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The Geopolitics of Sweden: A Baltic Power Reborn

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Editor's Note: This is the ninth in a series of Stratfor monographs on the geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs. 

Comprising essentially the eastern half of Northern Europe's Scandinavian Peninsula, Sweden sits across the Baltic Sea from Poland and Germany and the former Soviet Union. The country has literally watched over the continental strife that has swept over the North European Plain since the Napoleonic Wars — the last war in history in which Sweden was officially a combatant (until then it had been an enthusiastic participant in European strife). Though its borders have fluctuated much since the Middle Ages, Sweden remains both anchored in and constrained by its geographic circumstances.

The heart of Sweden is the southern tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula, just northeast of Denmark. This is by far the premier territory on the entire peninsula and encompasses the most temperate climate and fertile land in the entire region. A quick glance at a satellite map vividly illustrates just how much longer growing seasons are in the Swedish core compared to its Scandinavian neighbors.

Today, this southern area is composed principally of a region known as Gotaland, the northern boundary of which extends from just below the capital of Stockholm in the east to just below the Oslofjord region — home to modern Oslo, the Norwegian capital — in the west. Svealand to the north includes the capital region itself and extends northwestward to the Norwegian border, bounded to the north by the Dalalven River. This area — with its indented coastline and many rivers — quickly and naturally gave rise to a maritime culture. Together, Gotaland and Svealand contain the vast majority of Sweden's population.

The territory stretching northeast of Svealand all the way to Sweden's northern tip is known as Norrland, a land of decreasing usefulness the farther north it goes. Traversed by rivers running from the mountains to the Gulf of Bothnia, the region is densely forested and then gives way to taiga and tundra at higher altitudes and latitudes. So even as Swedes moved northward, they tended to concentrate closer and closer to the shore and remained reliant on maritime transport. Even today, though infrastructure exists, only a small fraction of the population lives in Norrland, which encompasses more than half the modern country's territory.

The most important of Sweden's neighbors are Denmark and Russia. The islands of Denmark sit astride the Skagerrak strait and largely bar Sweden from expanding west into the North Sea region, if not due to Danish forces directly then to some other power aligned with Denmark. This simple fact has historically forced Sweden's outlook to the east and into continual conflict with Russia. In this context, Sweden has the best and worst of all worlds. Best in that, as a country with a deep maritime tradition, it can easily outmaneuver any Russian land force in the Baltic region (the Gulf of Finland ices over almost as regularly as the Gulf of Bothnia, greatly hampering Russian naval efforts). Worst for Sweden in that Russia has a mammoth territory to draw power from while Sweden can truly tap only a small chunk of the Scandinavian Peninsula, much of which is useless in supporting population. In any conflict of maneuverability, Sweden will prevail — easily. But in any conflict of attrition Sweden will lose — badly.

Norway and Finland are far less threatening for Sweden. The mountains of Norway form an excellent defensive barrier to invasion as they block Sweden's ability to project power westward. There is one pass that accesses the Trondheim region, but it is sufficiently rugged to prevent significant power projection (in modern times it has been used as a transportation route for Swedish goods when the Baltic region experiences a harsh winter). And since the only portion of Norway that can support a meaningful population — the capital region of Oslofjord — is hard by the Swedish border, and all of its meaningful ground-transportation infrastructure has to go directly through Sweden to reach the rest of Europe, Norway has never threatened Sweden in modern times. In fact, Norway was twice incorporated into a union with Sweden, most recently in the 19th century.

To the east, Finland is an important buffer for Sweden from Russia, although it formed part of the Swedish Empire until its annexation to Russia in the early 19th century. Just where the international boundary is drawn (today at the Torne River) is less important than the relationship between Stockholm and Helsinki. Since its disastrous 1808-1809 Finnish War, Sweden has had plans for the defense of its homeland from a Russian invasion by fighting on the turf of northern Scandinavia. So long as Stockholm can prevent Finland from being used as a staging ground for such an attack (as during the Finnish War, when Russian troops managed to cross via Finland and nearly take Stockholm), Finland can serve as a buffer.

The Baltic Sea's southeastern coastline — today home to the three tiny states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — is sandwiched between Sweden and Russia and serves as the natural cultural, economic and military battleground for the two powers. The Polish coast is well within Sweden's naval reach, but lying as it does on the Northern European Plain, it forces Sweden to compete there with not only Russia but also Germany — and, of course, Poland — all of which have far larger populations than Sweden and less complicated supply problems. This largely limits Swedish activity there to commerce.

