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No island as important as Gotland, says US military chief

There is no island as strategically important as Gotland, a top US military chief has told Swedish media as his soldiers prepare to join Sweden's largest exercise in two decades.

No island as important as Gotland, says US military chief
United States Army Europe commander Ben Hodges on a visit to Lithuania. Photo: AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis

Sweden is leading the major military exercise Aurora 17 in September, with units from all over Sweden, at sea, land and air. More than 19,000 troops are set to take part, including 1,435 soldiers from the US, 270 from Finland, 120 from France and between 40-60 each from Denmark, Norway, Lithuania and Estonia.

It will focus on the Stockholm and Gothenburg regions and Gotland, the Baltic Sea island at the centre of military discussions in Sweden, where fear of an increasingly assertive Russia has grown in recent years.

“Aurora 17 is the first and biggest exercise of its kind in more than 20 years,” said Sweden's Armed Forces.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commanding general of the US Army forces in Europe, described Gotland as a key location on a visit to the island ahead of the exercise.

“I look forward to my soldiers being given the opportunity to train as much as they can with you,” newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN) quoted him as telling Swedish troops permanently stationed on the island for the first time since 2005.

“You have a strategically very important task here. I do not think there is any island anywhere that is more important.”

READ ALSO: Why is Sweden re-militarizing idyllic holiday island Gotland?


Swedish troops on Gotland. Photo: Sören Andersson/TT

READ ALSO: Why Sweden is bringing back military conscription

Non-Nato member Sweden has strengthened its ties with the military alliance in recent years, despite Russia's words of warning that an expanding Nato would be seen as a “threat”.

Russia will hold a joint exercise, Zapad 2017, with Belarus around the same time as Aurora 17, seen by many Nato allies as an attempt to flex its muscles. The US has also stepped up its presence in eastern Europe with troops and tanks as part of a Nato military build-up that has drawn criticism from Moscow.

“Russia has changed the security environment,” Hodges told DN.

“We have to react to that, and not just the US, but the whole of Nato. The countries closest to the bear have historical experience. They feel the hot breath of the bear – and they are the ones most worried.”

“The fact that Sweden decided that they have to put troops back on Gotland is a very clear indication of what's going on. Sweden is known as moderate, credible and alliance free. Nevertheless Sweden felt that this was necessary.”

READ ALSO: Sweden in Nato would be a threat to Russia, says Vladimir Putin

Ben Hodges' comments in Dagens Nyheter were translated from Swedish to English by The Local. We understand his original comments were given in English, translated to Swedish by Dagens Nyheter.

MILITARY

Sweden steps up Baltic defence in ‘signal’ to Russia

Sweden's defence minister has said his country is carrying out military exercises in the Baltic Sea to 'send a signal' to countries including Russia.

Sweden steps up Baltic defence in 'signal' to Russia
Swedish troops on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland. Photo: Joel Thungren/Försvarsmakten/TT

The so-called “high readiness action” means the Swedish army, navy and air force are currently more visible in the southeastern and southern Baltic Sea and on the island of Gotland.

No details have been disclosed about the number of troops involved in the action.

Sweden is “sending a signal both to our Western partners and to the Russian side that we are prepared to defend Sweden's sovereignty,” Hultqvist told news agency TT.


Ground troops on Gotland. Photo: Bezhav Mahmoud/Försvarsmakten/TT

“There is currently extensive military activity in the Baltic Sea, conducted by Russian as well as Western players, on a scale the likes of which have not been seen since the Cold War,” the Swedish Armed Forces' Commander of Joint Operations, Jan Thörnqvist, said in a statement.

“The exercise activities are more complex and have arisen more rapidly than before. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has caused global anxiety and uncertainty. Over all, the situation is more unstable and more difficult to predict,” Thörnqvist said.


A Visby-class corvette and two Jas Gripen jets in the air. Photo: Antonia Sehlstedt/Försvarsmakten/TT

Hultqvist said Sweden was also monitoring developments in Belarus “very closely”.

Non-Nato member Sweden, which has not been to war in two centuries and which slashed military spending at the end of the Cold War, reopened a garrison on Gotland in January 2018 amid concerns about Russian intentions in Europe and the Baltic.

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