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.