Luckily for the Swedes, commerce is something that they are quite good at, but they approach trade in a radically different way from most maritime cultures. These differences are rooted in peculiarities of Swedish geography that make Sweden unique both as a maritime and commercial power.

Most maritime cultures are island-based and, as such, are oceangoing (the United Kingdom comes to mind). Sweden, in contrast, is locked into a single sea and has many rivers that do not interconnect. This made Sweden much more at home with riverine naval transport and combat than activity on the open ocean. Also, because Sweden's climate — especially in its northern reaches — is so hostile, in lean years its sailors had to resort to raiding to survive, contributing to the rise of a Viking culture. Taken together, Swedish force in medieval times proved able to push far inland using Europe's river networks to their advantage, and the proclivity to raid (versus the British proclivity to establish colonies) shaped Sweden's imperial and commercial experiences greatly.

Given a naval culture and lack of competition, it is no surprise that the Swedish Vikings quickly became the preeminent power on the Gulf of Bothnia and regularly raided the rest of the Baltic Coast. But as Sweden matured, its tendency to raid gave way to a tendency to foster the development of largely non-Swedish communities so that there would be something to exploit in the future. Over time, raiding turned into trading and eventually rather deep economic links down the rivers and back to Sweden proper. Swedish ships are known to have made it to the Caspian Sea through the Volga River and the Black Sea through the Dnieper — going as far as Constantinople. And evidence of their political handiwork was seen in places as far afield as Muscovy and Kieven Rus (political entities that eventually evolved into modern-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine).

History

The retreat of ice around 10,000 B.C. that had enveloped most of Northern Europe during the so-called "last glacial period" allowed for the settlement of Scandinavia by various Germanic tribes that eventually evolved into today's Norwegians, Swedes and Danes. Population increase due to advances in agricultural techniques, combined with a Scandinavian geography that limited growth, eventually led to the Viking Age (approximately 750-1050). Scandinavians left their fjords and sheltered bays to wreak havoc, pillage and loot the European continent. The Danes, closest to the Continent, were the first to pursue political control and settlement, extending their control over the British Isles and northern France (establishing Normandy in the 10th century, although the question of whether Normandy was also established by Norwegian Vikings is still open). Norwegian Vikings, meanwhile, expanded via the Norwegian Sea, which led them to various outlying islands in the Atlantic — the Faroes, Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland — and eventually Newfoundland in North America.

Since they were essentially blocked off from the free-for-all their relatives the Danes and Norwegians were engaged in throughout the North and the Norwegian seas, the Scandinavians living on what is today Sweden's eastern seaboard concentrated on expansion via the Baltic Sea and its various gulfs: the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Riga. They were also able to use the land bridge of Karelia, which stretches from the White Sea (a gulf in the Barents Sea, which itself is part of the Arctic Ocean) to the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. Karelia was an extremely important strategic region for the Vikings, and through its control they were able to access Europe even without complete control of the Baltic Sea. It is also the one region that Sweden has continuously competed for against various Russian political entities.

The Swedes established trading outposts on the Neva River in the 8th century, the most famous of which was Ladoga, which afforded them strategic control of the most accessible land route to the rest of Europe, the sliver of land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga known as the Karelian land bridge. The Swedes also established various other outposts along the shores of the Baltic Sea and near strategic rivers that flowed through the Continent, such as the Oder, Volga, Vistula and Dnieper, which became strategic waterways for access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This control of Eastern Europe's rivers allowed the Swedish Vikings to organize and manage a very profitable trade with the Byzantine Empire and even the various Middle Eastern caliphates. In the course of establishing these trade routes, Vikings had an impact on the evolution of the nascent Russian political entities Novgorod and Kievan Rus.

As trade with Eastern Europe and Byzantium flourished throughout the ninth and part of the 10th centuries, political organization in Sweden became more complex, in part because the increased wealth allowed (and demanded) more organization. As nascent Sweden coalesced into a unified political entity from the kingdoms of Svear and Goter in the 12th century, it also began to lose its grip on, or face competition for control of, the Baltic Sea due to the rising prominence of Russian kingdoms.

Denmark's growing power and command of a strategic, powerful and profitable location on the Jutland peninsula also curtailed Swedish expansion. A dynastic union between Norway, Sweden and Denmark was established in 1397, in part because the Swedes were looking to gain greater protection from various German and Baltic powers eroding their influence in the Baltic Sea. However, Denmark was far too powerful to join with in a supposedly decentralized union of equals. With its strategic location controlling the sea routes between the Baltic and the Atlantic and with a foothold in continental Europe, Denmark very quickly began to dominate its northern brethren. Trouble started less than 40 years after the proclamation of the union, and throughout the 15th century the Swedish and Norwegian nobility attempted to resist Danish domination. The political and military threat to Swedish core regions was finally eliminated when Sweden seceded from the union in 1523.

