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Sweden plays down Russian Baltic operation

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Sweden plays down Russian Baltic operation
A 2013 image of a military hovercraft approaching Kaliningrad. Photo: AP
16:17 CET+01:00
An expert at the Swedish Defence Research Agency said on Monday that news Russia had set sail to a large-scale Baltic Sea training operation was "nothing new".

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported on Monday that 3,500 servicemen of the Russian Baltic Fleet were engaged in a "combat readiness" test operation outside Kaliningrad - the Russian seaport that has been an isolated territory since the Soviet Union's collapse.

But Gudrun Persson, researcher in Russian politics and history at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut - FOI) did not tie the news to current events in Ukraine, where Russian soldiers have moved in to Crimea and Ukrainian forces are mobilizing.

"It's impossible to tell if there is a link in this or something completely new," she wrote in a chat on the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper (SvD) on Monday. "So far I've only read the information from the news agency. But it's nothing new that the Baltic Sea marines are part of a training exercise that kicked off last week and that will end today."

She added that the exercise was scheduled to end on Monday, but that it had already been stated that it could continue up until March 7th before the ships return to base.

The Itar-Tass news agency reported that the operation was making use of over 450 units of military hardware including tanks, armoured carriers, and self-propelled artillery installations. Vladimir Matveyev, the chief of the public relations department of the Russian western military district, told Itar-Tass that the move was a "surprise inspection" of combat readiness.

The Swedish prime minister, on a visit to Uppsala, said that Russia's behaviour had become "unpredictable". Fredrik Reinfeldt also mentioned the "erratic actions of a mighty neighbour" that could lead to "more resources" for Swedish defence, reported Expressen.

Two days earlier, Swedish author and geopolitical expert Mikael Holmström wrote in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet that it was no surprise that Russia was acting like the Soviet Union of old. 

"Putin sees security as a zero sum game. When his neighbour fares well, Russia fares badly," Holmström wrote in reference to the political crisis in Ukraine. "That (view) collides with the Western view that security benefits everyone."

Kaliningrad, now sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, was mentioned in 2008 in the Russian response to US plans to build bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. President Vladimir Putin at the time said he would deploy short-range missiles to Kaliningrad. The Iskander missiles were not sent, however, Putin confirmed in his end of year address in 2013.

One Swedish MP told The Local that "media posturing" by Russia was nothing new, and was used strategically to inflate their importance on the world stage. The MP was not aware of the alleged Baltic Sea operation, but said it was legal and unremarkable that Russia would conduct a naval exercise on its own territory. 

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