Regional focus welcomed in Bildt’s speech

Sweden’s foreign minister chose to begin his annual foreign policy speech with a focus on Nordic and Baltic cooperation, calling for a new “Hanseatic age of prosperity” and underlining joint military tasks.

Regional focus welcomed in Bildt's speech

“Ferry lines, transport corridors and fibre optic cables are linking the old Hanseatic network back together, ushering in a new age of prosperity,” Carl Bildt said in his Wednesday address to the Swedish parliament.

He also welcomed Russian WTO membership.

He underlined increased military cooperation with Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, both at home and in joint operations abroad such as Afghanistan.

Sweden and Finland will help Norway to police Icelandic airspace by 2014, he said.

Bildt also prioritized the EU in his speech, calling it a “force for peace” and warning that individual member states’ woes should not distract from that analysis.

He welcomed would-be union members but briefly outlined their challenges, including organized crime in Montenegro and the challenges of political cohesion in Bosnia & Herzegovina and also Albania.

Moldova, meanwhile, was making progress, Bildt said, while Ukraine was “at a standstill” and Belarus was choosing “to isolate itself”.

He expressed more hope about progress in Turkey.

“We welcome Turkey’s ongoing modernization as a step towards full membership. We hope that a new constitution will ensure full rights and freedoms for everyone,” Bildt said.

“We welcome the additional steps that have been taken to improve the rights of Kurds.”

Bildt then turned to the Arab Spring, saying developments in the Middle East two years after pro-democracy uprisings began were today “dominated by challenges and tragedies”.

“It was a revolution of rising expectations that propelled the Arab awakening. But if opportunities do not materialize, we risk a revolution of disappointed expectations,” he said.

The EU, he underscored, was working with Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt on reform, but said “we have demands, in particular for women’s and minorities’ rights”.

He also took a critical stance on Israeli settlements and said “excessive violence” towards Palestinians had to end, before urging both parts of the conflict to work together to find a resolution.

“This vicious circle must be broken before it destroys the potential for a two-state solution and leads the region into new devastating wars,” he said.

As Bildt wrapped up his speech, foreign policy spokespersons for the other parties in parliament were welcomed to address the Riksdag.

Social Democrat spokesman Urban Ahlin welcomed Bildt’s Nordic focus, but said that the United Nations did not receive enough attention in the government’s foreign policy, calling Sweden’s UN engagement “poor”.

He also urged Sweden to recognize a Palestinian state.

Bodil Ceballos of the Green Party took over the debate from there, arguing that Sweden needed to be a leader in climate and environment issues, despite Bildt’s assertion minutes earlier that Sweden had ambitious environmental targets.

The Sweden Democrats spokeswoman instead took aim at Bildt’s EU optimism. Julia Kronlid said Sweden had fallen into an “EU-friendly slumber” and argued that Swedes should be awarded the chance to express their views on EU membership in the way Britons will be able to do following Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise of a referendum.

Once Bildt was given a chance to respond, he took a jab at the Sweden Democrats, saying they wanted “to keep the world out of Sweden and Sweden out of the world”.

The Left Party’s Hans Linde criticized the government’s foreign policy for helping the powerful at the expense of the powerless. He accused the government of investing in firms that contribute to poverty.

The Liberal Party (Folkpartiet), a key ally and coalition partner of Bildt’s Moderate Party, took aim at the what he called the unclear content of the opposition’s would-be foreign policy.

Spokesman Fredrik Malm said the foreign policy of the red-green opposition parties was like “frozen lasagne”.

“Nice on the outside, but you never know what’s inside,” said Malm.

Malm continued that Swedes need to understand that issue of refugees constitute a permanent, rather than temporary, issue.

He also echoed party leader Jan Björklund’s comments earlier in the week by calling for an increase in defence spending, and also said it was time for Sweden to join Nato, a long-standing Liberal Party desire.

David Landes, Ann Törnvist

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‘Russia rehearsed invasion of Sweden’

Claims that thousands of Russian soldiers took part in a huge military exercise which simulated a takeover of the Swedish island of Gotland earlier this year have caused jitters in Sweden.

'Russia rehearsed invasion of Sweden'
Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Some 33,000 Russian soldiers rehearsed a military takeover of the Baltic Sea area on March 21st to 25th, including practising the seizure of Gotland off Sweden's east coast, Danish island Bornholm, Finland's Swedish-speaking Åland islands and northern Norway, security expert Edward Lucas writes in a new report for US-based Center for European Policy Analysis (Cepa).

“If carried out successfully, control of those territories would make it all but impossible for Nato allies to reinforce the Baltic states,” his report, titled 'The Coming Storm', claims.

The Swedish Armed Forces did not want to comment when approached by Sweden's largest news agency, TT, but the report caused concern in Sweden on Thursday, where a poll earlier this year showed nearly one in three think the country should join Nato — a shift in public opinion largely credited to a rising fear of a potentially aggressive Russia. 

“Edward Lucas wants to show that Northern Europe and Poland have the economic resources to defend themselves but are far too disunited, but also that the Baltic Sea area is very important and that what happens here matters to the rest of Europe,” Johan Eellend, security political analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, FOI) told TT.

“A takeover of these islands would mean that Nato would not be able to send ships into the Baltic Sea and would make Nato irrelevant there. It's such a strategic spot,” Peter Mattsson, researcher at the Swedish Defency University (Försvarshögskolan), added.

Sweden's security service Säpo recently stated that the biggest intelligence threat against the Nordic nation in 2014 came from its eastern neighbour. Last month, the country launched an unexpected military exercise to parallel a similar war games simulation, involving a number of Nato states, held in Sweden.

And Lucas' report – in which he urges Sweden to intensify cooperation with Nato – comes just a week after Russia's ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, warned that Sweden would be likely to face military action if it were to join the defence alliance.

Swedish-Russian relations have been under strain in the past year, following increased military presence in the Baltic Sea. In September 2014 two SU-24 fighter-bombers allegedly entered Swedish airspace in what the former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called “the most serious aerial incursion by the Russians” in almost a decade.

The following month a foreign submarine was spotted in Swedish waters, although the Swedish military was unable to determine where it came from.

“I think that there is a new security situation in the Baltic area and in the Baltic Sea,” Sweden’s Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told The Local on the day the sighting was confirmed.

He has also announced that the country's navy is upgrading its fleet of ships in order to improve its ability to locate rogue submarines in Swedish waters. Sweden also plans to move 230 soldiers to Gotland from 2018, strengthening the island's strategic defence.