Rattled by Russia, Sweden plans to bring back conscription

By Johan Carlstrom and Niklas Magnusson, Bloomberg - March 2, 2017
FILE PHOTO: Swedish armed forces soldiers attend a rehearsal  in front of the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden June 18, 2010. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Swedish armed forces soldiers attend a rehearsal in front of the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden June 18, 2010. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters File Photo)

Sweden plans to bring back military conscription to counter Russia’s military buildup in the Baltic Sea, in a move that underscores how tensions are mounting along Europe’s borders with the nuclear superpower.

The decision by the government in Stockholm means that some 13,000 young men and women born from 1999 onward will be called for enrollment from July 1, with at least 4,000 of them then selected for compulsory military service starting in 2018, the Swedish Defense Ministry said Thursday.

The return of the draft in Sweden is taking place amid a heated debate across Europe over how the continent should stand up for itself in the face of an “America First” president who insists that U.S. allies should contribute more to the collective defense bill. Recent activity by Russia has rattled the nearby Baltic states and has prompted a debate on whether traditionally non-aligned Sweden should join NATO.

Sweden and Russia spent centuries fighting over control of the Baltic Sea, and tension resurfaced during the Cold War, particularly when the Soviet nuclear submarine U-137 beached outside Sweden’s Karlskrona naval base, in 1981. More recently, in 2014, a foreign submarine violated Swedish territory by entering the Stockholm archipelago, with local media quickly pointing fingers at Russia.

The Swedish Security Service has warned that Russia is conducting extensive espionage in and against Sweden, while analysts in Brussels are now cautioning of a Russian disinformation effort to portray the Scandinavian country as unsafe due to its acceptance of a large number of migrants during the refugee crisis of 2015. Donald Trump caused much head-scratching in Stockholm last month after suggesting at a rally in Florida that the country was being overrun by foreign criminals.

Swedish military patrol outside Visby, island of Gotland, Sweden September 14, 2016. TT News Agency/Soren Andersson/ via REUTERS.
Swedish military patrol outside Visby, island of Gotland, Sweden September 14, 2016. (TT News Agency / Soren Andersson via Reuters)

Sweden introduced voluntary military service in 2010, after years of steadily reducing the number of people called up for basic training. While NATO membership is not on the cards for now, Scandinavia’s biggest economy has been forced to rethink its defense policy and last year responded to Russian posturing by placing soldiers on a permanent basis on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland.

“We have had difficulties manning the military units voluntarily, and that needs to be addressed somehow,” Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told Swedish Radio. “That’s why it’s necessary to reintroduce compulsory military service.”

The minority government can push through compulsory military service without the backing of parliament since the initiative doesn’t require a law change.

In an interview Thursday with the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom described a potential military build-up by the U.S. and talk by Donald Trump of nuclear rearmament as “very worrying.”

“If countries such as the U.S. increase military spending, there is a risk that other countries feel forced to follow,” Wallstrom said. “It feels like this takes us back many, many years in time. It feels outdated and counterproductive in our time.”

Trump has proposed raising U.S. defense spending by $54 billion, or 10 percent above the current defense budget cap, and to oversee “one of the greatest military buildups in American history.”

In a further sign of discord toward the new U.S. administration, the Swedish government has decided to raise the amount of foreign aid for sexual and reproductive health and rights by 200 million kronor ($22.1 million). The move comes after Trump decided in January to reinstate a policy that blocks U.S. taxpayers’ dollars from funding abortions abroad.

“When they go low, we go high,” Swedish Development Minister Isabella Lovin tweeted Thursday, citing former First Lady Michelle Obama.