From neutrality to NATO: The war in Ukraine has reignited Sweden's age-old fear of Russia, the neighbor that thwarted its imperial dreams

From neutrality to NATO: The war in Ukraine has reignited Sweden’s age-old fear of Russia, the neighbor that thwarted its imperial dreams

“The Russians are coming! (“Ryssen Kommer!”)was the saying that was permanently incorporated into the Swedish language as a reference to any threat since in 1809 the Nordic country lost a third of its territory and its great northern empire – which included Finland– in the hands of Russia. And now that it is no longer a major military power, the Scandinavian nation has just ended its former neutrality to order this week its integration into NATO and be protected against threats from its eastern neighbour.

War strikes in Ukraine but the drums We hear them all over the continent.

The tensions not only accelerated the process of abandoning Swedish neutrality that began a decade ago (with the signing of mutual defense treaties with the European Union), but also altered the traditional openness of the population towards foreigners and immigration -a hospitality that benefited thousands of exiles from Latin America during the era of military dictatorships-.

The Swedish fear of the Kremlin’s decisions extended to everything concerning Russia.

In Helsinki’s main market square, a Swedish flag flutters next to a double-headed eagle, the symbol of Imperial Russia. The monument was erected in 1835 to commemorate the first visit of Empress Alexandra, 26 years after the triumph of the Russian Empire over the Kingdom of Sweden.Martin Meissner – AP

“Suddenly, when Vladimir Putin’s troops entered Ukraine almost three months ago, I started receiving intimidating calls and hateful messages”Told THE NATION The Russian Elena Gabets, who after immigrating to Stockholm in 2008, opened the “Eurobar” restaurant in the Swedish capital four years ago, specializing in Russian cuisine. It was useless for him to post messages repudiating the invasion on his social networks. “Our hearts and thoughts are with Ukraine”Gabets wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook account on February 24.

Russian Elena Gabets had to remove vodka and kefir from her menus at her restaurant in Stockholm
Russian Elena Gabets had to remove vodka and kefir from her menus at her restaurant in Stockholm

“We serve food, not politics”, he later clarified. But the threats continued to the point that he had to eliminate from his posters any reference to the specialty of “Russian food”, which was replaced by “eastern european cuisine”. “We even had to remove from our menu the Vodka and the kefir, the traditional yoghurt widely used in Russia,” comments Gabets. “These are very difficult times here. In the Swedish media, it seems that all Russians are behind the attack,” he added.

Gabets’ situation is no different from that of many Russians in Sweden or other European countries. There have been cases of Russian immigrant boys being bullied in schools, even temples and Orthodox Church facilities, targeted by Russophobes. In Swedish, Russophobia has a long-standing word: “rysskracken” (literally “terror of the Russians”).

“Although there were many centuries of friendly relations, the old wars from the days when Sweden lost the territory of what is now Finland, and since russian troops burned down and devastated entire towns on the east coast, they are still relevant“, said THE NATION The Swedish specialist Mats Engström, of the thinking group European Council on Foreign Relations.

This “terror of the Russians” is particularly strong in Gotland, the island of 60,000 inhabitants lost in the middle of the Baltic Sea, just 300 kilometers from the Russian port city of Kaliningrad, headquarters of the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy. The archipelago was occupied by the Russian Empire during this ancient confrontation called the “Finnish War”.

“In Gotland there are now a lot of people who have started storing canned goods. And while there’s still something left, supplies of bottled water and portable stoves have run out.Rikard von Zweigbergk, Gotland’s emergency preparedness manager, told AFP.

The fear on Gotland is not unfounded. A week after the start of the Kremlin offensive in Ukraine, four russian fighter planes they violated the airspace east of Gotland. Sweden also knows that Russia regards the island as a strategic place for the domination of the entire Baltic.

“We get a lot of phone calls, people worrying, especially about where the bomb shelters are and where to go if something happens.”he added.

To those most anxious, “we say, ‘keep calm, keep calm,'” the official said.

Three Swedish tanks patrol a road near the town of Visby, north of the island of Gotland.
Three Swedish tanks patrol a road near the town of Visby, north of the island of Gotland.Karl Melander – AP

While the Swedish government had decided to demilitarize Gotland in the 2000s, fifteen years later, shortly after the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, it retraced its steps, he installed a regiment of 5,000 men there and even reimposed compulsory military service for both sexes throughout the country.

A possible Russian control over Gotland would also work as a huge obstacle to any NATO action for the defense of the three Baltic republics (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) which are already part of the Atlantic alliance.

Swedish media highlight fear of Russian attack on Gotland due to its strategic positionAnd military experts believe that even Russia could threaten to launch a nuclear attack, as long as Sweden does not have the protective ‘umbrella’ of NATO,” Engström noted.

Shortly after the violation of airspace by Russian planes, the Swedish police received several reports of particularly large drones flying over the country’s three nuclear power plants (Oskarshamn, Ringhals and Forsmark), as well as on at least two airports, the Stockholm metropolitan area and the royal family’s palace at Drottningholm.

Although historically the Swedish population supported neutrality and never wanted to join NATO, everything changed with these threats and the invasion of Ukraine. Polls now show that 58% support the decision to join the Atlantic Alliance.

On the Russian side, the view is different. Anna Kozhina Gvozdeva is an expert in international affairs living in St. Petersburg and her doctoral thesis at Uppsala University, Sweden, became the book National stereotypes in Swedish-Russian mutual perception. Although in dialogue with THE NATION recognized the deep imprint left in the Swedish collective memory by the bloody wars of the past, considered that the decision to join NATO will now aggravate the crisis.

“This incorporation will mark an escalation of tensions with Russia and this could mean that the atlantic alliance is installing nuclear weapons on swedish territorya possibility that Swedish disarmament advocates have historically dismissed,” Kozhina said.

“In the eyes of many, joining NATO also means that the country will lose full control of its foreign and security policy, and its renowned reputation as an impartial mediator in international conflicts“, he added.

But, according to the expert, the conflict in Ukraine has revived ancestral fears in Sweden and the need to prepare because “The Russians are coming! (Ryssen Kommer!).

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