Categories: Archive

Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores VIII: Sweden (part 3)

Dominium Maris Baltici

There is a lot of history between Sweden, the Baltic States and Russia. Since the early modern times of Europe, both Sweden and Russia have clashed over control of the Baltic region and sea. Even if the Arctic becomes the new “Baltic” or a new source of clashes between the old rivals, the Baltics States and the Baltic Sea would once again become a scenario for further and renewed confrontations. Given recent Russian attitudes, it is conceivable that the region could be another scene of major tensions with Russia over the Arctic.

In the past, Sweden’s desire to control Russian trade and the ensuing Livonian War, during which the first major clashes with Russia took place, resulted in it gaining control of Estonia and Latvia. As a result, for many years Estonia was the cradle of the Swedish Empire and turned the capital issue of every Swedish policy onwards [i]. The Baltic possessions were then lost to Russia after the Great Northern War (1700—1721), a war in which the Russian Czar founded St. Petersburg as a forward post to halt Sweden and to control the ever-contended Baltics (STRATFOR, 2009).

However, the fact that the Swedish dominance over the area ended long ago does not mean that the Baltic States are no longer an issue for the Swedish defence. In fact, Sweden considers the so-called peaceful times after the Cold War as being anything but granted, and that the use of force is very likely to be needed in future. Russia is the main state indicated in this regard, especially after the attitudes it is taking with the resuming of aerial patrols with nuclear bombers over the High North/Baltic area, cyber-attacks and protest after the removal of a monument in Estonia and the War in Georgia of 2008 (Gotkowska, 2013). Moreover and as Gotkowska (2013) remarks, other sources of unease are those related to the increase of energy resource transport in the Baltic and the presence of significant Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia. Also, the sole presence of resources at the High North along with fishing and maritime transportation, in addition to Russian ambitions, modernization and willingness to use its armed forces are a factor in the Swedish perceptions regarding both regions.

The presence of the Russian minorities can be a source for instability in the aforementioned countries just as it happened in Ukraine in Crimea and now in the Donetsk region. As Neretnieks (2011) remarks, Sweden will, beyond any doubt, be heavily affected by any conflict in the area and the factor of the Russian minorities is regarded as one possible cause for high tensions in the area. This could have the effect of, at the very least, dragging Sweden into participating in NATO naval exercises to deter any Russian action. This scenario is becoming more and more likely day by day now that Russia is promoting unrest in its neighbouring nations to justify either interventions or territorial annexations. Once again, Ukraine and Georgia are the examples of a similar situation.

A second possible cause for tensions is a direct Russian threat of invasion of the Baltic States via a military build-up in response to Stockholm allowing its bases to be used by NATO aerial assets and NATO inviting Sweden to participate in a deployment of its forces as a deterrent in the area.

A third possible cause is a war unleashed by Russia against the Baltic States and the NATO north-east Area with Sweden collaborating in the defence of the countries and with the probability of its airspace being used for NATO operations (Neretnieks, 2011).

As Neretnieks (2011) points out, it seems that even in the worst case scenario, the Swedish aim is not to wage a confrontation with Russia on Swedish territory but in a nearby territory, with the aim of preventing Russia reaching its mainland. A quote from King Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War, cited by Neretnieks (2011), definitely sums up this strategic stance: “…the enemy should be prevented from gaining a foothold on the Baltic coast and that the war should be waged on foreign soil.”

Any of these scenarios are not only a matter of national defence for Sweden however; as STRATFOR(2009) points out, Sweden and the Baltic States also have strong economic ties. For example, Estonia alone receives three quarters of its total external investment from Sweden and Finland (Aruja, 2014), or about 3.65 billion Euros by 2011, as well as 12.49% in Latvia and 11.1% – 60 million Euros – in Lithuania by 2011 (Zeljković, 2012). There is a new sort of Dominium Maris Baltici (Baltic Sea dominion) that could be jeopardised by any hostile Russian action, even if tensions take place in a “far” place such as the Arctic[ii]. And the Baltic States are vulnerable to any clash between Russia, the West and Sweden. As such, so are the Swedish interests in the area which would be very vulnerable in the case of a crisis in the High North.  

The Land of Ice and Snow

But its not just the Baltic region that is cause for concern for Sweden when it comes to its competition with Russia. Finland, for instance, also plays a role in both scenarios and is an important element for Sweden’s defence policies and interests.

There is a long history between Sweden, Finland and Russia, with Sweden having controlled Finland for 6 centuries until 1808 when it was lost to Russia in the Finnish War. During that war, Sweden saw the peril of falling under Russian rule as the Russian troops advanced towards Stockholm through Swedish territory, using Finnish territory as a base to launch its attacks. Despite losing control over Finland, Sweden did manage to stop that Russian invasion but since then it has used Finland as a strategic buffer to avoid a similar situation – even aiming to prevent Finland from ever being used as a base for a similar attack – by using the Northern Area of Scandinavia as a possible scenario to do so (STRATFOR, 2009).

