By Niklas Ylander
In September 2017, Sweden organized its largest military exercise in almost 25 years, Aurora 17. 19 000 men and women from the military defence, and 2 000 troops from other invited countries took part in the test to defend the Swedish territory from the Eastern threat. The Swedish political-military establishment clearly demonstrated the change of the national defence policy after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The neighboring Nordic countries were represented in Aurora, as well as Estonia, Lithuania, France and the US, all of them NATO members except for the non-aligned Finland. They took part in the exercise, which was organized in several locations around Sweden. The participation of other countries was important in order to test the ability to receive military support from foreign nations. The number of participating Swedish soldiers was significantly larger to any military exercise in Sweden before. Worth keeping in mind is that the amount of military personnel in the defence organization today is a tiny fraction of what it once was in the heydays of the Cold War. Many civilian state agencies were also engaged in Aurora. In the exercise scenario the threat came from what was clearly pointed out as Russia, but named “A-land” and “B-land”.
At the same time, Russia and Belarus were conducting the Zapad exercise close to the border of the NATO members Lithuania and Poland. According to Russian officials, more than 10 000 personnel from the armed forces were going to participate. According to the New York Times, there were worries among the Baltic countries and Poland that as many as 100 000 troops would be deployed during the Zapad exercise. During Aurora no Russian provocations were reported and the total size of the Zapad exercise might have been exaggerated.
However, Russia has continued to increase its military activity in the neighbourhood after the annexation of Crimea: The continuation of the war in Eastern Ukraine, the bombings in Syria, violating the airspace of neighbors, increasing presence of advanced military units in the Baltic Sea region, conducting disinformation campaigns, and organizing large military exercises.
It was the annexation of Crimea three years ago that totally changed the European security order. Military warfare and territorial takeover was once again possible on the European continent. In Sweden the policy changed from contributing to international interventions (e.g. in Kosovo and Afghanistan) to the old-fashioned goal: defending the national territory. It was important for decision makers to talk about increasing military capabilities, in order to be ready to control your own territory. Yet limitations of the defence became obvious already before Crimea. In the beginning of 2013 the Swedish Commander in Chief famously portrayed the military defence as an “one-week defence”. It would not be able to hold back an invader longer than that. Despite the change in political directives to its national defence, the military organisation lacks sufficient funding. Experts and center-right politicians are considering the necessity to increase the budget dramatically from one per cent of the GDP to two per cent.
The continuously aggressive Russian policy towards its neighbors has often been criticized by Sweden, and half of the Swedish population is afraid of Russia according to a recent study. The Swedish defense minister also repeatedly raised attention to the risk of Russian disinformation campaigns before the exercise. After Aurora he stated in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet:
“[Aurora] strengthens the view that Sweden is serious about taking its part of the responsibility to protect our part of Europe.”
The exercise has also gained a lot of attention in international media. Something is happening.
Aurora, and military exercises in general, are important for states for several reasons. It is a way to find gaps in a military apparatus and fix them, but also to send political signals to other states, both friendly and rival states, that the capacity exists to organize the military forces in complex circumstances, as well as the ability for the national sovereignty to be upheld. During Aurora, units from all defence sections interacted together, the first time since the beginning of the 90s, according to media reports. Exercises could also have offensive intentions, e.g. during the annexation of Crimea, where Russia conducted exercises along the border to Ukraine in order to put massive pressure on the newly installed administration in Kiev.
After the Crimean crisis, when Sweden was a constant opponent to Russian actions, other countries wondered how Sweden could demonstrate such confidence while having a virtually unusable military defense. Other states can now see the change in defence policy, which Aurora is concrete evidence for. The Swedish policy is more than having press conferences.
Aurora was criticized in the Swedish domestic political debate of having been organized as a NATO exercise. This would be problematic due to its status as non-aligned country. It would also, according to the critics, provoke Russia. In response, the Swedish government has firmly stated that Sweden will stay out of NATO and continue its status as non-aligned country. The political establishment has defended the country’s right to increase its capability to defend its own territory. The military is also portraying Aurora as important to strengthening the national defence. And the military clarifies the organisational objective clearly stated on its website: “We defend Sweden and the country´s interests, our freedom and the right to live the way of our choice.”
In 2016 Sweden joined the HOST-agreement with NATO which created the legal structure to invite foreign nations to bring armed forces to Swedish territory in the situation of war or catastrophes. Aurora is vital in order to test this agreement, according to the military defence. Yet the HOST-agreement is raising the question of how closely you can cooperate with NATO without actually joining the alliance.
Aurora 17 is thus a strong political message from the Swedish government and the military defence that Sweden has shifted from contributing to international interventions to defending its national territory. The post-cold war belief in the constant ‘European peace’ is almost forgotten. It is also a confirmation of the change of the European security order since Crimea, which states Russia as the main threat to upholding peace and security. However, the grand question regarding Sweden’s possibility to successfully defend its national territory is still to be answered.
Niklas Ylander has a master’s degree in political science with a special interest in Scandinavian politics. After his studies in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, he is constantly wondering about the differences and similarities between the countries.