Borzou Daragahi reports: Sweden, which has long cultivated the image of a peace-loving land of freedom, this month finds itself the focus of two of the largest military exercises since the Cold War. Beginning on Monday, the Scandinavian country will be the staging ground for Aurora 17, which will see 20,000 personnel from nine Western countries, including at least 1,000 US Marines, carry out a massive drill meant to counter any hypothetical attack by Russia. Just a few days later, across the Baltic Sea, Russia is conducting Zapad 17, which will mobilize up to 100,000 Russian and allied troops.
The near-simultaneous war games illustrate the atmosphere of rising military tension and mistrust between Russia and Western Europe following the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and continued meddling in the east of the country.
“My concern is not that the US will attack Russia or Russia will attack the US or the Baltics, but that the assembly of so much military hardware, and so many military exercises will lead to a situation of unexpected consequences,” said Sven Hirdman, a former senior Swedish diplomat who served in Russia, Israel and China and oversaw the regulatory agency that determined to which countries Sweden could sell which weapons.
Scandinavia’s most populous nation, Sweden sees itself as a bastion of social democracy and diplomatic neutrality, choosing not to join NATO even as countries in the Baltic Sea and Eastern Europe did so after the end of the Cold War. More so than other countries, Sweden let its guard down after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But now, Swedes are scrambling to up their defenses.
Over the last few years, Sweden has reinstituted a version of the draft it jettisoned just eight years ago, begun to increase defense spending, deployed troops to strategic outposts, and tightened up its partnerships with NATO countries. [Continue reading…]