Gotland, The Swedish Island Standing Between Russia And NATO Vulnerability
The Swedish island of Gotland is the last bastion between Russia and the entire Baltic region. Sweden has been busy fortifying the island, with the stakes even higher as Stockholm is set to join NATO, and life for locals makes it clear that something has changed.
VISBY (Gotland) — Dag Svensson is kneeling on the ground in full combat gear. Propped on his shoulder is a 12-kilogram anti-tank guided missile, also known as an NLAW. Under the stern gaze of his captain, Svensson takes aim — a red laser dot in the scope indicates his target — and releases the safety with the fingers of his right hand and presses the ignition button.
There is no recoil from the rocket today, instead a mechanical whirring comes from the housing. Dag's captain is happy, so is Dag.
"I could fire in the field at any time," he says confidently. It is also clear what he would aim for if the exercise turned into an emergency: "We are training here to meet the Russians."
Dag is compactly built and wears a full beard braided on his chin; he is a single father of a daughter. In normal times, he devotes all his professional time to teaching fourth graders how to work with wood. Now, Swedish soldiers from the mainland teach him how to protect Gotland's critical infrastructure as part of a rapid reaction force in the event of an attack — and how to blow up armored military vehicles.
Massive new defense investment
It's true that more than 1,000 kilometers still separate his homeland from the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. Yet since February 24 nothing on Gotland is as it was before. With the start of Moscow's invasion, the decades-old abstract scenario of having to defend one's homeland from the imposing Russian neighbor became a plausible future.
If it were to fall into enemy hands, the Baltic states would be lost.
Nowhere in the country is this more evident than on the scenic Baltic island of Gotland, which occupies a key geographical position. If it were to fall into enemy hands, the Baltic states would be all but lost, and the Nordic Baltic states would be largely cut off from NATO aid by sea.
Dag and a dozen or so other men are part of a growing group of volunteers undergoing basic training for the island's defense. They are not the only ones growing in number. Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, defense capacities have been expanded, and the government in Stockholm put together a financial package of around 150 million euros to expand the infrastructure on the island so that significantly more servicemen and women can be based here and ready for action in the future.
Following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Swedish government has sent troops and tanks back to Gotland
Swedish Guard let down after Cold War
Gotland, strategically located in the middle of the southern Baltic Sea, has experienced foreign invasions throughout its history. Most recently in 1808, when Russian troops briefly occupied the island. After the end of the Cold War, however, the risk of Russian aggression was deemed so low that the armed forces were reduced to a minimum.
Stockholm refocused the military on peacekeeping missions abroad, rather than on defending its own territory. The Gotland Regiment was closed in 2005 as part of the downsizing of the military, and Sweden even abolished conscription.
But then came 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Moscow's breach of international law led to a rethink in Sweden. The government sent troops and tanks back to Gotland, and in 2017 the Scandinavian country reintroduced conscription. Two years later, it stationed a modernized surface-to-air missile defense system on Gotland.
Several hundred Swedish soldiers are now permanently stationed on the island — and there are even more volunteers who live on the island permanently and now spend significantly more time on the military grounds training for emergencies.
This new awareness, as well as the special funds Stockholm is allocating for the development of military infrastructure on Gotland, comes in the wake of the increasingly real threat from Moscow.
"There is a history of hybrid attacks on Lithuania and Poland, and we are hearing very brutal language from the Kremlin," Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said. "We want to make it very clear now that we are ready to defend Sweden. And that's why we're doing what we're doing on the island of Gotland."
NATO membership flips equation
But Sweden's rearmament is by no means limited to Gotland. After more than 200 years of military non-alignment, the country has also decided to join NATO. Similar to its neighbor and friendly rival Finland, public support for membership had hovered between 20 and 30 percent for two decades. But then an unprecedented change of opinion took place after the invasion of Ukraine, to which Stockholm had to react.
Joining NATO would mean much better protection for Sweden and Finland, and two strong new members for the Alliance, having long invested in modern land, sea and air forces.
All acknowledge that the approximately 1,200-kilometer land border between Finland and Russia is almost impossible to secure, and does not directly threaten the security situation across the Baltic Sea region. Still, both Stockholm and the defense alliance are now looking very closely at Gotland.
NATO countries would be required to come to the aid of their attacked partners in the region.
For the Swedes' most popular vacation island is far more than beach cottages and sheep pastures. Gotland, framed by the Baltic coasts of Sweden and Latvia, is not far from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, where Russia has been arming for years and host to Moscow's Baltic fleet.
Magnus Frykvall, commander of the armed forces on the island, says the vicinity to Russia's Baltic fleet makes it clear how high the stakes are on Gotland.
"If Russia takes Gotland from Kaliningrad and equips it with modern surface-to-air and anti-ship missile systems, the bordering countries would have an extremely difficult time using both airspace and sea lanes in the Baltic Sea area," explains Frykvall.
That would necessarily create a major problem for other NATO countries, required to come to the aid of their attacked partners in the region. "The reinforcement would be carried out mainly via the sea route, but even such operations would then hardly be feasible".
The Swedes' most popular vacation island is far more than beach cottages and sheep pastures
A mood change
Moreover, once Russia succeeds in occupying the island, it would be difficult to recapture, a fact that describes both the island's major strength and vulnerability. In order to be well prepared for an attack, you don't need masses of soldiers on Gotland, which has a population of almost 60,000, according to the commander-in-chief.
Recurring exercises with international partners such as the U.S. and Britain, as well as the arrival of heavy war equipment, has made the island increasingly militarized. With special permission from the armed forces, some of this equipment can be seen at the new troop site, about 20 minutes by car outside the island's capital, Visby.
There have long been divided opinions about the military presence.
Military emergency vehicles are lined up under the roof of a vehicle hall, including brand-new Gepard tanks made in Germany next to Swedish tanks that have barely been scratched. Not far away, in a gymnasium converted into a training room, Dag and his colleagues hone their marksmanship with anti-tank weapons.
Dag spends several weeks at a time at the military base to receive further training. Meanwhile, his father fills in for him as a crafts teacher at school, and Dag's mother takes care of his daughter. "My family, as well as friends and work colleagues, support me wholeheartedly while I'm here, even if it means some inconvenience for them."
Dag has lived on Gotland all his life and tells of the change in mood on the island. Even on Gotland, where the Russian threat has always been more present than anywhere else in the country, there have long been divided opinions about the military presence, which doesn't really fit in with the peaceful island idyll.
"Since the war, however, that hasn't been an issue anymore," says Dag. "Everyone now knows that we have to be prepared for the worst."
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