Russia is often cited as one of Sweden's military foe – but how real is the threat? Photo: Sven Hultberg Carlsson/Swedish Radio
Defence spending

Russia's "threat" to Sweden – an exaggeration?

"Russia sees many threats"
4:57 min

Proponents of higher military spending in Sweden often say Russia is the country's most immediate threat. And Moscow has sharply increased military spending over the three years. But just how grave a danger does Putin's Russia pose to Sweden?

It's spring time in Moscow. Thousands of troops rally on Red Square to the voice of their supreme commander.

Viewers might think this brazen march took place at the height of the Soviet Union's military power. But this is from the 67th edition of the parade, held on a warm spring day in 2012.

"If I see any threat, it's Russia, but maybe I'm saying that because a satirical video about the Swedish army came from there the other week," said a young man in Stockholm.

Military spending in Russia declined sharply after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fredrik Westerlund, a defence analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency FOI, says it hit rock bottom in 1998, at the time of Russia's financial crisis.

Since then, military spending has increased at the same rate as Russia's GDP – but in the three-year budget from now until 2015, the government has picked up the pace, increasing military spending by a whole percent of GDP at the expense of other investments.

Russia's increased spending hasn't gone unnoticed in Sweden. Both the Liberal Party leader, Education Minister Jan Björklund, and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the conservative Moderates have expressed concern about Russia's new military budget.

But does Russia perceive Sweden as a military foe? Not so much, according to Alexey Levinson, a sociologist and researcher at the Levada Center, an independent polling institute in Moscow.

"In the early 1990s, Russia viewed Sweden as a good middle road between socialism and capitalism," said Levinson, whose organisation conducts nationwide polls on a number of topics every month. "Now, Sweden is simply an example of a prosperous, normal country."

An expert on Russian political affairs who spoke off the record said Russian society rested on three pillars as an absolutist state under Peter the Great: the autocrat, the church and the nation. Military spending, the researcher said, is simply one way for Russia to strengthen its inherent nationalism, and that it's an exaggeration to say that its rearmament under President Vladimir Putin is aimed at Sweden.

Fredrik Westerlund at FOI said Moscow perceives several threats – in Russia and around it. There are low-intensity conflicts that have been going on for years in the Caucasus region, where Islamic separatists are fighting Russian forces.

The arctic could become more strategically important, as countries around it, including Sweden, are keeping a close eye on the natural resources that are available there.

But Nato could be the threat that looms largest for Russia. "The former chief of the Russian general staff stated in a visit to Finland last year that a Finnish Nato membership would be considered if not a threat, then at least as a danger," said Fredrik Westerlund at FOI.

"What bothers Russians a lot is not EU expansion, but the expansion of Nato," said Levinson at the Levada Center. "If Sweden did choose to join Nato, it might come to be seen in a very different light. Top politicians in Russia would not miss a chance to portray another nation as an enemy."

By Sven Hultberg Carlsson

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