Following independence from Denmark, Sweden grew in confidence and turned its attention toward the Baltic region once again — its default region of interest. However, this meant conflict with Russia, now in its much more politically coherent incarnation than when the Swedish Vikings first encountered it. Major war with Russia ended in 1617 with great gains for Sweden, including Estonia and Latvia. Russia was denied access to the Baltic for essentially the next 100 years.

With a foothold in continental Europe established early in the 17th century, Sweden turned its attention to Poland and German states bordering the Baltic. The Protestant Reformation gave Sweden a useful excuse for deepening involvement on the Continent. Swedish engagements in Poland eventually led to involvement with various German states, with now-powerful and assertive Sweden supporting Protestant states against Catholic states. Eventually, Sweden pushed for involvement in Europe's Thirty Years' War, which, while religious in nature, also was a litmus test for a rising Sweden to determine how far on the Continent it could project its influence.

Sweden came very close during the Thirty Years' War not just to dominating the Baltic region but also expanding its influence deep into the European heartland. However, as in all continental conflicts in Europe, allegiances were quickly created to prevent any one country from completely dominating the Continent. The Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648 gave Sweden the status of a great power in Europe, but it did not conclude with complete Swedish domination of Germany. Sweden received possessions on both sides of the Jutland Peninsula, thus retaining influence within German states, and gained complete control of the Finnish coast and the Gulf of Finland. Sweden, therefore, retained dominance in its usual region of interest, the Baltic, but its attempt to become a major player on the European continent itself largely failed.

Sweden's neighbors in the late 17th century became nervous not only because of Sweden's conquests and dominance of the Baltic region but also its extremely well-trained army, which had some nascent characteristics of a professional fighting force. Impeded in its conquests by its small population, Sweden relied on military innovation and technology to gain advantage against the much more populous continental European powers it faced across the Baltic (military characteristics it has retained to the present day).

The fulcrum for Sweden's decline was the Great Northern War (1700-1721), which pitted Sweden against essentially all of its neighbors: Poland, Denmark, Norway and Russia. Early on, Sweden successfully defended against the attack using its well-trained military, but it soon became apparent that it could not withstand the combined forces of all four rivals, particularly because a rising Russia during the reign of Peter the Great was ready and willing to fight Sweden in a war of attrition to gain access to the Baltic. Sweden ultimately lost its Baltic possessions, Estonia and Latvia, as well as parts of the crucial Karelia land bridge. Peter the Great, looking to establish a permanent Russian presence on the Baltic that could withstand future Swedish encroachment on the Neva River, founded St. Petersburg while the war against Sweden was still going on. That the Russian Empire moved its capital to St. Petersburg is a testament to just how serious Russia perceived the Swedish threat to be and how much importance it placed on the land bridge between the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga, which St. Petersburg was meant to control.

In 1721, Sweden's defeat in the Great Northern War ultimately relegated its status to that of a secondary power in Europe, and the next 87 years saw much warfare in the region as Sweden tried to regain its lost influence. In the process, Sweden became a pawn in the larger geopolitical game of containing Russia's rising power. Both France and the United Kingdom encouraged Sweden's wars against Russia, since they wanted to distract Russian advances on the crumbling Ottoman Empire, which would have threatened the Mediterranean. Sweden's attempts to regain influence ultimately ended in 1808 in the disastrous Finnish War against the Russian Empire, which cost Sweden its Finnish possessions and essentially ended its influence over the eastern Baltic region. For all intents and purposes, Sweden had been reduced to irrelevance by 1808, when it established an official policy of neutrality that has lasted, essentially unchanged, for the past 200 years.

By retreating to its core, Sweden was fortunate enough to be left alone by other powers. Its policy of neutrality was largely respected because of its geography; invading Sweden was simply not necessary for any participant in the great continental wars that followed the Napoleonic conflicts. Sweden also kept itself out of the colonial scramble that dominated European affairs in the 19th century and thus did not enter into any conflict with its European neighbors even beyond the region.

Nonetheless, Sweden's tradition of military innovation, nurtured by the conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries, continued with the advent of industrialization, which Sweden embraced in earnest. Sweden began a serious rearmament program in response to German militarization before World War II. The combination of Swedish military innovation with industrial capacity and its aggressive defense of neutrality (similar to the Swiss approach) has bestowed Sweden with one of the most advanced — and independent — military-industrial complexes in Europe, certainly one that belies Sweden's small population and puts many more powerful countries to shame.

