In peaceful Sweden, the authorities are preparing schoolchildren and adults for the kind of crisis that seemed unthinkable a decade ago: a military invasion of Russia.
The United States and its allies in Europe see an invasion of Moscow as less likely than during the Cold War, when citizens and businesses were more accustomed to taking a role in defending their countries.
But Russia, like China, has tried to divide and weaken the Western world with the kind of abuses that are below the threshold of armed conflict, such as cyberattacks and disinformation. It has drawn the attention of governments, especially in smaller countries close to Russia, to the need to make their economies and societies more resilient.
“There is a blurred line between peace and war, and we see that we are being challenged in more areas and opponents with the help of a wide range of tools: disinformation, cyber attacks, vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure”, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Jens Stoltenberg , said recently.
After Moscow seized parts of Ukraine in 2014, Sweden dusted off and modernized plans for the Cold War called “Total Defense” for society as a whole to prepare to resist an invader. The purpose – through information campaigns and role-playing scenarios – is to equip citizens and businesses to cope with crises triggered by everything from comprehensive wars to pandemics to cyber attacks.
Many say, “Can’t the government just help? Said Jenny Karlsson, a high school teacher from the city of Örebro who has taught a class about preparedness. “Sometimes it can not.”
Sweden, like neighboring Finland, is not a NATO member but a close partner.
Lithuania published its own brochure with advice, including how to turn a basement into a bomb shelter. Latvia plans to start high schools on national defense, including basic military skills and training on how to best respond to a crisis. In January, the Czech Republic held cyber exercises with companies to protect critical industries. The UK said in March that it would create a comprehensive national resilience strategy that would cover the whole of society, from individuals to companies.
“If you want civil society and the private sector to do their part, you have to be honest with them, not talk unreasonably about crises,” said Elisabeth Braw, a fellow resident of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. “Understanding the nature of the potential crisis will make them more likely to want to prevent crises or limit their impact.”
Sweden – a member of the European Union with about 10 million people – is a leader, together with Finland and the Baltic countries. Sweden, which has strengthened its defense ties with the United States and NATO’s neighbors, is concerned that Russia is strengthening its forces in the northwest, but also of hidden Russian actions. A 2017 report from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, a think tank in Stockholm, said that Russia used misinformation and forged documents to influence Sweden.
Sweden’s response was to revive “Total Defense” by replenishing its military and engaging its civilian population in a nationwide effort led by the country’s civil protection authority.
In 2018, the government sent all households a 20-page brochure entitled “If a crisis or war comes” which contains important advice, from a checklist of deliveries to warehouses to what a warning about the country’s outdoor alarm system means. It also contains advice on how to detect misinformation during peacetime or wartime.
“If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up,” the brochure states. “All information about the end of the resistance is false.”
Karlsson, the teacher, said that the brochure started a discussion among students and teachers at her school in Örebro, about 100 km west of Stockholm. “We started discussing how many days we would survive,” she said. “I said, ‘I think I have patches.’ “
With the help of the Civil Contingencies Agency, known as the MSB, they held sessions with teenagers to discuss what their households would need in a crisis and what they would do in crisis scenarios, including a power outage or communication collapse. They also discussed how to detect misinformation.
“We are so used to living in a small western country that never participated in war and that we are extremely safe,” says Karlsson. “We adults think of war as a traditional war with bombs, not about fresh water or what we would do if there was a shortage of electricity or no internet.”
Last year, MSB produced a series of videos called “Scared or Prepared?” shows a musician figuring out how he can help Sweden by preparing, including finding his local bomb shelter, choosing a stronger computer password and surviving without his phone using a roadmap. The videos come with educational materials and scandalous scenarios for companies, organizations and schools, which can be used during the “Crisis Preparedness Week” which is held every autumn.
Sweden will set up a cyber security center and next year launch a new agency for psychological defense, which will be tasked with training the population to assess critical information and respond to disinformation attacks.
MSB already trains salaried employees and has teams that it can send to support local authorities if they are exposed to attack, says Mikael Tovfesson, head of the authority’s department for influencing information. Last year, it supported a hospital in the city of Södertälje, near Stockholm, which was “under many strange attacks from foreign actors” and claimed that it neglected patients and was close to collapse, said Tovfesson.
Write to James Marson at [email protected]
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