Sweden, a non-NATO nation, has launched its largest military exercise in over 20 years. The drills are being conducted at Russia’s doorstep amid rising military activity in the Baltic Sea region. The timing (Sept. 11-29) is outright provocative as Aurora 2017 is taking place at about the same time (Sept. 14-20) as Zapad 2017, a major Russian exercise in Belarus.
The three-week Aurora 17 is held across Sweden, including the strategic Baltic Sea island of Gotland, not far from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and the areas around Stockholm and Goteborg. It is conducted in the air, on land and at sea. About 20, 000 servicemen, and over 40 Swedish civil authorities, will take part in the drills across the country, including around 1435 troops from the US, Denmark, Norway, France, Estonia, Lithuania and non-NATO Finland. It strikes the eye that Finland, a non-NATO state, has significantly larger participation (270 servicemen) than other European NATO members. For instance, France sent 120 soldiers Denmark, Norway, Lithuania and Estonia sent between 40-60 each.
«They haven’t done something like this in 25, 30 years», said Ben Hodges, commanding general, United States Army, Europe. The United States has sent a Patriot missile battery, helicopters and a National Guard tank company. This is the first time ever American armored vehicles and air defenses were deployed on Swedish soil. In June, the Swedish military also announced its intention to replace all of its aging air defense systems and potentially buy US-made Patriot missiles, citing an alleged threat from Russian Iskander-M missile systems stationed in Kaliningrad.
The war games have also raised the possibility of Sweden joining NATO to formally end its traditional neutrality that kept it out of military conflicts since 1814. The issue will be debated in the country’s 2018 election - if the three centre-right allies get their way, the country will join the alliance.
Sweden has been a member of the NATO program «Partnership for Peace» since 1994. It has taken part in NATO missions in Afghanistan, Balkans and Libya.
Since 2009, Sweden has been committed to the defense of EU members - another breach of neutrality. Mainly EU members are also parties to NATO, it’s impossible to separate them in war. In fact, Stockholm has committed itself to comply with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty regarding European members of the North Atlantic Alliance. Swedish troops and equipment have been used in the EU operation in Mali.
In May 2016 the Swedish parliament ratified the Host Nation Support Agreement with NATO, allowing the pact to store equipment in Sweden and be able to use the country for transport and transit of forces if a crisis should occur in the region. The agreement does not mention nuclear weapons. With the document in force, there is no guarantee that nuclear weapons will not be deployed on Swedish soil. Aurora 2017 is the first time the Host Country Agreement has been used.
In June 2016, Sweden signed a treaty with the US that aims to increase military capability and interoperability between the parties. Specifically, the two nations will conduct training and exercises with an eye to the «distinct political signal» that combined operations will send. Armament cooperation and research and development of future technologies will focus on undersea warfare and air defense, the document notes.
In late 2016, Sweden's civil protection agency organized under the Ministry of Defense issued an official letter to country's local authorities to prepare for a possible war with Russia. Sweden is increasing defence spending, and plans to reintroduce conscription from January 2018. Four thousand men and women will be drafted into the defense forces.
Though not formally a member, Sweden is also a part of NATO Rapid Reaction Force. It participates in the joint NATO air transport fleet to be used in conflicts anywhere in the world.
Two top defense officials - Micael Bydén, Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, and Chief of Defence Staff Dennis Gyllensporre, have recently supported the idea of changing the military stance to a ‘treaty-bound’ defense commitments, in effect meaning full-fledged membership in NATO. They were backed by Allan Widman, Chairman of the Swedish parliament’s defense committee. Visiting Washington in May, Prime Minister Peter Hultqvist said: «We are building a security network of defence cooperation». No doubt that Aurora 2017 is part of this effort.
Seven out of eight Swedish parliamentary parties believe that Aurora 17 will strengthen the country's capacity to deal with a potential attack and will deepen its military cooperation with other countries, while the Left Party and peace organizations have warned of a spiraling arms race.
Despite media efforts and statements by politicians and officials, the Swedish people oppose the idea of NATO membership. According to a June survey published by Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, public support for the idea of Sweden becoming a NATO member has dropped from 41 to 33 percent in less than a year. Forty-nine percent of Swedes, who took part in the survey published by the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, said they don’t want their country to join the US-led military bloc. Thirty-three percent supported the possible NATO bid, while 18 percent said that they were undecided. In 2015, 41 percent said that they were in favor of Sweden applying for NATO membership, with 39 percent rejecting the move and 20 percent undecided. Social Democrats, the Greens and Left Party voters showed the strongest opposition to NATO accession.
Politicians may say one thing and do another but one cannot change reality. In practice, Sweden has become a full-fledged NATO member and it has been done against the people’s will. With the defense commitment within the framework of EU and the bilateral agreement with the United States mentioned above in the article, Sweden is no different from other states of the alliance. Moreover, it’s one of the most active participants in the bloc’s military activities with a contribution exceeding by far some founding members. It is Sweden, a non-NATO, country who organized Aurora 2017, openly challenging Russia, which will conduct Zapad exercise under surveillance of Western observers according to the provisions of Vienna Document. Despite the obvious facts, Sweden is saying it’s not a NATO event once it was organized by a non-member nation.
It’s easy to predict that the US air defense systems will be stationed in Gotland to be guarded by American personnel. Instructors will also be there. Then reasons will be found to justify the presence of US military in other areas on Swedish soil under the pretext of «rotation» to hold exercises like it is done in Norway where American Marines are stationed permanently in breach of tried-and-true foreign policy principle excluding the stationing of foreign military on Norwegian soil.
No doubt, the policy does not make Sweden safer as Russia will deliberate an appropriate response. In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that «If Sweden joins NATO; it will negatively affect our relations because it will mean that NATO facilities will be set up in Sweden so we will have to think about the best ways to respond to this additional threat».
This neutrality policy was, and still is, hugely popular in Sweden. But to call a spade a spade, Sweden is no longer neutral in practice. It has become a leading NATO nation, whose official non-alignment does not reflect reality. One should believe deeds not words. Aurora 2017 is a good example of the fact that the Swedish neutral status has become a thing of the past.