Russian fighter jet SU-27 closing up on a Swedish signals intelligence plane. Photo by FRA
Russia seems to be pretty mad with its neighbouring countries in the Baltic Sea. Especially with Sweden. A couple of weeks ago, on October 2, Sweden's authority for signals intelligence, FRA, leaked a photo of a Russian fighter flying only about ten metres away from a Swedish Armed Forces intelligence plane.
Furthermore, Russian warships have threatened a Finnish research vessel in the Baltic Sea on two occasions – on August 2 and September 2. On board were Swedish scientists. And on top of that on October 7, armed NATO-figther jets followed Russian fighters above the Swedish island Öland in the Baltic Sea. It was the Latvian army that posted on Twitter that NATO-jets had followed two Russian military planes in sharp alert over the Baltic Sea.
A government source in one of the Baltic countries neighbouring Sweden told newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that, "The actions of the Russians are sometimes aggressive and their behaviour against signals intelligence planes has been unnerving. It's like during the cold war." When Russia invaded Swedish air space with their fighter jets, Sweden's former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt wrote on his blog that it was "the most serious air violation from Russia" that he had ever seen during the time in which he's been the Minister of Foreign Affairs, which is about eight years.
The Baltic Sea trespassings aren't the only strange behaviours from Russia lately. In fact, last year the country simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden, which sounds like something taken from a really horrible war movie. Also, the Russian fighters have been showing off their weapons, by exposing the undercarriage of their airplanes when approaching Swedish airplanes.
These recent events are eerily similar to the Cold War. Could it be that we are approaching a Cold War II? And if so, what does that mean to a country like Sweden? Confused and terrified, I called up Tomas Ries. He's 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 aggressive in the Baltic Sea?
Tomas Ries: There are different interpretations about why. 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 extend, which means that there are more Russian forces in and around the Baltics than ever.
But a main reason is that Russia are sending a message to the outside world, saying that the "old" Europe is over. What I mean with that is that the thing with NATO and EU dictating everything – with EU preaching [to Russia] about things such as, democracy and respect for human rights – 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 their requests. I think that's the fundamental answer to Russia's behaviour in the Baltic Sea.
But if you want to look at each case individually, it's obvious that Putin dislikes when Finland and Sweden cooperate with NATO. That means that Russia is sending signals that it could get dangerous if you operate military exercises with NATO. For example, they simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden at the same time as Sweden had 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 has and how fast the military will react.
Could you interpret their actions as a build-up to a Cold War II?
I think it's problematic to use analogies like that because it's 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 escalates 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 defence resources by sending out fighter jets to dismiss Russia's actions. Afterwards Sweden will send a diplomatic message, explaining that Russia's behaviour 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, our former Minister of Foreign Affairs, brought an activist foreign policy relating to Russia. He was openly critical to Russia on many occasions. Which also had an affect on their view on Sweden.
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 behaviour. 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 again have a very big power right next to us. Russia wants to make a new balance in Europe, where the countries in Europe need to respect Russia. It's probable that Russia will use military actions against, what they think are important areas. Europe is currently almost entirely disarmed when it comes to military defences. Europe as one has one of the world's largest defence budgets, which isn't used, except for in a few countries close to Russia's borders. They are serious about their defence. Sweden has completely disassembled their defence capabilities. That obviously increases a chance of pressure from Russia.
What would happen if Russia made reality of their intentions now when Sweden doesn't have a defence?
I can't speculate on that. But what I can say is that Sweden isn't that 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 with today's politics 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 awoke from their ignorant behaviour due to the Ukraine war. And raised the question about the current problematic situation: What if it would happen to Sweden's neighbouring countries? The new generation of Swedish politicians have no experience in power politics.
So what would happen if Russia nuked us?
I can't really say, but one thing is for sure: as long as you don't have a military defence you're very vulnerable. And if they wanted to do anything against us, we're in great danger.
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