‘It’s healthy to be on war alert’: Sweden’s conscription push gathers pace

As it prepares to join NATO with the Ukraine war yet raging, Sweden’s long-held neutrality will soon become a principle of the past.

3. Practice with live ammunition on Gotland-1707304629
Conscripts train with live ammunition on the island of Gotland [Sara Kollberg/Al Jazeera]

Gotland, Sweden – Conscript Linus pokes his head out of the commander’s hatch, eases himself through the opening, and lifts himself atop the tank.

Most of his days in the Swedish army are not so exciting, “but today, when we are shooting, it’s fun”, he says, holding an automatic rifle in his arms.

At 18, he is part of a new generation of conscripts that is hoped to boost the armed forces and remilitarise Sweden.

He is doing his service on Gotland, an island controlling the passage through the Baltic Sea, 275km (170 miles) from the Russian port of Kaliningrad.

Gotland represents the challenges facing Sweden as a whole.

The regiment here was disbanded militarily in 2005, when Russia was no longer seen as a threat. Now rearmament is taking place at pace, and the number of conscripts is tripling.

1. Colonel Dan Rasmussen, commander of the Gotland Regiment-1707304514
Colonel Dan Rasmussen, commander of the Gotland Regiment [Sara Kollberg/Al Jazeera]

“This is a very special time in Swedish history, both for the nation and the armed forces, coming from neutrality and non-alliance, and then shifting towards collective defence within NATO. It’s a big step,” said Colonel Dan Rasmussen, commander of the Gotland Regiment.

He cast the situation as a societal awakening that began with Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and finally the 2022 full-scale attack on Ukraine.

“We needed that final push to realise that it isn’t getting better, and now we are preparing for the worst.”

Cold War-era military service was dropped in 2010 as the country drastically reduced its armed forces.

Its reintroduction in 2018 was accelerated by the war in Ukraine and Sweden’s NATO application.

Conscription is up 30 percent this year, and the armed forces’ budget is up by 28 percent – giving them another $2.5bn.

In early 2023, Bloomberg reported that Sweden plans to double the number of conscripts to 10,000 by 2030.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said at the National Conference of Defence that Sweden “can’t sit around investigating things year after year. Now it’s important to get things done”.

Former NATO director of policy planning, Fabrice Pothier, agrees, saying Sweden went “too far in neglecting Gotland”.

“It is healthy to be on war alert and war readiness footing rather than in denial.”

He said Sweden’s neutrality in recent times has endangered the country.

However, a warning by Commander-in-Chief Michael Byden last month, that “all Swedes should mentally prepare for war”, stirred fears, especially among young people.

9. Kerstin Bergeå, president of Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society-1707305234
Kerstin Bergea, president of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, thinks building up the military won’t make the world safer [Sara Kollberg/Al Jazeera]

“Many young people and parents are calling us, worried that their kids will be sent to do conscription. ‘Will our kids have to fight for NATO? Are we in war?’ That’s the kind of questions they have,” said Kerstin Bergea, president of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society.

“Even our own armed forces say the risk of a military attack on Sweden is low. So to have such a huge build-up isn’t the right way to go. It doesn’t make Sweden or the world safer.”

Behind conscript Linus another tank starts moving, muddying the ground on its way to the shooting field.

Linus explains he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and be conscripted, but not all who are called up do it by choice. About 10 percent are there against their will.

More than 100,000 teenagers born in 2006 are being sent their muster papers this year.

Caspar Sperling is one of them, now waiting to see if he will be called.

Petting the family’s cat, he shows the forms he had to fill out on his laptop.

“It feels a bit scary that I might have to be away for nine months and not have a choice, risking going to jail if I don’t obey,” he said.

“[But] it feels important to do this, to contribute during the situation that we have now,” he says, continuing: “The fact that Russia has started a war again is scary.”

With Turkey having ratified Sweden’s application to NATO, the Nordic country is now waiting for only Hungary to do the same before it can become a full member of the alliance.

6. Conscript Julia, tank driver, during practice on Gotland-1707304935
Conscript Julia, a tank driver, trains on Gotland [Sara Kollberg/Al Jazeera]

Not everyone is happy with this new reality.

“Sweden will leave 200 years of peace and enter a nuclear weapon alliance, NATO,” said Bergea.

Back on Gotland, tank driver Julia, another conscript, stops to load up on more ammunition.

“With the worldwide situation of today, I think it’s important,” she said.

She left home to live on Gotland for a year.

The island is usually known for long beaches and sunny days, but on this frigid February day, the harsh wind blows in from the sea as tanks fire live ammunition across the fields.

Few truly believe these weapons will be needed for real. But Sweden is not taking any chances.

In any case, these could be the last days of the country deciding its military direction – before NATO takes the reins.

Source: Al Jazeera