HELSINKI — Sweden’s discomfort over Russia’s long-term political and military ambitions in the Baltic Sea and High North has risen further after a senior military chief stated the Nordic state could find itself under attack "within a few years."
The warning, made by Swedish Armed Forces’ Maj. Gen. Anders Brännström, came the same week that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed, in the organization’s Annual Report, that Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers accompanied by Sukhoi Su-27 jets conducted a simulated "training" nuclear strike targeting key Swedish defense installations in March 2013.
Brännström stated, in an internal military document forwarded to officers and soldiers attending the armed forces' Markstrids’ (Land Combat) conference in the sub-Arctic town of Boden, that the changed post-Cold War security landscape will require Sweden to downgrade international missions and prioritize reinforcing national defense readiness and capabilities.
"The world situation that we are experiencing, which is clear from strategic decisions made, leads to the conclusion that we could be at war within a few years. For all of us in the military we must, with all the force we can marshal, implement the political decisions," Brännström wrote in the memo.
The military chiefs’ appraisal mirrors the strategic assessment of Sweden’s political leaders, said Allan Widman, chairman of the Swedish national parliament’s Committee on Defense.
"My personal view is that the situation is now so serious that even Sweden, having enjoyed over 200 years of peace, must prepare mentally for the possibility that we will see a military conflict in our region that will also involve us," Widman said.
Developments in Ukraine and Georgia combined with low oil prices and a deteriorating national economic situation could propel Russia’s leadership into an even more aggressive mode, said Widman.
"The time will come, and it will happen sooner or later, where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin becomes pressured politically. The question is how will he respond to such a situation. Will he become humble and exit Crimea, or will he take other measures. Because of Putin’s track record, Sweden should prepare itself for the latter," Widman said.
Russia’s March 2013 "practice run attack" on Sweden fits a more visible pattern of high frequency "war-games" being waged by the Kremlin to intimidate its neighbors, both NATO-member and non-aligned states, in the Baltic Sea region, Widman said.
NATO described the simulated "attack," which was launched just outside Swedish airspace, as part of Russia’s overall military build-up in the region.
"The pace of Russia’s military maneuvers and drills have reached levels unseen since the height of the Cold War. Over the past three years, Russia has conducted at least 18 large-scale snap exercises, some of which have involved more than 100,000 troops," NATO stated in its annual report.
According to NATO, simulated attacks by Russia against Sweden and member states in the alliance are commonly used by the Kremlin to "mask massive movements of military forces," as happened in February 2014 ahead of the illegal annexation by Russia of Crimea.
Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, responding to the NATO confirmation regarding the character of the "simulated attack," said the government remains concerned about Russia’s military build-up and activities in Sweden’s immediate and broader neighborhood.
"In the years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggression against Ukraine, we are facing a deteriorating operating environment where Russia’s behavior has become more challenging with increased training [and] intelligence-gathering activities," Hultqvist said.
To strengthen national defense, Sweden intends to spend more on advanced weapon systems and readiness while seeking strategic and bilateral military agreements with the European Union, NATO, and the Nordic and Baltic states.
Swedish intelligence agencies believe that the March 2013 "attack" specifically targeted the Stockholm headquarters of the National Defense Radio Establishment, which operates Sweden’s signals intelligence center and early warning systems. The Swedish Air Force’s Hagshult airbase in Småland, located south of the capital, was another likely target.
The Russian force leading the simulated "attack" comprised four strategic Tupolev- 22M-3 bombers (NATO: Backfire C) and two Sukhoi-27 Flanker fighter aircraft escorts.
The war games-driven mock assault exposed both the level of under-funding and inefficiencies in the Swedish armed forces' readiness given that it was unable to scramble Gripen jets to intercept the approaching Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea.
The Tupolev 22M-3 and Sukhoi-27 aircraft were eventually shadowed by Danish F-16s, mobilized from NATO’s Šiauliai Baltic Air Policing airbase in Lithuania, back into Russian airspace.
The Swedish government reacted to the simulated "attack" by pledging additional funding to shore-up the country’s defense capabilities. As a result, more than US $2.1 billion will be invested in strengthening the military's readiness and warfare capabilities in 2016-2020.
Supreme Commander Gen. Micael Bydén outlined the potential threat scenario at a gathering of top Swedish political, industrial and military leaders at the Sälen defense and security policy conference in January.
"We must be aware that we are continuously being exposed to intelligence-gathering and campaigns. We also know that areas in our region, the Baltic and increasingly the Arctic, constitute areas of friction between Russia and the West," said Bydén.
The enlarged future budget will enable the armed forces to modernize its Air Force, surface and submarine fleets. Moreover, operations in the Baltic Sea area increased by 50 percent in 2015 as the military began refortifying its presence on Gotland, Sweden’s most southerly island in the Baltic Sea.
The armed forces is hoping that defense spending climbs to about 3 percent of GDP — the level that existed in 1975 — up from 1.5 percent in 2015.