By JAMES BROOKS – Associated Press
VISBY, Sweden (AP) — Having to defend Gotland from foreign invasion seemed such a far-fetched idea to Swedish policymakers at the turn of the century that they demilitarized the Baltic Sea island.
Now the Swedish armed forces are back, and they are training with American troops not only to defend the island with a population of 58,000, but also to retake it from a foreign aggressor.
US Marines conducted airdrops and amphibious landings on Gotland as part of a NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea.
Although the annual BALTOPS exercise is not organized in response to a specific threat, this year’s edition comes amid heightened tensions with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. About 7,000 troops and 45 ships from 14 NATO countries, as well as Sweden and Finland, participated.
Despite their non-aligned status, the two Nordic countries trained regularly with NATO countries, and their governments decided, following the war in Ukraine, to apply for full membership of the NATO. Western military alliance.
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“I feel really prepared. I mean, we did a big deployment on Gotland, and we will defend Gotland,” Swedish Colonel Magnus Frykvall, the island’s regiment commander, said as military equipment was rolled out to the coast. “It’s a really difficult task to take a forbidden island.”
Strategically located in the middle of the southern part of the Baltic Sea, Gotland has seen foreign invasions throughout its history, most recently in 1808 when Russian forces briefly occupied it.
But after the Cold War ended, Sweden felt the risk of Russian aggression was so remote that it refocused its armed forces on foreign peacekeeping operations rather than territorial defence. The Gotland Regiment was closed in 2005 when Sweden reduced its military strength.
Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 led to an overhaul and a new regiment was established on Gotland in 2018. There are now around 400 Swedish soldiers permanently based on the island. Further reinforcements are planned following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, many inhabitants of Gotland believe that Sweden would not be able to defend the island alone.
“If we were to be overrun, we wouldn’t have a chance because our defense is too small. We have a really modern and good defence, but it’s too small,” said Lars Söderdahl, a 33-year-old chef in the island’s main town, Visby.
Sweden, which has remained outside military alliances since the Napoleonic Wars, applied for NATO membership with Finland in a historic move last month. NATO’s current 30 members are expected to discuss the issue this month. Turkey has threatened to suspend applications due to the two countries’ perceived support for Kurdish groups.
Finland and Sweden have requested security guarantees from the United States and other NATO countries during the bid period.
Launching the BALTOPS exercises last weekend in Stockholm, US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was important for NATO allies “to show solidarity with the Finland and Sweden”.
Their joining the alliance would leave Russia in a difficult military position, with the Baltic Sea surrounded by NATO members except for the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and the Russian city of Saint Petersburg and of its surroundings.
The strategic importance of Gotland, a popular summer vacation spot for Swedes, is often seen in relation to the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are particularly concerned about any Russian aggression following the invasion of Ukraine. Gotland is approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) from mainland Sweden and 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the coast of Latvia,
“The fact is that from here you make it much easier or much more difficult to supply and support the Baltic states, depending on who controls the island,” said Mikael Norrby, an academic at the University of ‘Uppsala, to the Associated Press.
Coinciding with NATO drills, Russia’s Baltic Fleet launched its own military drills this week. The fleet press office called Tuesday’s maneuvers a scheduled exercise focused on “various types of security tasks,” including tracking and destroying enemy submarines.
“There are more than 20 warships and boats in the sea ranges of the Baltic Fleet, performing combat tasks both individually and as part of search and attack groups of ships and groups of ‘attack on ships,’ the press service said in a statement.
He added that corvettes, patrol ships, small missile carriers, anti-submarine vessels, minesweepers and lander hovercraft were among the vessels taking part in the drills.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.
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