Years of cuts have left Sweden defenceless

In less than fifteen years Sweden has gone from having a national defence force to a security policy based on the assumption that territorial defence is no longer needed. Military resources are only deemed relevant as political markers in distant conflicts and Sweden's territory has become nothing more than a training ground and a shipping station.

This total focus on symbolic international operations may be an international phenomenon, but there has been no more rapid and all-encompassing shift in Sweden’s security policy since the end of the country’s time as a great power.

Focusing Sweden’s military resources on involvement in operations such as Afghanistan is, in two respects, misguided.

First, such international operations can put smaller nations in a Catch-22 situation, where their influence is negligible, or, in certain circumstances, negative. While soldiers on the ground clearly do their best to carry out the tasks they are given, the focus at home is on protecting the troops since losses will lead to any involvement being questioned.

Secondly, there is a widely-held view that since Sweden gets to wave its flag and sit at the big table with other nations, a military contribution to far-off conflicts is a kind of investment in the big Western security bank. But that might turn out as wishful thinking.

The assumed multinational security guarantees of today are far less secure than those informal guarantees Sweden, although formally non-aligned, got during the Cold War. Those guarantees of protection in case of a Soviet assault were not based on political brownie points but on the strategic calculations and operational considerations of the major Western powers.

Sweden would be helped because it was in the interests of the West. And Sweden could be helped because the country had such resources at its disposal as to make any assistance worthwhile.

Today, the EU may be an economic giant but its so-called security architecture, which is where Sweden’s hopes of defence now lie, is weak and untested in the face of any serious threat. That would not matter if we were witnessing an unambiguous new security order based on economic integration and cooperation. But we are not.

In point after point, Russia’s security policies undermine the assumptions on which the EU’s – and thereby Sweden’s – own security policies are founded. Nevertheless, a conflict with Russia is considered unthinkable and is not even one of the crisis scenarios that the EU’s planners are grappling with.

But even in the 1990s it was clear that as Russia emerged from those chaotic years, it would begin to define its national security once again in geostrategic terms. And if Russia is to use its military power against an outside world that has shifted to a new globalised security order, we should not expect it to follow the same pattern as in the Cold War.

For a start, there is no real military opponent in Europe and the global security system itself is open to new forms of state-sponsored terrorism. We only have to look at the way international organised crime has exploited the free movement of people, labour and money for an idea of where the threats lie.

The old threat will not return. But the threat of armed agression could return in a mutated form, just as it always has over the last two hundred years.

Defence policy is insurance against the worst that could happen in a future that we cannot predict. But after years of existential angst and budgetary black holes, Sweden’s military has finally taken down its flag, emptied its stores and fled the field.

Professor Wilhelm Agrell is a researcher and teacher at the Peace Research Institute of Lund University. He has published a number of books on military and intelligence matters.