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Sweden, Russia, Nato, and Extraordinary Political Theatre?

Dalarna, Sweden

“Will there be war?” (”Kommer det bli krig?”) was the question posed in the 22 April report by the one of country’s most respected papers, Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), its article revealing some alleged particulars of a Russian Air Force practice mission that had “so far been kept secret”.  Every major Swedish media outlet was soon discussing the story: on Good Friday at about 2 am, two Russian bombers and an escort of four fighters had come within 30-40 kilometers of Swedish airspace, allegedly practicing mock attacks upon “two specific targets in the Stockholm area and Southern Sweden.”  Wow, except that Russia had previously announced it would be holding air exercises that week (Russian Air Force Readies for Massive Drills – RIA Novosti), and a large war game encompassing land and air forces was in progress.  At the time, Good Friday, the conservative Washington Times actually headlined “Bear roars at Europe: Putin’s surprise military exercise irks Russia’s neighbors”.

Good Friday was 29 March, and while the Russian maneuvers received relatively little media attention globally, such events being considered by many as ‘non-events’, public perceptions can change when virtually every media outlet in a country carries the story, especially if threats to security are suggested.  However, some might arguably say such an event would mark the highest order of ‘political theatre’, especially if defense spending and Nato membership were items of current political interest.

Fortunately, not every Swedish journalist was smitten with ‘Bear Fever’, and one respected commentator, Göran Greider, vividly explained his perception of “The need for fear of the Russians” (“Behovet av rysskräck”).   He observed that such Russian fear was useful for pushing Sweden further towards Nato membership, not to mention helping defense spending.  And so, not everyone here is being entertained by the ongoing show, a Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) source telling this journalist that the ‘scare’ was needed to justify 43 Billion Kroner in defense spending, plus adding additions to that.

Consider how folks in The States would react if every major radio and TV network ran simultaneous coverage suggesting an alleged Russian threat.  I won’t add that the fact such coverage could occur makes an interesting comment upon mainstream Swedish media.  But, highlighting some remarkable politics here, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, has downplayed the incident from the start, essentially dismissing it as nothing that even demanded explanation from Russia, and an opposition Green MP on the Riksdag’s Defense Committee seems to agree with him.

“It is ordinary training for the Russian side…all was correct”, observed MP Peter Rådberg for this journalist, adding that the “Russian training wasn’t special”.  When I then queried Rådberg as to whether the attention that the incident was getting reflected the desire of some to promote more defense spending and Nato membership, he quite candidly responded “yes, it’s a game”.

In 1966, during the height of the Cold War, Hollywood released “The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming”.  The IMDb description of the film observes: “Without hostile intent, a Soviet sub runs aground off New England. Men are sent for a boat, but many villagers go into a tizzy, risking bloodshed.”  Frankly, I regret to say that when questions are posed as to whether events suggest the possibility of a Swedish-Russian War, I personally don’t know whether what’s ongoing is better suited for Hollywood or the Twilight Zone.  But, it is ‘special’…and so, I contacted Stockholm’s Russian embassy.

My first call to the Embassy was received by a diplomat who dismissed the Good Friday air exercises as simply training, a note of exasperation evident in his voice, but, he informed me that he wasn’t authorized to comment and that I needed to call the Press attaché.  The next day I did so, but the attaché then informed me he currently had no comment upon events.

My impression is that these folks are keeping a ‘low-profile’, hoping Swedish sanity will again soon prevail.  Unfortunately, now there are allegations of a ‘Russian spy plane’ flying in international airspace near here just last weekend, The Local headlining “Russian spy plane spotted in Swedish strait”, and the current bout of ‘Bear Fever’ yet seems far from over.  On the brighter side, The Local’s article does note that what’s ongoing “follows months of heated debate in Sweden about whether the armed forces are well-equipped and funded enough”.

Here, in Sweden, at the moment all I can think of is something former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his farewell address.  It is something which some might argue is particularly relevant for explaining ‘Bear Fever’, and perhaps even suggesting its cure  … “ In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

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Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

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