With tensions raised across Europe over a newly belligerent Russia, Sweden’s military and the United States Marines concluded a drill on Sunday on Gotland, a Swedish island with strategic significance for control of the Baltic Sea.
“A lot of us thought that there wouldn’t be a need to defend Gotland after Soviet collapse,” Col. Magnus Frykvall, commander of Sweden’s Gotland regiment, said in a telephone interview. “This has been put in a totally new point of view since the war in Ukraine in 2014, and it was even more clear to us with the current invasion.”
The drill came as fears of military conflict with Russia, which not long ago seemed unimaginable in Sweden, have led the nation to apply for membership in NATO. Gotland poses a critical area of concern for Sweden, which like Russia borders the Baltic Sea. Gotland is the Baltic’s largest island.
The drill was part of a broader annual exercise in which the United States sent a giant warship, the U.S.S. Kearsarge, to Stockholm’s port, along with 26 warplanes and 2,400 Marines and sailors.
It was the first time that the military exercise, known as Baltic Operations, included U.S. Marines on Gotland and land-based actions there, Colonel Frykvall said.
The exercise, he said, featured Marines swiftly linking up with Swedish troops on Gotland’s beach, then working to uproot an enemy force from a landing strip that invaders had gained control of and begun to use to bring more troops onto the island.
Gotland’s history shows its strategic importance.
Russia invaded the island in 1808 during a war with Sweden, leading to a month of fighting. Russian forces also landed on the island at the end of World War II in 1945 as a form of “power projection,” Colonel Frykvall said.
At the height of the Cold War, 25,000 Swedish military personnel were stationed on Gotland, he said. But in 2005, the nation closed down its military regiment on the island.
“Sweden thought that there would never be a war in Europe again,” Colonel Frykvall said.
Then came Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which prompted Sweden to resume a military presence on Gotland in 2014.
There are about 400 Swedish members of the military on Gotland — for the moment, Colonel Frykvall said.
“The numbers of military personnel on the island will surely grow quite fast,” Colonel Frykvall said. “We’re looking at wartime organization of 4,000 in a couple years.”