Sweden is joining Nato, but it’s hopelessly unprepared for war | Sweden

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After two centuries of peace, and a fire-sale of public infrastructure, the country has never been so vulnerable

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came as a rude awakening for Sweden. Across the country people suddenly realised that national security vulnerabilities were everywhere. The entire public transit rail network in Stockholm, for example, is operated by MTR, a Hong Kong-based company with ties to the Chinese Communist party.

In the event of Stockholm being attacked by foreign forces, most of the detail about critical infrastructure and tunnels running under the city centre – home to the Swedish parliament, the prime minister’s residence, the state department, the royal castle – could be shared with enemies.

“We have to assume that everything MTR knows about tunnels and infrastructure in Stockholm is also known in Beijing,” says Patrik Oksanen, an expert on national security.

Sweden is set to join Nato this year, with Hungary’s long-delayed parliamentary approval finally voted through on Monday. Turkey lifted its objections in January. This is a historic shift: after more than two centuries of peace, neutral Sweden will have to rapidly adjust to a belligerent new world.

But that came with a blunt warning: from civil defence minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin, that “there could be war in Sweden”. If that wasn’t alarming enough, Sweden’s chief of defence, Micael Bydén, followed up by saying that the Swedish population needed to “mentally prepare” for the possibility of war. Both drew criticism for causing panic: many Swedish children took to TikTok to share their fears. The warnings may have been clumsily worded but they were intended to wake the country up from a long slumber of geopolitical naivety.

As a growing number of national security experts in Sweden have pointed out, the current state of Swedish infrastructure and extent of foreign ownership leave Sweden uniquely vulnerable. It certainly makes a mockery of the Swedish “total defence” tradition, where everything from grain supply chains to fire departments is supposedly involved in protecting the country and its people in the event of disaster or invasion.

Too often, the private companies which took over formerly public infrastructure have prioritised profits over safety, and many of the most vulnerable coastal regions in Sweden lack basic assets for civil defence, such as shelters.

Recent reports by the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), and independent analysis by trade unions and business groups, suggest countless examples of conflicts of interest between long-term national security and the short-term interests of businesses and municipal governments eager to bring new jobs to post-industrial towns. For the most part, this conflict has been resolved by ignoring the national security concerns.

The problem isn’t necessarily the privatisations per se, but the reckless way in which they were executed, often without due diligence or background checks. Officials often just chose to do deals with the private contractors that submitted the cheapest bids. The globalisation optimism of the 1990s, when Russia and China were expected gradually to open up and eventually ally with western liberal democracies, paving the way for peace ever after, was so firmly rooted in Swedish politics that local officials until very recently were offering deals on critical infrastructure to investors with ties to adversarial governments.

‘Swedes have long taken their safety for granted’ … Life Guards training near Stockholm. Photograph: Tom Little/Reuters

In Timrå, the municipal government’s security official Johanna Hillgren recently resigned over the city’s decision to allow a Chinese battery factory to be sited right next to the Midlanda airport, which has been deemed a critical national security asset.

Almost a quarter of all new wind turbines in Sweden since 2017 have been built by Chinese companies, which could jeopardise Swedish energy supplies in a scenario of increasing EU-China tensions.

“Sweden is still about 10 years behind when it comes to realising that China’s ambitions are global,” says Oksanen.

Decades of austerity and deregulation have also left Sweden with a severe lack of preparedness and civic infrastructure. The municipal government in Lycksele in the rural north of Sweden is so concerned about access to food supplies that it bought 10 cows, in case a war or national crisis jeopardises supply chains.

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There is also a lack of reliable defence shelters. Huge new facilities, such as the most expensive hospital in Swedish history, Nya Karolinska, in the north of Stockholm, have been built without a single space for shelter.

The government agency tasked with inspecting the national network of 64,000 shelters – with space to accommodate 7 million people – currently has just two employees. The pair are supposed to visit all 64,000 locations. Asked by Swedish national TV whether the agency might have to get increased funding, the civil defence minister replied with understatement: “We cannot rule that out.”

The conservatives and social democrats who have alternated in government over the past four decades blame each other. But in fact, there has been a mostly bipartisan consensus about selling off public assets, while eagerly inviting Chinese businesses to invest in factories and critical infrastructure.

The current government, a rightwing coalition, is belatedly shifting priorities, with new tools to investigate foreign investment. MTR will lose some of its operating contracts in March.

But increased funding for civil defence and the military is often undermined by anachronistic regulations, or decentralised systems involving multiple private actors and local communities. The national rail network, for example, is operated by 60 different corporations.

The FOI is not allowed to test its recently acquired defence drones outdoors, but instead has to hire a private sports stadium to do trial runs.

A massive new government centre for cybersecurity has been hindered by local officials worried that the fence surrounding the building will require the felling of five trees. At a military base in Linköping, helicopters are not allowed to do training after 3pm on Fridays, because locals complain that it’s unpleasant to hear them on afternoons when they expect quiet time off.

There’s a Swedish expression for this attitude: fredsskadad, “peace damaged” – the idea that Sweden’s two centuries of peace have left its citizenry ill-prepared for a crueller reality. Swedes have long taken their safety for granted, while government officials recklessly sold off public assets and critical infrastructure to foreign powers.

Hungary approves Sweden joining Nato after months of delays

A further symptom might be a particular Swedish vulnerability to external propaganda, disinformation and hybrid warfare. As we approach the EU elections in June, some of these weaknesses have been exposed, with Swedish extremist groups known to be disseminating Kremlin propaganda. The Swedish government’s psychological defence agency said last year that Kremlin-controlled media outlets were publishing articles in Arabic falsely claiming that the Swedish authorities supported Qur’an burning. Some of these narratives end up being rehashed on far-right Swedish online forums.

China has also successfully tempted “alternative media” to share Beijing’s narratives with gullible Swedes. This comes amid drastic cuts to Sweden’s public radio, with more than 180 employees to be laid off, including experts on the climate crisis and on China. The station is cancelling broadcasts in Russian and half a dozen other languages.

The government has also cut funding for the free press, for civil society organisations and independent research institutes, which might further undermine citizens’ ability to educate themselves about potential threats. It is little comfort to think that, as bad as things are, many Swedes will have nothing to fear – because they will be unaware that they should be worried.











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Publish date : 2024-03-01 03:00:00

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Author : info-blog

Publish date : 2024-06-10 23:28:06

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