January 31, 2017
By Jörgen Elfving
The strategically placed Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic Sea, with an area of 3,183.7 square kilometers—that is, slightly smaller than California’s Sacramento county. The island is situated 330 km from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast and 110 km from the Swedish mainland, i.e. well within the range for Iskanders and other Russian missiles launched from Kaliningrad. Gotland differs in certain aspects with regard to governance, nature, customs and history from Sweden proper. In 1645, it became part of Sweden as a result of one of the numerous peace treaties with Denmark and has, with some minor interruptions, remained under Swedish rule ever since.
Since time immemorial, Gotland has been a hub in the Baltic Sea region. During the Viking age, Gotland prospered, as indicated by the large number of archeological finds there. The islanders were successful traders, maintaining commercial ties with areas up and down the eastern part of the Baltic Sea. Specifically, Gotlanders enjoyed a monopoly on trade in certain goods such as furs. In medieval times, Gotland became a pawn in the struggle for power between different regional warring parties. From time to time, the island was plundered and ransacked. After becoming part of Sweden in 1645, Gotland languished until industrialization began on a limited scale there in the early 19th century. At that point, Sweden also fought its last war with Russia (1808–1809). And in the course of those hostilities, besides losing Finland, Gotland Island was briefly occupied by Russian troops in 1808—an experience that remains a living memory for its contemporary inhabitants. As is well remembered, the occupation was accomplished rather easily because the island at the time had been almost undefended.
As a result of the 1808 Russian occupation, coupled with the fact that after 1809 Russia became the dominant power in the region, the defense of Gotland—now a Swedish outpost—became more important to Stockholm. Conscription was introduced on the island, presaging its introduction on the mainland. And in 1887, an infantry regiment was set up there. War came close to the island both during the First and the Second World Wars; but ultimately Gotland itself was unaffected by any military campaigns since Russia’s invasion in the early 19th century. At the close of World War II, many refugees from the Baltic States temporarily ended up on Gotland, after an often perilous flight from the advancing Soviet forces.
After the last Swedish-Russian war, military presence on the island increased over time. During the Cold War, Gotland was defended by a mechanized brigade, coastal artillery and a strong Home Guard. Temporary air base assets were available, as needed, on the island. Amidst the West’s standoff with the Soviet Union, Gotland also served as an excellent platform for signals intelligence targeting Soviet military activities. However, following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the consequent downsizing of the Swedish armed forces, all military units on Gotland were essentially disbanded. By 2005, the island was—with the exception of the Home Guard—once more practically undefended. This fact has since been lamented by Sweden’s neighbors, not least by the Baltic States.
In hindsight, the Swedish authorities have realized that the decision to disarm Gotland was a mistake. The first steps to rectify that situation were taken in 2009, when the government decided to store 14 tanks on the island, though their crews would be flown to Gotland from the mainland when needed (Regeringen.se, 2008/09:140; Ifri.org, November 2015). The tanks were in place by 2013 (Forsvarsmakten.se, November 13, 2014). As a result of Russia’s growing aggression and the changed security situation in the Baltic Sea region, the Swedish parliament, in 2015, decided to establish a permanent military presence on Gotland as of 2018 (Regeringen.se, April 29, 2015; Ifri.org, November 2015; Government.se, accessed January 27, 2017). An embryonic military force was established in autumn 2016, with the deployment to Gotland of a mechanized company and anti-ship missile batteries (Forsvarsmakten.se, September 14, 2016; Cornucopia.cornubot.se). By 2018, one can expect a reduced mechanized battalion garrisoned on Gotland on a permanent basis. Though not quite the level of forces present on the island previously, such a force posture on Gotland would still signal to any potential aggressors to think twice before contemplating an attempt to invade.
The gradual “remilitarization” of Gotland has largely been welcomed by Sweden’s European neighbors. However, one unofficial Russian source characterized these moves as a “provocation.” Undoubtedly Russia has an interest in Gotland. Reportedly, while Russia’s Gazprom was building the Nord Stream I natural gas pipeline in the area, efforts at Russian intelligence collection on Gotland had increased. Moreover, one of the island’s major harbors served as a logistics base for Russian construction efforts. Gazprom hoped to repeat this arrangement when it starts construction on the proposed, parallel Nord Stream II pipeline. But this time, the local authorities have refused (Riksdagen.se, September 21, 2016; Nord-stream.com, July 13, 2007; Gotland.se, December 15, 2016).
A perpetually important hub in the middle of the Baltic Sea, Gotland’s strategic role continues to this day. Maintaining Gotland in Swedish hands is vital to the protection of the mainland as well as ensuring the island cannot be used by a potential occupier to extort concessions from Sweden. Retaining Stockholm’s control over Gotland is also necessary to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unfettered access to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with reinforcements via the Baltic. Were Moscow to take control of Gotland Island, the Baltic Sea would be transformed into a Russian inland sea, severely limiting the aerial and sea-based activities of the region’s other littoral countries. As a result, the Baltic States would be cut off.
Even though Sweden is not a member of NATO, nor is it likely to join in the foreseeable future, Stockholm’s longstanding cooperation and level of interoperability with the Alliance facilitates potential mutual support in the event of a crisis. This is furthered by the fact that Sweden has signed a host nation support agreement with NATO. In this context, it also worth mentioning the declaration of solidarity made by Sweden in 2009, which proclaims that the Nordic country will support its neighbors in time of crisis but also expects such support in case of a corresponding situation occurring in Sweden. Assuming that Stockholm will honor this pledge in the event of open conflict in the region, the Swedish solidarity declaration will have an important impact on any developing crisis in the Baltic—thus further emphasizing the strategic importance of Gotland. A strong Swedish military presence on Gotland as well as the possibility, concrete plans and willingness to reinforce the island in the event of a crisis are, therefore, crucial preconditions for ensuring stability in the Baltic Sea region.