Sweden is to reintroduce compulsory military service, seven years after abandoning it, to respond to global security challenges including Russia’s assertive behaviour in the Baltic Sea region, Stockholm said Thursday.
“We are in a context where Russia has annexed Crimea,” Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told AFP, adding: “They are doing more exercises in our immediate vicinity.”
Sweden has had a professional army, staffed by volunteers, since 2010.
“We saw that our units could not be filled on a voluntary basis. A decision had to be taken to complement the (volunteer) system which is why we are reactivating conscription,” Hultqvist said.
A non-Nato member, Sweden has not seen armed conflict on its territory in two centuries. It put conscription on hold in 2010 after it was deemed an unsatisfactory way of meeting the needs of a modern army.
In the past two decades the military’s budget has been slashed as its mission was revamped to focus more on peacekeeping operations abroad and less on the country’s defence.
But in recent years, concerns have risen about Russia’s intentions in the region ─ with alarms bells ringing after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, experts noted.
“The new security situation is also a reality, partly in the form of Russian power politics which has long been underestimated and downplayed,” Wilhelm Agrell, a security expert at Lund University, told AFP.
Since the winter of 2014, “we’ve seen Russia as expansive and prepared to use violence to benefit its own interests,” Agrell said.
But, “today Sweden has neither the possibility nor the political will to stay away from a conflict” in the Baltic Sea region, he added.
In June 2015, US think tank Cepa published a report claiming Russia had held exercises with 33,000 troops aimed at practising an invasion of Sweden’s Baltic Sea island of Gotland, among other sites.
Just three months earlier, the Swedish government had decided to remilitarise Gotland, where the last barracks had been decommissioned in 2005.
Around 150 men have been stationed there since September last year.
Russian fears also came to the fore in October 2014, when Sweden launched a massive but unsuccessful hunt for a foreign submarine ─ suspected to be Russian ─ in the Stockholm archipelago over an eight-day period.
Sweden first introduced compulsory military service in 1901 but halted it in 2010 and replaced it with a volunteer army.
But a military career had little appeal to generations of Swedes who had never set foot inside barracks.
Thursday’s decision by the minority Social Democratic-led government means all Swedes ─ male and female ─ born in 1999 or later will be eligible for conscription as of July 1, 2017.
Mandatory military service, which will last for 11 months, will begin January 1, 2018.
As of July 1, all Swedes born after 1999 will be contacted and asked to answer a questionnaire.Based on their answers, 13,000 people will be mobilised.
Of those, only 4,000 will be called up each year after January 1, 2018. For the first time, conscription will apply to women.
“It’s very important to emphasise that military service is for girls and guys,” Hultqvist said. “It is important for the military to have a gender equal profile,” he added.
The reactivation of conscription is supported by both the government and right-wing opposition.
In 2015, they had already agreed to increase military spending, granting the defence an additional 1.1 billion euros ($1.18 billion) over the period 2016-2020.
On defence issues, Sweden has a close dialogue with neighbouring Finland, which in turn shares a 1,340-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia.
Sweden and Finland ─ the Nordic and Baltic region’s only non-aligned countries ─ have recently stepped up their military cooperation with the US.
That followed an increase in Russian military activity in the region, including several airspace violations and war planes allegedly flying without their identifying transponders.
Russia has repeatedly warned Sweden and Finland against joining Nato, an issue regularly debated in both countries.