Sweden will face military "counter measures" from Russia if it decides to shift from its history of neutrality and join the NATO alliance, according to Russian Ambassador Viktor Tatarintsev. In recent months, Sweden has found itself in the middle of a Russian escalation of force as tensions between the West and Russia have bled into the Baltic Sea.
"I can guarantee that Sweden, which is an alliance-free nation, is not part of any military plans by Russian authorities," the Russian ambassador to Sweden told the Dagens Nyheter, a leading local paper, in an interview Thursday. "Sweden is not a target for our armed troops."
Tatarintsev went on to underline that if Sweden — not to be confused with Switzerland, the chocolate-loving Alpine fortress to the south — abandons its historical position of neutrality, it might find itself in Russia's crosshairs.
"If it happens there will be counter measures. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin pointed out that there will be consequences, that Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles," Tatarintsev told the local paper. "The country that joins NATO needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to."
The Swedish embassy said that the "topic is too sensitive to comment."
The Russian threats come after the release of a nationwide poll in May that found that 1 in 3 Swedes support the country joining the NATO defense alliance, a sharp increase from previous years. Another poll a few months earlier found the exact same approval rating. Both polls showed a significant drop in the number of Swedes who were against joining NATO.
Sweden has stayed neutral and non-aligned since the early 19th century, following the Napoleonic Wars. Even during World War II, when the country found itself in the geographic center of the conflict, Sweden was able to maintain political neutrality. But Russia's recent behavior has pushed Sweden to consider abandoning its 200-year track record.
Russia has become increasingly provocative in its military actions as tensions with the West continue to grow over Ukraine and Crimea. And this is only the most recent uptick in Russia's military aggressiveness, which has been increasing for several years under Putin. A video recently released by the US Navy shows Russian fighter jets buzzing a Navy destroyer on both May 30 and June 1 of this year.
Only two weeks earlier, the British Royal Air Force was forced to scramble fighter jets to intercept two Russian long-range bombers that were spotted off the northern coast of Scotland, en route to the UK.
Sweden itself has not been without Russian confrontations. In September 2014, two Russian fighter jets allegedly entered Swedish air space. They were the same type —Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft — as those that buzzed the US destroyer at the end of May.
The following month, the Swedish military released conclusive evidence that a foreign submarine had been spotted in Swedish waters. The military was unable to conclusively determine where it came from.
In March, Sweden decided to remilitarize the island of Gotland off the southwest coast of the country in the Baltic Sea. The decision to deploy around 150 troops to the island came as the Baltic nation of Estonia expressed major concerns about the island's vulnerability.
"Gotland is a big worry for us," a senior Estonian politician told Russia Insider. "It could be overrun by Russia in minutes and then all of us would be highly vulnerable to an attack."
While Sweden has not yet joined NATO, that doesn't mean they aren't working together. Though Sweden remains militarily non-aligned, it participates in joint military exercises with NATO and has a long history of international military operations, most recently in Afghanistan, where Swedish troops were deployed under NATO command.
"There has already been some movement between Sweden and NATO," said Steven Pifer, the director of the Brookings Institute's Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative. "There is actually a fair amount of military-to-military cooperation going on."
NATO has good reason to be interested in Sweden joining its alliance. In fact, NATO would like to see both Sweden and its easterly neighbor, Finland, join on. It will likely be a two-for-one deal, according to Pifer: if Sweden joins, then Finland will, too, and vice versa.
If the duo joined NATO, it would mean that the Baltic Sea, a precious warm-water port for Russia, would be entirely surrounded by NATO member nations, with the exception of two small slivers of Russian land. Needless to say, Russia would rather this not be the case.
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Sweden and Finland took the first steps to official and sustained cooperation with NATO on September 4, 2014, when the countries signed a Host Nation Support Agreement, which allows NATO forces to enter the countries during a variety of exercises and operations.
This past weekend, that agreement was put into use as the Swedish military joined a host of other allied forces — including three US nuclear-capable B-52 bombers — to participate in the annual BALTOPS naval and maritime exercise.
BALTOPS is designed to enhance flexibility and improve interoperability among the multinational participants, according to the US Navy. Additionally, the exercise is a way for the partnered forces to demonstrate their resolve to defend the Baltic region.
The allied forces — comprised of American, British, Polish, Swedish, and Finnish troops — used the Swedish beaches to practice an amphibious assault similar to what would be used if Gotland were invaded by Russia. Several B-52s were included in the exercise as well, Pifer told VICE News, practicing mine laying off the Swedish coast, while Swedish fighters provided air cover. After several practice runs in Sweden, the forces were ready for the main event, an amphibious landing in Poland, which happened June 17.
Though NATO has insisted that the operation was not in response to any specific action, the Dutch foreign affairs officer, Bert Koenders, said the BALTOPS exercise was a warning to Russia, reported UNIAN.
"There are NATO member states in Eastern Europe that feel threatened by what is happening in eastern Ukraine. These drills are also a warning to President Putin," Koenders said. "This is not an aggressive approach. This is a combination of pressure and dialogue, rather than a lack of judgment when dealing with Putin."
Koender's comments come as Putin announced on June 16 that Russia would be adding an additional 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal this year. He said that the missiles would be "able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defense systems."
"Saber-rattling like this does nothing to deescalate conflict," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest at a Washington briefing June 17. "The United States has repeatedly stressed our commitment to the collective defense of our NATO allies. That is a commitment that we are willing to back up with action, if necessary. That stands in pretty stark contrast to the saber-rattling that we've seen from Mr. Putin. And you could also make a case — and I think with some credibility — that invoking the nuclear arsenal is even an escalation of that saber-rattling. That's unnecessary and not constructive."
Nobody is expecting Sweden or Finland to join NATO tomorrow, but support for such a move seems to be increasing steadily. Considering Russian claims that their military activities in Ukraine are simply a response to NATO's eastward expansion, it is somewhat ironic that Moscow's continued muscle-flexing may be expanding NATO's reach in the Baltic.
Follow Ezra Kaplan on Twitter:@KaplanEzra
Photo by Tatum Vayavananda/DVIDS