Tanks on European streets due to ‘Russian threat’
Sweden has moved to ramp up security on the largest Baltic Sea island of Gotland with a view to “adapting” its security strategy to the “tense situation” on the Russian-Ukrainian border, located some 1,700km southeast.
Residents of the sleepy town of Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland awoke to the sound of heavy military hardware roaring through the streets on Saturday. The Swedish Army’s Stridsfordon 90 infantry fighting vehicles had arrived overnight to secure the tranquil coastal town and its port.
A rapid response tactical unit of the Swedish Armed Forces has been deployed to the island, the military said in a statement on Saturday. A part of the unit was flown in on Friday evening by the US C-17 heavy transport aircraft as part of Sweden’s “international collaboration” program while the rest arrived by ferry from mainland Sweden.
The Swedish military said the effort “should be seen” as part of Sweden adapting its strategy “to the tense situation between Russia and Ukraine,” which has been grabbing media headlines for several months. The US and its NATO allies have claimed that Russian troops are set to invade neighboring Ukraine as early as January or February. Moscow has dismissed the statements as “fake news.”
The deployment “does not have to mean an increased threat” level, the Swedish Armed Forces’ chief of operations, Michael Claesson, told the media. Speaking to AP, he also cited allegedly increased Russian activity in the Baltic Sea which “deviates from the normal picture.”
While Claesson's comments seemingly downplayed an immediate “Russian threat,” articles published in the Swedish media on Saturday talked about the military strengthening its position as it prepares to defend “Sweden’s most vulnerable place.”
German tabloid Bild went even further, specifically linking the surprise Swedish deployment to Russia’s recent decision to move three of its heavy landing ships from the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Citing an anonymous Stockholm official, the paper said that Swedish Army has been on alert in case Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to use the ships to capture Gotland.
“Should Putin plan anything against the Baltic countries, he would first have to take Gotland. We see the Russian troop movements and we have to take this scenario seriously,” the official claimed. According to this source, Moscow might be tempted to deploy its S-400 air defense systems to the island to cut off the Baltic States from the NATO air support. The paper has provided no evidence that a plan to invade and occupy part of Sweden has ever been considered by Russia.
Moscow has yet to respond to the latest allegations. It has repeatedly denied having any plans to invade Ukraine, where a civil war broke out in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014 in the wake of a Western-backed coup in Kiev. Two unrecognized breakaway republics bordering Russia emerged during the events, and are still in control of swaths of the historic coal mining region of Donbass. The current fragile peace in the region relies on the Minsk Agreements, with which Moscow says the Kiev government is not abiding. For the past few weeks Ukraine and the US have insisted that Russia has been amassing troops close to the Ukrainian border, claiming that not just Donbass, but also the capital city of Kiev, could see Russian tanks rolling in. No proof of the Russian government having an invasion plan has ever been published.
Both Moscow and Washington have meanwhile accused each other of preparing a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine, which would then provoke a full-blown conflict.
The situation around Ukraine has led to a week of high-level talks between Russian, American, NATO and the OSCE officials. Moscow came up with a set of proposals for improving collective security in Europe, which included guarantees that NATO would not expand further east. These specific demands have been rejected by the US and its allies.
On Saturday, former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an interview with Finnish outlet Yle that “a Russian attack would provoke a discussion in Finland and Sweden regarding future NATO membership,” claiming that in the event the two nations applied for membership, the bloc would “decide on it overnight.”