“The Baltic Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier”. This is how the military and defense experts describe the Swedish island of Gotland. It is an island similar in size to Mallorca, about 200 kilometers from mainland Swedena little more than 300 kilometers from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Its waters are navigable all year round, they do not freeze. These characteristics make it the most strategic point in the Baltic Sea: “If you control Gotland you control a lot of space under the sea, on the surface and in the air space”summarizes Johan Rudhe, a major in the Swedish Army.
The latest NATO maneuvers took place on the island of Gotland this June, and a team from RTVE has been there.
Gotland is an island whose capital, Visby, oozes history and is perfect for illustrating the ideal Nordic model of society: beautiful, clean, and now in June, teeming with blooming lilacs and mimosas. As an appendage of Gotland, to the north is a small island, Farö, also known as Bergman’s Island because Igmar Bergman lived there and shot several films.
During the Cold War, foreigners were barred from Farö and Swedes had to undergo thorough police inspections. “That northern part was a fort, it was completely militarized, we were the lookouts of the West off the coast of the USSR. There were days when our radars were full of white dots: Soviet ships and submarines,” recalls retired Coast Guard Major John Stovring.
“They dismantled everything when the USSR fell, they believed that peace was guaranteed, not realizing that building a defense like that takes ten years,” says Rutger Bandhohz, another retired coast guard. Both act as guides for us in the part of the military museum dedicated to the Cold War. “We were officially neutral, but that does not mean that we were not on a side, to whom we passed the information,” Bandhohz clarifies.
Sweden and its neutrality
The Swedes are very proud to wearr two centuries without participating as combatants in no war, since 1914 against Norway.
Sweden, like Finland, is not a member of NATO and did not enter the European Union until the Soviet Union disappeared and the Cold War officially ended in 1995, nine years after Spain and Portugal. Likewise, starting in 1994, Sweden established an increasingly close relationship with the Alliance, as illustrated by these exercises in June, BALTOPS 22, with the participation of soldiers from 16 countries, 14 NATO members, plus Sweden and Finland.
As a partner, Sweden has participated in NATO operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.
Despite this clear military alignment with the West, the concept of neutrality has become embedded in Swedish society. and, above all, in the main party that has governed the country, the Social Democrats. Unlike Finland, Sweden has no recent memory of a Russian invasion, nor does it have a border with Russia.
Finland has been a “buffer”, an isolation chamber, for Russia and also for Sweden. When the Finnish government made the decision to apply for NATO membership, the Swede hesitated. The social support is not as extensive as in Finland, despite the fact that it has also shot up after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But at the same time, if Finland entered and Sweden did not, this country would remain as a strange island, associated, but outside NATO.
In the end, the Social Democratic Party, and with it the Government, chose to be full members and, once again, Sweden and Finland have gone hand in hand in a post-cold war step.
During the exercises, when asking several officers of the Swedish Army to explain the difference between the current collaboration with NATO and being a full member, the answer has been the same and with the same metaphor: “Article 5”. “It is like car insurance, you can have it partially insured or fully insured. Entering NATO is having all-risk insurance”. The famous article 5 means that an attack on a NATO member is an attack on all, like the oath of “The Three Musketeers”, “one for all, and all for one”.
“That is absurd. There is no need. With the agreements in place, if they attacked Sweden, NATO would come to our defence.”, is the replica of Robert Hall, candidate of the Greens for Gotland. “The difference is that, once inside, the rest will decide in which conflicts we should intervene and we can find ourselves involved in undemocratic situations.” The Greens also criticize the haste with which the Social Democratic government has made the decision, without a real national debate. That the veto of Erdogan’s Turkey is suddenly an ally of those who oppose joining NATO leads Hall to the following reflection: “That Turkey, a country that has been in democratic decline for years and that violates the human rights of the population Kurdish, has so much weight in NATO shows that it is not an organization of democracies”.
Sweden’s reception policy is precisely Erdogan’s argument for his blockade. At the same time, apart from ideological questions, the parliamentary majority of the current Swedish government depends on the vote of a deputy born in Iranian Kurdistan.