VISBY, Sweden (AP) – Having to defend Gotland against a foreign invasion seemed such a far-fetched notion to Swedish policymakers earlier in the century that they demilitarized the Baltic island.
Now the Swedish armed forces are back, practicing with US troops not only how to defend the island of 58,000 but also how to retake it from a foreign attacker.
US Marines have conducted airdrops and amphibious landings on Gotland as part of a NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea.
Although the annual BALTOPS exercise is not held in response to any specific threat, this year’s edition comes amid heightened tensions with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Around 7,000 military personnel and 45 ships from 14 NATO countries as well as Sweden and Finland took part.
CONTINUE READING: NATO is conducting naval exercises with Finland and Sweden
Despite their non-aligned status, the two Nordic countries have regularly practiced with NATO countries, and their governments opted for full membership of the western military alliance after the Ukraine war.
“I feel really well prepared. I mean, we made a big operation on Gotland and we will defend Gotland,” said Swedish Colonel Magnus Frykvall, the island’s regimental commander, as military equipment was stationed on the coast. “It’s a really difficult task to take a defended island.”
Strategically located in the middle of the southern part of the Baltic Sea, Gotland has seen foreign invasions throughout its history, the most recent being in 1808 when it was briefly occupied by Russian forces.
But after the end of the Cold War, Sweden considered the risk of Russian aggression so remote that it focused its forces on foreign peacekeeping operations rather than territorial defense. The Gotland Regiment was closed in 2005 when Sweden downsized its military.
The annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea by Russia in 2014 led to a rethink, and in 2018 a new regiment was set up on Gotland. Around 400 Swedish soldiers are now permanently stationed on the island. Further reinforcements are planned after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Despite this, many Gotlanders believe that Sweden could not defend the island alone.
“If we were attacked, we wouldn’t have a chance because our defense is too weak. We have a really modern and good defense, but it’s too small,” said Lars Söderdahl, a 33-year-old cook in the island’s capital Visby.
Sweden, which has stayed out of military alliances since the Napoleonic Wars, joined Finland in a historic move last month to apply for NATO membership. The existing 30 NATO members will discuss the issue this month. Turkey has threatened to withhold the applications over the two countries’ alleged support for Kurdish groups.
Finland and Sweden obtained security guarantees from the US and other NATO countries during the application period.
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Kicking off BALTOPS exercises in Stockholm last weekend, US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was important for NATO allies to “show solidarity with both Finland and Sweden”.
Their membership in the alliance would put Russia in a difficult military position, since the Baltic Sea would be surrounded by NATO members, with the exception of Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and the Russian city of St. Petersburg and its environs.
The strategic importance of Gotland, a popular summer vacation spot for Swedes, is often associated with the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are particularly concerned about Russian aggression after invading Ukraine. Gotland is approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) from mainland Sweden and 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the coast of Latvia.
“The thing is, from here you make supplying and supporting the Baltic states a lot easier or a lot harder depending on who’s in control of the island,” Uppsala University academic Mikael Norrby told The Associated Press.
Coinciding with NATO exercises, Russia’s Baltic Fleet launched its own military exercises this week. The fleet press service on Tuesday described the maneuvers as a planned exercise focused on “various types of security tasks,” including tracking and destroying enemy submarines.
“There are more than 20 warships and boats in the sea areas of the Baltic Fleet, performing combat tasks both individually and as part of ship search and strike groups and ship strike groups,” the press service said in a statement.
It added that corvettes, patrol ships, small missile carriers, anti-submarine ships, minesweepers and landing hovercraft took part in the exercises.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.