Navy is to be operating in the Arctoc region, with the amphibious battalion transformed into one manoeuvre battalion with amphibious capacities whose focus are the off-shore sea combat and port areas. Cooperation with other nations in the region is also contemplated.

The Defence Policy of 2008/2009 reflects the Swedish efforts to transform its army, but the most remarkable is that all of the forces has now voluntary personnel, or to say more accurately, professional personnel with compulsory service only for the worst of the cases. In addition, the Ministry of Defence (2013) points out the role of the Ministry (and thus the Armed Forces) in coordinating and executing in the prevention and response to accidents, disasters, crises and even war. Disaster relief is also included along with search and rescue and reconstruction. Even humanitarian assistance is mentioned.

However, despite all this, Sweden still seems not to be ready at all to protect itself and the neighbouring states in the Baltic and Scandinavia, and it would be even less prepared if the Arctic turned into a geopolitical hot-spot. A situation that due to the events in Ukraine has become so much more believable and one that might also include Finland and the Baltic nations. The next part will focus then on whether Sweden is really prepared or not, why Finland and the Baltics might feel the weight of tensions between Sweden (and other Western Arctic Nations) and Russia, as well as the NATO and NORDEFCO implications for Swedish defence.


Åkested, T (2011). Hemvärnsförbaden 2012. Tidningen Hemvärnet. 71 (5), 14 -15.

Cenciotti, D (2013). Russian Intelligence Gathering Plane Flies Near Sweden. Swedish Air Force Allegedly Fails to Intercept it. Retrieved from: on 01.02.2014

Cdt Lunquist, D (2013). Swedish Security & Defence Policy 1990 – 2012. The transformation from neutrality to solidarity through a state identity perspective. Retrieved from Försvarshöksolan.

Stockholm, Sweden.  Retrieved from: urn:nbn:se:fhs:diva-3821.

Försvarmakten (n.d). Artillerie Regemente – A 9. Retrieved from: on 02.02.2014

Forsvarmakten (n.d). Helikopterflottiljen. Retrieved from: on 03.02.2014

Försvarmakten (n.d). Nörrbotten Regemente – I 19. Retrieved from: on 02.02.2014

Försvarmakten (n.d). Norrbottens Flygflottilj – F 21. Retrieved from: on 02.02.2014

Howorth, J (2007). Security and Defence Policy in the European Union. London: Palgrave.

Ministry of Defence (2009). A functional defence, Fact Sheet. Stockholm, Sweden.

Ministry of Defence (2013). The Ministry of Defence. Government Offices of Sweden. Stockholm, Sweden.

[i] Of course, Denmark and Canada are those that are also investing in a significant military presence in the area, although they do not have the same extent and power as the Norwegian one.

[ii] This point in particular will be further elaborated later on.

[iii] The reader must bear in mind the author’s previous review on Russia illustrating its military build up

[iv] See: Retrieved on 01.02.2014

[v] Neutrality, however, did not prevent the Swedish participation in the Korean War.

[vi] However this was fully implemented by 2010.

[vii] This probably by attacking Swedish territory from the sea or by advancing across the Baltic States and Finland to drive Sweden to battle.

[viii] For what concerns only the Artic/High North areas, by 2012 The Home Guard has 8 battalions stationed in the mid and upper areas of Sweden, all of them with air, reconnaissance, amphibious and even Chemical, Biologic, Radiologic and Nuclear defence as well as Arctic capacities. See: Åkested (2011), Hemvärnsförbaden 2012, pp. 14 – 15.

[ix] On the sole Arctic aspect, the army has the Norrbotten Regiment, with two mechanized (STVR 122 battletanks and CV90 Combat Vehicles included) and a ranger battalion tasked with developing the Ranger’s capacities and the overall Swedish Armed Forces’ winter warfare capacities. Also, there is the Arméns jägarbataljon which is a light elite infantry battalion and part of the Norrbotten Regiment, the Artillery Regiment with the tasks of Close Air Support, development of indirect fire support assets and the new Archer artillery system. See:

[x] The Norrbotten Air Wing is the aerial element for an Arctic scenario with the SAAB JAS 39 C/D as main assets, and a helicopter squadron based in the location as the Norrbotten Air Wing. See:

*Cover image ‘Viggen_08b‘ by


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