Almedalen is like a rock festival, but with political discussion instead of music. It takes place every year in July on the Swedish island of Gotland. In one sense, it showcases the country’s democracy. Political bigwigs mingle with the voters in the quaint cobbled streets of the main town, Visby. Everyone is on first-name terms. Discussions are thorough, frank, and fact-based.
But Almedalen also highlights Sweden’s past and present shortcomings. One reason is the location, halfway between the Swedish mainland and Estonia. If Russia seized Gotland in a crisis, it could dominate the Baltic Sea region and make any reinforcement of the Baltic states by sea or air extremely difficult.
While Sweden holidayed from reality after 1991, such worries seemed fanciful. The government in Stockholm withdrew all military forces from the island in 2005. Leaving this trophy target undefended predictably attracted predators’ attention. Visits by muscly Russian men whose interests (put mildly) did not fit the usual tourist profile sparked alarm. Other countries implored the Swedes to take Gotland’s defense seriously.
The sharpest jolt came on March 29, 2013. Two Tupolev Tu-22M3 nuclear bombers, escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters, came within 24 miles of Gotland, on dummy bombing runs aimed at the headquarters of Sweden’s signals intelligence agency, and at a key military command bunker. Sweden’s part-time air force, having been given the weekend off for the Easter holiday, was helpless; Gotland’s air defenses were long gone.
But it was not until 2016 that Sweden put a 150-strong company of soldiers on the island. In 2018 it reactivated the disbanded garrison regiment, with 400 troops, a mechanized battalion with CV90 armored vehicles and Leopard 2 tanks, and a Home Guard amphibious battalion. After Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine last year, Sweden said it would spend around $160m on rebuilding military infrastructure there, part of a defense spending splurge. Air defenses were reactivated in 2021. Swedish troops trained on Gotland with US Marines and other allied forces during last year’s BALTOPS exercise. That included landing a C-130 Hercules, a giant military transport plane with a 40m wingspan, on a rural road north of Visby. In this April’s Aurora 2023 exercise, the biggest in Sweden for 25 years, British and Polish units trained on Gotland.
So we felt a lot safer this year. The discussions at Almedalen are catching up as well. My warnings about Russia used to prompt polite disbelief. No longer. Brief remarks by the Ukrainian ambassador earned a standing ovation.
The other main topic of conversation, as this month’s NATO summit in Vilnius looms, was about Turkish and Hungarian foot-dragging on Sweden’s membership application. Until a couple of years ago, any discussion of joining NATO was almost taboo in Sweden. But the country could also have prepared better on the NATO issue, both with the notoriously prickly Turkish leadership, and with allies who have influence in Ankara. The Stockholm government’s approach now seems to be shut eyes, cross fingers, and hope that the Americans will sort it out. Perhaps. But the United States has many other issues to discuss with Turkey. Sweden should be thinking hard about how to spend its time in NATO’s waiting room constructively. For its part, the alliance should bend its rules to enable the closest possible cooperation.
Credit for these changes goes chiefly to Russia’s counterproductive bullying. I detect little self-reflection among Swedish decision-makers about their country’s past mistakes. As I pointed out at a discussion forum, the West’s geopolitical education is paid for by Ukrainians, in blood and tears. Some new tunes and new acts at Almedalen will be most welcome.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.