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Cold War Redux? War Preparation and National Security in Sweden

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Christine Agius and Joakim Berndtsson | 25 August 2018

In May 2018, Sweden sent a booklet to 4.8 million households advising the population how to prepare for crisis or war. The booklet was produced by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap, MSB), which was mandated as the responsible agency for planning, command and coordination of civil defence by the Swedish Defence Commission.

Source: Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap (Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap) [Public domain],_2018.jpg

This is not the first time Sweden has issued such advice to its population. The booklet first appeared in 1943, when Sweden was neutral and neighbouring Norway and Denmark were occupied by Nazi forces. It was then revised and reproduced several times before making its current appearance in 2018, where it generated some media interest in major western news outlets such as The Guardian, the BBC, and CNN.

Image of the 1961 brochure. Source:

The booklet covers how to prepare for the event of a terrorist attack or invasion by another country. It provides guidance on self-management, communications, working with the community or local municipal authorities, and how to be ‘resilient’. Much of this drive has been based on perceived insecurity in Sweden’s immediate region. In the last decade, Russia’s presence and activities have raised concerns security concerns for Sweden. Russia’s incursions in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine continues to occupy a central place in Sweden’s annual foreign policy statements as one of the most serious threats to international law and regional security. Russian incursions in Swedish airspace and territorial waters – such as the suspected presence of Russian submarines in 2014 – recall Cold War scenarios such as the 1981 ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ incident (see Cecilia Åse for a fascinating study of the link between gender and nation here). In 2013, former SAF Supreme Commander, Sverker Göranson, warned that Sweden would not be able to withstand an attack on its soil for more than a week due to post-Cold War military underfunding. Conscription, abolished in 2010, will be returning in 2018, and Sweden has seen the biggest defence budget increase for two decades in the recent Swedish Defence Bill 2016-2020.

There have also been significant activities in terms of war preparedness in the form of virtual and simulated exercises. In 2013, Russia simulated a nuclear attack on Sweden, and practised invasions of Gotland, Åland and Bornholm in 2015. In 2014, Sweden participated in NATO military exercises close to the Russian border in Norway, and in NATO’s annual BALTOPS (Baltic Operations) military exercise in June 2015. Most significant was Aurora 17, the largest military exercise for decades that involved all branches of the Swedish Armed Forces (SAF), civilian agencies and international partners from the USA, Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, Estonia and Lithuania. All in all, some 19,000 SAF personnel took part in the exercise in September 2017, focusing on the Mälardalen and Stockholm areas, Gothenburg and Gotland. The stated mission was to ‘defend the country’s interests, our freedom and the right to live the way of our choice.’ In the same month, Russia and Belarus conducted its joint military exercise, Zapad 17. The simulated scenarios mirror real security events. For instance, Zapad (meaning ‘West’) is held every four years, and its last iteration in 2013 is said to have prepared Russia for its intervention in Crimea. Zapad 17’s scenario involved drills against ‘Veishnoria’, a designated enemy state. Aurora 17’s scenario was likewise an imagined aggression from a neighbouring country.

Preparing the People

Against this backdrop, the booklet has significant meaning for focussing the population’s attention on the security of the nation. The booklet can thus be read as part Sweden’s concept of total defence, designed to ensure the resilience of the Swedish population. In its report of December 2017, the Swedish Defence Commission described total defence as ‘the preparations and planning required to prepare Sweden for war.’ It consists of military and civil defence, bringing in not only government agencies, municipalities and other official actors, but also individuals, voluntary organisations and private enterprises.

The nature of the threat is military but also harmful to democracy – in this sense, much of the booklet and Sweden’s defence efforts speak to a defence of ‘ontological security’ – or security of the self. To have ontological security means having certainty about the self, confirmed by routines and narratives, and we must be able to trust our environment. Ontological insecurity takes place when there is disruption to routines, when actors do not know how to respond to their environment or cannot maintain a narrative of the self that is continuous. The brochure makes reference to this directly from the beginning: ‘Many people may feel a sense of anxiety when faced with an uncertain world…Peace, freedom and democracy are values that we must protect and reinforce on a daily basis.’ (p3) This speaks directly to the importance of maintaining routines in order to ensure a stable sense of self. The document asks the population to think about how this sense of ontological security will be disrupted by events and how to manage them. This relates not just to physical security but also to resilience in the face of misinformation. Sweden has been concerned with propaganda and misinformation in the context of Russian relations for some time. In an era of fake news, psychological defence has become a new battlefront and is part of the Commission’s focus on resilience of the population.

The political development leading up to the revival of the total defence concept and the subsequent distribution of the booklet is also in line with public opinion on defence- and security-related matters. For instance, as the annual surveys of the SOM Institute indicate, the Swedish public is concerned by the development in Russia, and by the risk of war and terrorist attacks. At the same time, a vast majority of Swedes (77 per cent in 2017) support the idea of a strong military defence, and the level of trust in the Swedish Armed Forces has increased dramatically in the past few years. Thus, there is popular support for policies aimed to build Swedish security and societal resilience. In many ways, both security concerns as well as recent moves to manage them (through rebuilding territorial/total defence and increasing individual and collective preparedness) draw on ideas and narratives reminiscent of the Cold War period. The activities and initiatives of war preparedness and perceptions of threat reflected in public opinion is also interesting in relation to Sweden’s past identity as a militarily non-aligned state (and the construction of ‘new memories’, as Annika Bergman Rosamond and Agius discuss here) and how the idea of the soldiering and protection of the state shift over time.

The Return of the Cold War?

In recent years, political discourse on security and defence has been marked by an increasing focus on potential threats to the Swedish territory and society, understood as coming mainly from the east. As we have seen, this has sparked a flurry of activities and policies such as a renewed focus on civilian preparedness and resilience as part of Swedish total defence, military/cyber security build-up and increasing cooperation with NATO. In several ways, this is familiar terrain, reminiscent of security and defence policies and practices of the Cold War. Yet in other ways, the current situation is qualitatively different. A case in point is the issue of a future NATO membership, where for the first time, all of four right-of-centre parties (the “Alliance”) in the current opposition favour a Swedish membership, while the Government remain committed to the policy of non-alignment, albeit defined in terms of engagement and cooperation with allies and regional partners. In recent years, Swedes have become more positive towards a NATO membership, but there is no clear majority for or against, and about four in ten remains “undecided”. Entering into the Swedish general elections in September 2018, it remains to be seen whether and how defence and security policies will form part of political debates and campaigns. Considering the current priorities among voters on other issues (migration, education, health care), this appears unlikely. Even so, the preparation for crisis and war continues, raising important questions about its long- and short-term impact on Swedish society and conceptions of national security.


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