In farm outbuildings in Gotland, a Swedish rapid reaction force of 150 military personnel is settling in on the largest island in the Baltic Sea.
Deployed hurriedly from northern Sweden, the troops and their equipment arrived on a C-17 transport plane and a ferry over the weekend in response to Russia’s naval sabre-rattling in the region and deployment of 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.
Officially the move is being called a “contingency adjustment”, and senior Swedish military officers stress that the deployment doesn’t mean an increased threat to Sweden’s territory from Moscow -- although Sweden’s defence minister recently said an attack couldn’t be ruled out.
The islands in the Gotland chain have strategic importance not only to Sweden but to the whole Baltic region, located as they are just 300km from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet.
In recent weeks, Moscow has increased the number of ‘Landing Ship Tank’ (LST) vessels operating in the region from four to six. The Ropucha-class vessels, based in Kaliningrad, are designed for troops and vehicle landings, so manoeuvers in the Baltic Sea last week made the Swedes take notice.
“These won’t do any kind of D-Day operation but could potentially lift enough forces to create a real headache, or grab a limited plot of land -- such as an island,” said Robin Häggblom, a Finnish military blogger and naval expert.
Russia has also deployed a newer and bigger type of LST from the Northern Fleet to the Baltic Sea. The Ivan Gren-class Pyotr Morgunov can carry a dozen battle tanks, 40 amphibious armoured personnel carriers, 300 troops, and a contingent of attack helicopters.
Häggblom said these extra offensive capabilities mean that Russia’s military presence in the Baltic has reached a critical mass. “Things could get serious,” he said.
Russian landing ships have since left the Baltic Sea but the extra troops remain in Gotland for the time being.
Baltic Sea situation an early test for new PM
The situation has been an early test for Sweden’s new prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, who was appointed only in November.
Andersson has already had to rebut Russian assertions that NATO should cap expansion plans and while Sweden and its neighbour Finland are closely aligned militarily with NATO, neither country is a full member of the 30-nation bloc.
“All states have the right to freely choose their own security arrangements,” Andersson said earlier in January after speaking with Finnish president Sauli Niinistö; and following a call with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.
The next day she tweeted that Sweden would deepen its partnership with NATO.
Although public opinion in Sweden is more favourable to joining NATO than in Finland, there’s still no majority in the most recent polls in either country for membership.
Andersson has also reached out across political lines and invited leaders of all the parliamentary parties to talks this week on the current security situation.
“I think Swedish authorities, and the armed forces in particular, want to signal clearly that Sweden will resist any hybrid tactics and prepare for a worsening security situation,” said Björn Fägersten at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
“I think there is even more reason to communicate that we do not accept Russia’s vision of a future European security order based on spheres of influence where we would lose our agency.”
There has been timely international support for the Swedes and Finns too, with British defence secretary Ben Wallace visiting both countries in January to meet senior leaders. This week he issued a statement saying it was “clear that Kremlin attempts to dictate what sovereign states can or cannot choose had been rejected across the political spectrum.”
Britain, Sweden, and Finland are part of a 10-nation military alliance called the Joint Expeditionary Force made up of northern European countries which can act together or as part of a NATO operation.
“We stand in solidarity with those who share our values: including our NATO allies and partners” like Sweden and Finland, Wallace said in his statement.
US president Joe Biden also offered his support in a telephone call to his Finnish counterpart on Tuesday afternoon.
“In the long conversation, the presidents discussed European security situation, the serious tensions at the borders of Ukraine and possibilities for finding solutions,” Niinistö’s office said in a press release.
Fägersten said that if Russia’s ideas to establish any new military order were to gain traction -- where countries were not free to choose whether or not they joined NATO -- then “Sweden’s present security strategy, to train and cooperate with partners within and beyond Europe, would be very negatively affected.”
“But it will be difficult to step down from the position that Russia has taken. So clearly the Swedish armed forces wants to prepare for whatever is coming,” he added.
Mysterious drone sightings
To further complicate the current security situation in Sweden there’s been a spate of ‘military-style drone’ sightings around sensitive areas, which are being taken seriously enough that the country’s security’s service are leading the investigation.
On Friday, drones were spotted near a nuclear power plant south of Gothenburg and near Oskarshamn power plant in the country’s south-east, while on Monday there was another drone sighting close to the Forsmark nuclear power station north of Stockholm.
Swedish police put out an appeal for more information, and local media reports have catalogued other suspected drone sightings near two northern airports; and near parliament, government buildings, and a royal palace in the capital.
The drones have been described in the media as ‘military grade’ machines with large wings, and the Swedish Security Service SÄPO says they’re coordinating closely with the police and military as part of their investigation into possible breaches of airspace around the nuclear plants, but wouldn’t be drawn on any specifics so far.
“We are leading one investigation regarding reported drones in the vicinity of the Swedish nuclear plants. That is our involvement,” SÄPO spokesperson Fredrik Hultgren told Euronews.
“Other reported drones are a matter for the regular police.”