Spies and Subs Loom in Swedish Memory as Russia Pushes Pipeline

Niklas Magnusson
February 1, 2007

A Russian pipeline plan is stirring up old animosities in Sweden.

OAO Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas export monopoly, plans to increase supplies to Western
Europe by building a 743-mile (1,195-kilometer), $8 billion pipeline under the Baltic Sea by 2010.
Its proposal includes a maintenance platform off the Swedish island of Gotland, a flashpoint for
armed conflict between the two countries for 850 years.

Many Gotland residents view the platform as an outpost for Russian spies and its military, and want their government to block it. For Swedes, defeated by Russia in 1721 in a battle that brought down the curtain on the Swedish Empire and ended its control of the Baltic Sea, the Gazprom plan revives that struggle in a modern, economic context.

“It’s never good to have the Russians too close,” said Roland Petterson, a Gotland
fisherman who has trawled the Baltic for two decades. “I’m annoyed that they can draw a line
across the Baltic Sea and that Sweden doesn’t do anything about most of it being in the Swedish economic zone.”

Gotland, the size of Rhode Island, has 58,000 inhabitants. It lies 56 miles east of mainland Sweden and about 155 miles northwest of the Russian port of Kaliningrad. The island was last taken by Russia in 1809. News media in Gotland have stoked fears of a renewed invasion, with letters and editorials demanding that the pipeline be blocked.

David and Goliath

“We’re a little David against a mighty Goliath,” said Stefaan de Maecker, 30, a member of Gotland’s local Green Party. “The government must say no to the project now.”

The pipeline, to be built with German utility E.ON AG and chemicals company BASF AG, would transport as much as 55 billion cubic meters of gas a year, equal to six months of demand in the U.K. Europe depends on Russia for a quarter of its gas needs.

Gazprom intends to build the pipeline to avoid transit through countries such as Belarus and Ukraine. Because the pipeline traverses Sweden’s economic zone, the Swedish government may be able to demand a redesign or new route.

While Sweden can’t stop the pipeline under international law, it may be able to block installations along the route, said Bo Huldt, a professor at the Swedish National Defense College.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, during a Jan. 12 visit to Germany, said his government would respond after receiving a final proposal later this year.

“It will be very important to see whether the environmental effects will be negative and if we could do something about that,” he said.

Littered With Mines

Russian President Vladimir Putin, at an Oct. 11 meeting in Dresden, Germany, said his country would heed “all environmental requirements.” Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder heads the project’s supervisory board.

“We do not plan to use the pipeline for any purposes other than gas transportation,” Irina Vasilyeva, a spokeswoman for the project, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “We shall observe all environmental, maritime and legal requirements, both national and international, during planning, construction, and operation of the pipeline.”

Laying the pipeline on the seabed may unsettle an area littered with mines left from two world wars, Petterson said. The pipeline also may disrupt fish-breeding grounds, and the security zones around the link would limit fishing, reducing the catch by as much as half, he said.
The pipeline may also deter tourists. More than 700,000 people visited Gotland in 2005, bringing 1.5 billion kronor ($216 million) to the local economy, according to the tourism board.

“The pipeline sounds scary, as it’s going to be so close,” said Gunilla Gustavsson, a resident of Faaroe, off Gotland’s northern tip. She moved there after her first visit to the island 35 years ago.

Old Hostilities

Putin in October said the Russian Navy would guard the pipeline. That planned foray into Swedish waters has stirred memories of past military confrontations. Sweden and Russia began battling for control of the Baltic Sea in the 12th century and have since fought more than 10 wars.

Sweden gained territories along the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea in the 17th century, laying the foundation for the Swedish Empire that crumbled in 1721. During World War II, in which Sweden was neutral, the island was a sanctuary for thousands of people fleeing the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

In 1981, the Soviet nuclear submarine U-137 beached outside the Karlskrona naval base in southern Sweden, a reminder of Russia’s undercover activities in Swedish waters.

“I understand that people, especially the old ones, are worried,” said Oerjan Samuelsson, 49, who heads a team of 33 at Gotland’s coast guard station in Slite. “It’s a heritage we carry with us.”

Some locals say Sweden lacks the military clout to check Russia’s presence. The government in 2004 scaled back defense spending and left Gotland with only 70 army personnel. Russia, by contrast, is upgrading its Baltic fleet by adding submarines.

“I don’t want Russian military personnel the distance of a pair of binoculars away from Gotland,” said Rolf Nilsson, Gotland’s representative in the Swedish parliament.