Russian fighter jets have been flying dangerously close to Swedish airspace and tension between the two countries has been on the rise. Is Sweden prepared to deal with a new antagonist?
Russian fighter jet SU-27 closing up on a Swedish signals intelligence plane. Photo by FRA
Russia seems to be pretty angry with its neighboring countries in the Baltic Sea—especially Sweden. A couple of weeks ago, on October 2, Sweden's authority for signals intelligence (FRA) leaked a photo of a Russian fighter jet flying only about 30 feet away from a Swedish Armed Forces intelligence plane.
Russian warships have threatened a Finnish research vessel in the Baltic Sea on two occasions—August 2 and September 2, and on October 7, armed NATO fighter jets followed Russian fighters above the Swedish island Öland in the Baltic Sea.
An unnamed government official from a Baltic country* told newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that "the actions of the Russians are sometimes aggressive and their behavior against signals intelligence planes has been unnerving. It's like during the Cold War.” When Russia invaded Swedish air space with their fighter jets, Swedish former minister of foreign affairs Carl Bildt wrote on his blog that it was "the most serious air violation from Russia" in a decade.
Trespassing in the Baltic Sea isn't the only strange behavior Russia has exhibited lately. Last year the country simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden, and Russian jets have been showing off their weapons by exposing their undercarriages when approaching Swedish aircraft.
These recent events are eerily reminiscent of the Cold War. If we're going down that road, what does that mean for Sweden? Confused and terrified, I called up Tomas Ries, a lecturer at the Department of Security, Strategy, and Leadership at the National Defence College in Stockholm. I wanted to know what the heck is going on.
Tomas Ries. Photo by Rickard Kilström
VICE: Why is the Russian military behaving so aggressively in the Baltic Sea?
Tomas Ries: There are different interpretations about this. One essential thing is that Russia has a ten-year plan to build up their military forces. So they are increasing their military budget to an extreme extent, which means that there are more Russian forces in and around the Baltics than ever.
But the main reason is that Russia is sending a message to the outside world, saying that the "old" Europe is over. What I mean by that is with NATO and EU dictating everything—with EU preaching [to Russia] about things such as democracy and respect for human rights—that isn't something that Russia will agree to anymore. Putin wants to emphasize that this era is over and that it's important to understand that Russia is strong. And that we [the rest of the world] need to respect that. I think that's the fundamental explanation of Russia's behavior in the Baltic Sea.
But if you want to look at each case individually, it's obvious that Putin doesn't like it when Finland and Sweden cooperate with NATO. So Russia is sending signals that it could get dangerous if you operate on military exercises with NATO. For example, they simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden at the same time as Sweden was undergoing NATO operations.
You could also question their actions as if they're testing the readiness of the Swedish military. They’re using classic tactics that they used during the Cold War era, when they would fly close to the border, or precisely over the border, to see what kind of surveillance system Sweden had and how fast the military could react.
Could you interpret their actions as a build-up to a new Cold War?
I think it's problematic to use analogies like that because things are different nowadays. But one thing is similar: Russia is going back to their old European security agenda as an independent player with interests that often differ from the rest of the world—for example the ongoing war in Ukraine. So we're going back to a Europe where the tensions between Russia and the rest of Europe escalate and where Russia will increasingly use their growing military capacity.
What exactly does it mean when Russia violates Swedish airspace? And what can Sweden do about it?
It’s a very serious action basically. It means that they're violating Sweden's territorial integrity. Sweden's answer to an air violation is to show Sweden’s resources by sending out fighter jets to dismiss Russia's actions. Afterwards Sweden will send a diplomatic message, explaining that Russia’s behavior is not appreciated.
How serious is it to simulate a nuclear attack against another country?
To violate airspace is one thing, but to simulate a nuclear attack against another country—even if you don't violate airspace—is something I interpret as very serious and enormously unfriendly. What scares me the most about the Baltic Sea situation is events like this.
What's Sweden's relationship with Russia like?
If you look at it historically and go back to the Cold War, you will see that Sweden has always been something of a disguised partner with NATO. Sweden would have taken NATO’s side if a war broke out. Russia looked at Sweden as a false player, someone who would be on their main enemies' side if war became reality. This is still virtually how Russia sees Sweden today.
You could also add that Carl Bildt, brought an activist foreign policy relating to Russia. He was openly critical of Russia on many occasions.
What can we do to stop their actions in the Baltic Sea?
This is part of Russia’s new action pattern. I don’t think it's possible to get them to quit their behavior. The important thing is not these individual incidents, but rather the long-term military power shift in Europe.
What do you think will happen during this long-term power shift?
Well, we know for sure that Russia started a serious rearmament back in 2011. And their military power is going to grow substantially during the next ten years. This means that we will once in which have a very big power right next to us. Russia wants to create a new status quo in Europe, where countries respect it. It's probable that Russia will use military action against what it thinks are important areas.
Sweden has completely disassembled its defense capabilities. That obviously increases the chance of pressure from Russia.
What would happen if Russia made their intentions reality now that Sweden doesn't have a defense?
I can’t speculate on that. But what I can say is that Sweden isn’t as vulnerable as you may think—we have Finland, the Baltic countries, and the Baltic Sea between us. However, Gotland [a Swedish island to the east] is very vulnerable. An attack is very unlikely. What is likely, is that one of the Baltic countries could be next. That could lead to crisis in the Nordics where Sweden could get involved.
What would Sweden normally do in situation like that?
We have never done anything like that. The worst thing is that I don’t believe that anyone is thinking about the possibility of that happening. This is still something too new for Sweden to get involved in. It was just a few months ago that Swedish politicians woke up because of the war in Ukraine. That's when they raised the issue of the current problematic situation: What would happen to Sweden’s neighboring countries? The new generation of Swedish politicians have no experience in power politics.
So what would happen if Russia nuked Sweden?
I can't really say, but one thing is for sure: as long as you don’t have a military defense you’re very vulnerable. And if they wanted to do anything against us, we would be in great danger.
*UPDATE October 20: An earlier version of this article attributed a quote given to Svenska Dagbladet to a Swedish government official when in fact the official was from a Baltic country.
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