When Swedish commentators declare that neutrality has served the nation well, they are claiming that neutrality was a choice, and that choosing otherwise would have negative consequences that were avoidable. A Norwegian or a Dane may well feel rightfully insulted that Sweden thereby rather smugly considers itself somewhat smarter and they therefore avoided the consequences of aggressive neighbours.
The reality of course is that Norway and Denmark also chose neutrality prior to the Second World War, but to their dismay, Germany chose not to permit it. The smug wisdom of neutrality is thus proven a farce, as it is the aggressor’s choice, not the defender’s, the defender having only the choice to resist or capitulate. No rational aggressor will fight for those objectives it can achieve by intimidation, negotiation, or diplomacy. It was by this method that Germany correctly calculated that they could achieve their objectives of access to iron ore, transportation to Norway, and secure access to the Baltic by simply intimidating an unprepared or risk averse Sweden.
Such is likely to be the case also in current times as Russia looms threatening on the eastern horizon. Some in Sweden mistakenly believe that Russia has an interest in fighting for control of parts of Swedish territory, specifically Gotland. I contend that that is not necessarily the case. Russia has no simmering historical or cultural interests in any part of the current territory of Sweden. Russia does have an interest that no part of Swedish territory should be used to inhibit the pursuit of Russian interests.
Those who advocate the defence of Gotland, do so on the basis of the strategic significance of the island. The assessment of Gotland as a strategic location is based entirely on the possible notion of using the island for offensive operations counter to Russian interests, such as controlling the air and sea beyond Sweden’s recognized borders. There is little to suggest Sweden would or could do this on their own in the foreseeable future, or allow others to do so. If Sweden were to act as the current government so proudly claims their self-interests dictate, they will deny the use of their territory to anyone hostile to Russian interests. Russian intimidation alone thus would serve the purpose of protecting the rear of a postulated Russian action in the Baltic States.
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With Sweden as a non-combatant the value of Gotland as a Russian base of action is only marginally better than that they already possess in Kaliningrad, and probably not worth the diversion of resources and additional belligerents that would result from a Gotland occupation. Without firing a shot, Russia achieves its interests simply by Sweden doing what it has done, proudly, for generations. Russia then would care little what defensive capabilities are placed there, and would in fact benefit from Sweden using its precious few military resources to defend an area Russia does not plan to attack.
Furthermore, with only defensive forces on the island, and little capability to project forces or even redeploy them, it would be counter to Swedish interests to honour its unilateral declaration of solidarity and assist in the defence of the Baltics. In so doing, Russia’s calculus changes instantly and invites, or more precisely demands, an attack to secure the rear of Russia’s action and interdict the flow of forces from the Swedish mainland to the Baltic States.
Sweden’s current ambition is almost certainly to stay out of a conflict between Russia and the Baltics, and thereby Nato. There is little to suggest from Sweden’s history or current politics that they would intervene when it meant significant risk to their own territory, even if their stated values are in question. There is little doubt that Sweden values democracy, human rights and self-determination, but there is plenty of room to doubt that they would risk their own to defend another’s in the immediate vicinity.
Their current policy changes towards national defence, and underfinancing of even that, speak volumes on the gap between ideals and commitment to defend them. Sweden’s neutrality, or non-alignment (call it what you will) is Russia’s choice, and they will permit it only as long as it serves their interests.
There is hope however. Fortunately for Sweden, neutrality did not serve Norway and Denmark well, nor their allies. And history suggests they are willing to take some risks on behalf of their neighbours.
Bruce Acker is a former US defence attaché to Sweden. A Swedish version of this article originally appeared in the Dagens Industri newspaper.