Sweden, despite its neutrality, played a significant role in the independence of Finland and the following Civil War (a Soviet attempt to retain control over Finland through a local communist army and party) and during the Winter War. In the first case, Swedish volunteers formed a Brigade that fought alongside the Whites in the Battle of Tampere, contributing to their victory over the Russians and their local supporters[iii]. In the second case, Sweden provided Finland with 8000 troops, supplies and weaponry (from light infantry weapons to field artillery, anti-aircraft and anti-armour artillery. Even 17 fighters, 5 light bombers, a transport aircraft and 3 reconnaissance aircraft were given as an aid[iv].  The reasons behind these moves were much the same as those today, as Sprague (2010) points out: firstly, to keep Finland as a buffer zone against any Soviet aggression and secondly because of the brotherhood between Sweden and Finland. Interestingly, the aid was planned several months prior to the aggression and the very same day Soviet troops invaded Finland, recruitment centres were opened in Sweden.

The Northern Warriors and the High North Defence: NATO and NORDEFCO

It is often thought that the Partnership for Peace and the collaboration between NATO and Sweden is something recent but during the Cold War, and despite its neutrality policy, Sweden actively sought NATO and Western assurance that they would assist in the event of a war breaking out in Europe to avoid Soviet occupation (Gotkowska, 2013). This means then that Sweden’s approach to NATO is not something new, today the changing circumstances have simply allowed the country to openly approach NATO.

This relationship can be of absolute benefit for Sweden in the case of an Arctic-Finland-Baltic crisis, as Sweden can now have access to NATO capacities and support in the worst of the cases. As Gotkowska (2013) points out, Sweden prefers NATO since it offers advanced command structures and capabilities to execute military operations during a crisis. And those definitely benefit Sweden to manage its defence and to address any crisis in what I would call the “High North Sweden’s Strategic Triangle” (and issues): The Arctic, Finland, and the Baltics and facing Russia as the main threat[v].

The declaration of solidarity in 2009, in which Sweden expressly declared its willingness to provide assistance to any EU or Nordic nation simply made the ties with NATO stronger, and was a move that comes after the realization of the absolute involvement of Sweden in one way or another in the case of a crisis (Gotkowska, 2013). And since Russia views the West in a negative way and as an entity to be confronted, a hypothetical situation with the Arctic as the starting point and subsequently sparking tensions in the other areas is not unlikely and would mean Sweden would be forced to take an active role to protect itself and its interests.

Given the recent developments in Ukraine and the Eastern-Baltic areas of Europe, NATO has increased its strategic value for Sweden for the sake of its defence and of the Strategic Triangle. And of course it has sparked a strong debate in the country. NATO is now perceived as a must as a result of years of defence cuts, reforms and the shifting of strategic aims from National Defence to peacekeeping operations. This situation makes the country even more dependent on foreign assistance than during the Cold War and a full membership to NATO can secure such assistance during a crisis. This comes after a crude realization that Sweden cannot defend itself alone, and some current policies and mechanisms are not effective either (Salonius – Pasternak, 2013). As Ford (2014) remarks, Crimea is pushing Sweden to consider a full NATO membership as the most practical option to face Russia, as a similar situation to that of Crimea could take place with the island of Götland, a key strategic position that could provide Russia with a strategic control in the whole Baltic area [vi]. That, combined with a nearby Russian pipeline, could give Russia all the more reasons to move in. Indeed, Putin declared his intentions on defending such economic assets to the extent that Russian bombers and fighters intruded upon Swedish airspace to simulate an attack on Götland[vii].

In any case, Sweden has participated in NATO-led operations since 2009 and in the Partnership for Peace Programme within the Nordic Region and even outside Europe, such as the operations in the Horn of Africa and Libya.

The European Union came to the table as well and through the Nordic Battle Group, comprising the nations of Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Denmark and Iceland, Sweden expects to enhance cooperation with the Nordic Nations’ armed forces (Swedish Armed Forces, 2009). But Sweden has another mechanism, well related to the Nordic Battle Group: The Nordic Defence Cooperation, comprised of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. This mechanism seeks to enhance the members’ defence via cooperation and by defining the strategic needs, setting up inter-operational capacities, effects and quality, and by technological cooperation and any other forms of assistance and military integration. This general objective may also enhance the national defence capacities of the members as well as to allow them to reach an efficient production of defence assets and to enhance contributions to other operations led by UN, NATO, and the EU (NORDEFCO, 2013).

