Sweden moves to fortify strategic Gotland Island, which is a prime target for Putin

Sweden has declared it will discuss with NATO leaders plans to ramp up militarisation of the island of Gotland, a thousand square mile spit of land widely seen as the most strategic location in the Baltic Sea. Described by analysts and commentators as a ‘giant aircraft carrier’, Stockholm-administered Gotland lies just 120 miles off the coast of NATO’s Baltic triad of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but also just 230 miles north of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Its prime location offers huge advantages in the deployment and control of air and sea traffic in the Baltic Sea and has been referenced regularly by military analysts and commentators in Russian media as a highly desirable target. Sweden maintained a military presence on Gotland during the Cold War, and the island, at its peak, housed up to 25,000 troops. However, in 2005, it was almost wholly demilitarised.

Now, with Sweden’s accession to NATO complete, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said the prospect of re-arming Gotland was ‘one obvious thing to be discussed with our new NATO allies’ as part of a wider ramping up of military readiness in the Baltic. ‘Everything to do with the Baltic is such an obvious candidate (for the deployment of military resources),’ Kristersson told the FT in an interview earlier this week. ‘That goes in terms of presence on Gotland, but also in terms of surveillance and submarine capabilities.’

Russian military analyst and retired Navy Captain Vasily Dandykin told Russian newswire Sputnik that a remilitarisation of Gotland would be seen as a major problem in the halls of the Kremlin. ‘The size of this island makes it possible to put aviation, airfields, and naval bases… (to serve) the dream of both NATO bloc and the Americans to turn the Baltic Sea into a NATO sea… We understand what kind of threat this is,’ Dandykin said. ‘In any case, more intensive [Russian] exercises will take place in the Baltic. We have to understand that Finland too is already a NATO member. Therefore, our actions will be adequate – both from Kaliningrad, where the Baltic Fleet is based, and from the rest of Russia.’

Sweden has not gone to war in more than two centuries and until recently had drawn down its military capabilities to such an extent that its population, so poorly prepared for the possibility of conflict, even developed a term for it: ‘fredsskadad’, or ‘peace-damaged’. Sweden’s demilitarisation of Gotland in 2005 prompted alarm among NATO allies, particularly the Baltic states which had only just become members of the alliance one year prior. War planners have long struggled to work out how to stop those countries from being cut off from their allies if Russian land troops were to seize the 40-mile Suwalki Gap between Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

If the Kremlin were also to gain control of Gotland, it would leave Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sandwiched between the Russian mainland to the East, Kaliningrad to the West and yet another strategic location to the North. NATO repeatedly urged Stockholm to recognise the strategic importance of Gotland, but the government pressed on with its demilitarisation and Sweden’s armed forces effectively abandoned their ‘giant aircraft carrier’. Baltic fears were justified in 2013 when Russia conducted a widely condemned military drill which saw two of Moscow’s Tu-22M3 nuclear bombers, along with an escort of Su-27 fighter jets, perform dummy bombing manoeuvres that brought their wings within just 24 miles of the island.

This shock prompted Stockholm to re-embark on a programme of steady rearmament, but it was not until Russian tanks and warplanes tore across the Ukrainian border on February 24, 2022 that militarisation of Gotland picked up pace. The invasion of Ukraine constituted a watershed moment in Swedish foreign policy, prompting the government to abandon its two-century-long policy of military neutrality and non-alignment and submit an application to join NATO. Two years on, Sweden ‘s flag was raised at NATO’s Brussels headquarters on Monday, cementing the Nordic country’s place as the 32nd member of the security bloc. ‘The Russian, brutal, full-scale invasion against Ukraine united Sweden behind the conclusion that a full-fledged NATO membership is the only reasonable choice,’ Kristersson said.

Now the Scandinavian state appears fully cognisant of the Russian threat and has developed a well-trained and well-equipped military which boasts one of the world’s most advanced submarine fleets and a highly capable air force, with roughly 80 Gripen fighter jets. Swedish forces are also now involved in the Nordic drills of NATO’s mammoth military exercises, Steadfast Defender 2024, which will see some 90,000 troops participate in massive war games running from January to June. ‘We are humble, but we are also proud. We know the expectations for Sweden are high, but we also have high expectations for ourselves,’ Kristersson told reporters earlier this week following his country’s accession to NATO. ‘We will share burdens, responsibilities and risks with our allies.’

The country has been working in close partnership with the security alliance during military exercises over the years even prior to joining. Sweden also meets NATO’s defence spending target of 2% of gross domestic product. Sweden’s accession to the security alliance last week came days after Germany’s defence minister declared Putin’s army could launch an attack on allied countries within ‘five to eight years’. Boris Pistorius said the US, UK and EU ‘hear threats from the Kremlin almost every day… so we have to take into account that Vladimir Putin might even attack a NATO country one day’.

Pistorius told German outlet Der Tagesspiegel: ‘Our experts expect a period of five to eight years in which this could be possible. We have to learn to live with danger again and prepare ourselves — militarily, socially and in terms of civil defence,’ he concluded, pointing to an alarming speech made by Sweden’s Civil Defence Minister earlier this year in which he called on citizens to prepare for the prospect of war. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas believes a Russia-NATO confrontation is even more imminent, giving a timeframe of just three to five years for Europe to prepare for a serious military threat on the alliance’s eastern flank.

And Admiral Rob Bauer, the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee urged both civilians and governments to prepare for cataclysmic conflicts and the chilling prospect of being conscripted. ‘We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [NATO forces] have the plans, that’s why we are preparing for a conflict with Russia,’ Bauer told reporters after a recent meeting of NATO defence chiefs in Brussels. ‘But the discussion is much wider. It is also the industrial base and also the people that have to understand they play a role.’

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