Sweden Won't Be Able to Hide Behind its Neutrality Forever | Opinion

As the situation in Eastern Europe intensifies, Sweden might try to fall back on its neutrality once again. But this time it might not be that easy.

Today, if you ask any Swedish citizen what the biggest foreign threat is, Russia will most likely be the answer. You could argue that this has been the case since after World War II, but when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, an attack suddenly seemed improbable. But as tensions between West and East increase, the idea of a Russian invasion has gained new momentum.

After failed negotiations in early 2022 between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, tensions rose and things became more unpredictable. When three Russian landing craft ships were seen close to Danish waters in January, Sweden responded by mobilizing its military on Gotland, the largest Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. A potential conflict involving Sweden now is a reality that suddenly doesn't seem so farfetched. What people worried about actually happened—Russia invaded Ukraine and suddenly, the whole situation in Europe changed.

Gotland is a special place for Sweden. Historically, the island has been seen as a first target for a potential invasion or attack from Russia. To take over the island would be a strategic move for Russia as they would gain a more western position in the Baltic Sea, being a step closer to the Atlantic Ocean. It would also mean that they would have a centered point between the Russian cities of Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad.

Sweden's neutral stance dates to World War I; a war in which both Norway and Denmark stood neutral as well. Then during World War II, more countries in Europe became involved, including Sweden's Scandinavian neighbors. But many have debated if Swedish neutrality was all that it seemed. German troops were allowed to travel through Sweden on their way to Norway. One argument for this is that the Swedish government took the necessary measures to make sure Swedes were safe—but at the expense of sacrificing neighboring Norwegian brothers and sisters.

In the aftermath of World War II, Sweden wanted to keep its neutral stance and stay out of any alliances—being a bridge between the West and East if possible. But Sweden as a small country depended on trade with big countries that were part of conflicts that arose during the Cold War. Evidence has shown that Sweden had a clear pro-Western stance during the Cold War and would be prepared to embrace NATO protection if needed. There was even a list of important people that would be evacuated to the West if the Soviets invaded—one of them being former Volvo CEO Pehr G. Gyllenhammar.

Shortly after World War II, Sweden tried to establish trade with Eastern Europe but failed due to the economic problems in the region. In Western Europe, on the other hand, Swedish companies had no problems selling their commodities. The Swedish economy became attached to Western Europe and the U.S. For these reasons, it would be understandable to argue that to claim neutrality during the Cold War was wrong because of the Swedish connection and collaboration with the West while arguing that it was a clever ploy. However, if we should be honest, the strategy worked.

Even though Sweden stood behind its neutrality during the Cold War, tensions were high between Sweden and the Soviet Union. Russian submarines are believed to have violated Swedish territories on several occasions—although the far most serious violation occurred when a Russian submarine ran aground in 1981 outside Karlskrona in southern Sweden. This resulted in very dramatic days between the two countries that ended without any escalation.

The Swedish flag is pictured
The Swedish flag is pictured. Harry Engels/Getty Images

Being born in 1991, I never experienced the worry my grandparents went through, nor did I hear the words, "Om Ryssen Kommer," ("If the Russian comes,") echo throughout the country. In school, we weren't fed anti-Russia propaganda or historical facts that in any way built up any fear of a Russian invasion or attack. Growing up in Sweden during late 20th and early 21st century meant a form of naïvety. "That would never happen here in Sweden."

But this changed very slowly due to the tension between West and East and Russia's increased presence in the Baltic Sea as well as the violations of Swedish territory that seems to have increased since 2020. And with the invasion of Ukraine, everything changed and suddenly those violations became far more serious.

In late 2020, a joint exercise between the U.S. and Swedish military in Sweden that included ground units as well as naval and air units could be seen as a clear sign that Sweden is getting closer to the West and perhaps NATO membership. The Swedish military announced that the purpose of the exercise was to "enhance our capability for joint rapid operations"—ultimately to combat stronger relations between Russia and Belarus. In March 2022, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Sweden that Russia was interested in occupying Gotland. All of these events point to the fact that we have surpassed the brink of a new Cold War and are instead on the brink to a new world war.

When I think about how we're now so close to see a full-scale war between Russia and NATO, I don't know whether to cry or to remind myself that this was going to happened eventually. What also scares me is the fact that Sweden will not be able to hide behind its neutrality anymore.

Philip Lindskog is a freelance journalist and writer based in Sweden.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.