How Sweden’s idyllic Gotland could become a strategic “watchtower” in the north to keep an eye on Vladimir Putin
On the quiet holiday island Ottilia Söderström calls home, the thought of war feels a world away. But suddenly there is talk of army and artillery just outside her doorstep.
She has lived on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, since she moved here about a year ago with her family in search of a quiet life and good kitesurfing conditions after several years abroad.
“It’s one of the best places I’ve ever surfed in the world and it’s one of the best places to learn with gentle breezes and shallow bays,” says her partner Floyd Paul, who runs a kitesurfing school.
But the ripples of Russia’s war in Ukraine have reached their shores. They are now facing an unexpected reality, as their backyard is transformed into an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, or what others describe as the “Nordic watchtower”.
The family saw war games unfold before their eyes earlier this month when the Swedish military and US Marines conducted exercises as part of the annual joint military exercise BALTOPS.
“Nature is so peaceful and feels so untouched … so when I drove on the road the other day and I could see weapons and the military, it gave me shivers,” says Ottilia.
Their cycling route in the afternoon is now cut off with deep thought tracks, the wild flowers that they often stop to admire are crushed in the dark earth.
The invasion of Ukraine has led to historical changes in their society and country.
Gotland will be remilitarized if the country is called upon to maintain security and order in northern Europe, as Sweden abandons centuries of wartime neutrality by applying for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The country’s bid for membership, along with Finland’s, will be discussed this week at an important NATO summit – but not everyone is convinced.
Many Swedes, like Ottilia, see neutrality and peace as a central part of their country’s identity.
“I think we need to focus on peace talks, rather than renovating, because what will happen in response to this? We do not know,” Ottilia said.
“I really question how this has happened so quickly … and that’s not what I want for my son.”
The Swedish officials who are willing to make this historic change also have challenges ahead of them – not only to convince the public, but to persuade some member states to let them into the security bloc.
Gotland will be a “watchtower” for northern Europe
The vast coastlines and shallow coastal waters that attracted Ottilia, Floyd and their son Willow to Gotland are also what make it the perfect military base.
It is strategically located in the middle of the Baltic Sea – only about 350 kilometers from Russia’s naval base in the Kaliningrad enclave.
– The country that controls Gotland can control much of the air and sea movements in the Baltic Sea, says Colonel Magnus Frykvall.
He is in charge of the escalation of the defense here, the new commander of Gotland’s regiment.
The Baltic Sea is one of the most important trade routes in Europe and provides a gateway from the northeast to central parts of the continent.
– The Baltic Sea has 15 percent of the world’s freight and shipping trade – so it is quite significant, says Professor Kjell Englebrecht, dean of the Swedish National Defense College.
“It is also crucial for Russia – it has its commercial ports in the Gulf of Finland, a very important naval base in Kaliningrad, so if you take a broader perspective, this area is really very important for European security.”
If Sweden and Finland join NATO, it means that all countries, except Russia, that the border with the Baltic Sea would form a defense bloc, which provides security to not only northern Europe but the entire continent.
“It will strengthen the Alliance’s defensive position in this part of Europe … it will be an operational theater,” said Professor Engelbrecht.
“If the Russian armed forces plan to engage or conquer part of a Baltic country, we will definitely be able to disrupt it … although I do not think there is an imminent threat.”
Sweden has long used Gotland to secure itself and its partners.
During the Cold War, the island had four regiments with almost 25,000 soldiers, but the number decreased in the following decades and the units were completely disbanded in 2005.
But the invasion of Ukraine in February this year changed everything for Sweden, where the threat from Russia is always great.
“The assessment was that we must increase the capacity of the island as quickly as possible,” says Colonel Frykvall.
There has been a slow escalation of infrastructure, personnel and hardware since 2018, partly due to Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine, says Colonel Frykvall.
He is trying to build up a force of 4,000 military personnel in as little as a year.
“We will have the ability we need to ensure that the threshold for an attacker to attack Gotland is so high that they would probably choose not to do so,” he said.
He hopes to soon see another extra line of defense – NATO membership.
The roadblock to Sweden’s NATO bid
Sweden’s application will be discussed at the NATO leaders’ summit in Madrid this week, but despite promises of quick accession, both Finland and Sweden have been hit by a speed bump.
Turkey, a current NATO member, has promised to block the application for both Nordic countries.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has questioned the attitudes of both countries towards Kurdish political groups, accusing them of harboring “terrorists” and criticizing their decision to ban arms exports to Turkey due to its actions in Syria.
“I always warned people that there were a few stumbling blocks on the road to ratification,” says Professor Engelbrecht.
“Part of it seems to be about the activism of Kurdish exile groups in Sweden; we can not do much about it [that] because we have a rule of law, we have a constitution, we must respect the political rights of these groups.
“Some political parties have also become involved in these groups and it may be something that the Turks would like those parties to take a step back from.
“I think it could be more of a way for Turkey to put pressure on Europeans and perhaps on Americans to curb some of their arms export controls.
He is convinced that the application will ultimately be successful.
“It’s impossible to know … but I think at the end of the year these negotiations will continue but then end.”
The diplomatic dance probably seems to cause some headaches at home, with the NATO movement already tormenting some Swedes.
NATO decisions divide Swedes
Matthias Anderson and Calle Ewald are business partners, friends and strongly divided about their country’s choice to join NATO.
They sit side by side at a table in their surflodge in Tofta, built on a dune on the coast of Gotland.
They have built their business on the idea of peace, relaxation and isolation.
“Ten years ago, I would say, ‘hey, no, we have not been in a war for 200 years, why should we join a group of alliances that use nuclear weapons and be a part of it?'” Says Calle.
“But as it is now, there is a need for it, it is a no-brainer.”
Matthias is not convinced of the alliance’s values - nor how this application has gone.
“I think it is basically a slap in the face to Swedish democracy, because we elected the government that is now in power, and they have always historically been against NATO,” he says.
“We have a vote later this year where they can go in and say, ‘hello, vote for us and we will join NATO’ and then the voters could actually say a word.”
The two end up in a tense but thoughtful conversation about the future of their island and the nation.
In a strained moment, Calle jokes to his friend, “Check your facts, honey.”
Matthias shrugs defiantly: “I’m probably in the minority and Calle the majority.”
A survey conducted by a Swedish newspaper in April showed that 57 percent of Swedes supported joining the alliance, up from 51 percent in March.
Both men grew up on the island in the 1980s when a military base was still operating from the Cold War.
But the only barricades and fortresses that their children have felt on the island are the ancient Viking structures in the city that attract thousands of visitors.
“I grew up here with military fields nearby, so we’re a little used to it [it] and I do not think it will affect us or the tourism industry that much, says Calle.
Matthias shakes his head. Although he agrees that the local tourism industry will probably be OK, he would prefer not to see the island become a modern defense base.
“I do not think it is good to normalize war, and I do not think it is good for my children to see people walking around with weapons. [made for] kill other people, because that makes it normal for them, says Matthias.
Whether its inhabitants are comfortable with it or not, the island looks set to play a role in the future security and order of northern Europe.
“It’s calm, it’s quiet, it’s beautiful. I think people will always see it and want to visit it,” says Matthias.