This mechanism in particular can be of extreme importance and benefits for Sweden and the other Nordic Nations not only for the sake of their own defence strategic needs and the defence of Scandinavia as a whole, but also because all of the aforementioned nations are members of the Arctic Council, having in turn their own strategic needs and policies regarding the area. All of them are facing the same military-strategic threat posed by Russia in the Arctic and will be affected in the same way if tensions between the West or between one of the Nordic-Arctic Nations and Russia, erupts.

What can Sweden do at last to face a Ragnarök unleashed by Russia? How can Sweden secure its Arctic/High North area while at the same time being prepared to secure its other strategic areas following a Russian will to drive possible Arctic tensions into those areas? In short, how can Sweden avoid and/or even manage a perilous situation taking place at its Northern Corner of the Strategic Triangle and how will that affect the Baltic and Finnish corners? The elements, problems, advantages and weaknesses have been pointed out, but these questions will be answered as a sort of recommendations and conclusions on Sweden and its High North in the light of all the previously mentioned elements in the next article.


Aruja, E (2014). Estonia. Economy. In: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from: on 14.04.2014

Ford, M (2014). After Crimea, Sweden Flirts with Joining NATO. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: on 02.02.2014

Gotkowska, J (2013). Sitting on the Fence. Swedish Defence Policy and the Baltics Sea Region. In: Point of View. 33. Centre for Eastern Studies. Warsaw, Poland.

Juhani & et al (n.a.). Swedish Brigade. War of Independence. Retrieved from: on 20.04.2014

Neretnieks, K (2011). Sweden and Stability in the Baltic Sea Region. In: Nordic – Baltic Security in the 21st Century: The Regional Agenda and the Global Role (Nurik, R., & Nordenman, M. Eds.). pp 12 – 15. Atlantic Council, Washington, US.  

NORDEFCO (2013). Annual Report 2013.

(2014). The Basics about NORDEFCO. Retrieved from: on 20.04.2014

Rare Historical Photos (n.a). A Swedish Volunteer in the Winter War, Finland, 1940. Retrieved from: on 20.04.2014.

Roberts, M (1984). The Making of the Empire. The Swedish Imperial Experience 1560 – 1718. (pp. 1 – 42). Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Salonius – Pasternak, C (2013). Swedish defence illusions are crumbling. In: FIIA Comment, 6. The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki, Finland.

Sparks, B (2014). The Warfare Historian. Finland’s Civil War 1918: Red & White Suomi and the Kinship Wars, 1918-1922. Retrieved from: on 20.04.2014

Sprague, M (2010). Introduction. Swedish Volunteers in the Russo-Finnish Winter War, 1939-1940. (pp. 1 – 6) McFarland, North Carolina, US.

STRATFOR (2009). The Geopolitics of Sweden: A Baltic Power Reborn. STRATFOR, Austin, Texas. US.

Swedish Armed Forces (2009). The Pocket Guide to the Swedish Armed Forces 2009. Public Relations Office. Stockholm, Sweden.

Zeljković, N (2012). Scandinavian investments in the Baltic States and Nordic-Baltic cooperation. Norden Centrum, Nordic Monitor. Retrieved from:  on 14.04.2014

[i] This is also known as the “Dominium Maris Baltici” policy, or in other words, the Swedish aim to gain control of the Baltic Sea to further its geopolitical and economic interestsSee: Roberts, (1984) pp. 16 – 17.

[ii] STRATFOR (2009) accounts that the current prosperity of the region is pushing Sweden to lead and take advantage of it.

[iii]See: Juhani & et al (n.a.). Swedish Brigade. War of Independence. Retrieved from: on 20.04.2014. And: Sparks, B (2014). The Warfare Historian. Finland’s Civil War 1918: Red & White Suomi and the Kinship Wars, 1918-1922. Retrieved from: on 20.04.2014. It worth to note that even Estonian and Swedish volunteers, along with Finnish troops, fought in the Estonian War of Independence.

[iv] See: Rare Historical Photos (n.a). A Swedish Volunteer in the Winter War, Finland, 1940. Retrieved from: on 20.04.2014.

[v] The reader must keep in mind that the three corners of the triangle are highly interconnected with each other and that any crisis in one could and would have effects on the other two, affecting its core: Sweden’s main territory.

[vi] The value of the pipeline is of $ 11 billion and transport 55 billion cubic meters of gas to Western Europe, according to Ford (2014).

[vii] See: Ford, M (2014). After Crimea, Sweden Flirts with Joining NATO. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: on 02.02.2014.

*Cover Image ‘Aircraft_Fighter_Jet_Saab_JAS-39_Gripen_1‘ by mashleymorgan


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