Geopolitical Imperatives

Sweden's core is the extreme southern tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula — in essence a peninsula on a peninsula — because that tip is the warmest and most fertile area on any landmass in the region. Sweden's peninsular nature gives it a strong maritime culture, but the geography of Denmark — blocking access to the North Sea and thus the wider oceans — forces Sweden to focus its activities eastward toward the Baltic region. Thus, here are Sweden's key imperatives as a nation-state:

  • Expand the Swedish core north to include all coastal regions that are not icebound in the winter. In the west, this grants Sweden coastline on the Skagerrak strait, giving it somewhat more access to the North Sea. Stockholm, the current capital, is situated at the southernmost extreme of the Baltic winter iceline.
  • Extend Swedish land control around the Gulf of Bothnia until reaching meaningful resistance. The tundra, taiga, lakes and rivers of northern Sweden and Finland provide a wealth of defensive lines that Sweden can hunker behind. Due to the region's frigid climate, the specific location of the border — at the Torne River in the modern era — is largely academic. At Sweden's height it was able to establish a defensive perimeter as far south as the shores of Lake Ladoga, just east of modern-day St. Petersburg.
  • Use a mix of sea and land influence to project power throughout the Baltic Sea region. Unlike most European powers, Sweden does not benefit greatly from the direct occupation of adjacent territories. The remaining portions of the Scandinavian Peninsula boast little of economic value, while the rest of the Baltic coast lies on or near the Northern European Plain, a region that is extremely difficult to defend against the often more powerful Continental powers. This gives Sweden the option, perhaps even the predilection, to expand via trade links, cultural influence and the establishment of proxy states. Using these strategies along with rivers as routes of influence, Sweden has dominated the Baltic Sea region for centuries and at times its influence has reached as far inland as modern-day France, Ukraine and the Caspian Sea.

Sweden Today

Sweden originally chose neutrality because it had lost. Russia seized not only its forward positions but shrank Sweden down to little more than its core territory. As the decades rolled by, German states that Sweden had once dominated unified into a major Continental power, introducing a player to the south that Sweden could not hope to influence, much less dominate.

So for Sweden, changes imposed by post-World War II alignments were somewhat of a relief. Denmark's alliance with the United Kingdom and the United States in the context of NATO ensured that the Soviet Union would have to focus its efforts on Copenhagen, not on Stockholm. The division of Germany between NATO and the Warsaw Pact removed from the board the one power that had flirted with the idea of conquering Sweden in World War II. (Germany occupied Norway and was outraged with the Soviets for their invasion of Finland, considering it "their" territory.) Sweden may have been isolated and surrounded by much larger powers, but these powers were focused on each other, not on Stockholm.

Nonetheless, German flirtations with invading Sweden during World War II convinced Stockholm that an independent and advanced military-industrial complex was certainly a useful thing to cultivate. Sweden was even suspected of developing an independent nuclear deterrent in the 1960s. Sweden was not leaving its neutrality up to chance, or to the benevolence of its neighbors.

If the Cold War architecture was an improvement, the post-Cold War architecture is a godsend, and Sweden's warm relationship with NATO has become even more cordial. What is most notable about Sweden in the modern world is how much it looks like it did in the 17th century. Russia is resurging at the moment but will face, over the long term, a plethora of fundamental structural problems; the Baltic states are looking to Stockholm for leadership (and financial capital); and Finland and Norway are fast allies. The biggest difference, in fact, lies in Denmark, which, while still jealously guarding its sovereignty as an enthusiastic ally of the United States — the power that has taken the firmest stance in containing Russian power — is quite friendly to Sweden. In many ways, Sweden has already reconstituted the Swedish Empire at its height, and it has done so without firing a shot.

Swedish foreign policy began reacting to these shifts immediately upon the end of the Cold War, with Sweden joining the European Union in 1995. Now, a regular topic of discussion in Swedish political circles is NATO membership. Whether Sweden formally abandons its neutrality at this point is irrelevant; for all practical purposes it already has.

Sweden today plays a key leadership role in the Baltic Sea region. Its financial institutions practically own the Baltic states (although the current economic recession has negatively exposed Swedish penetration in the Baltics, this penetration is likely to continue despite potential losses). Sweden also boasts a strong military with an independent military-industrial complex and is respected as a key member of the European Union by the main powers on the Continent. The Baltic Sea region has historically been one of the more prosperous regions of Europe (giving rise to the Hanseatic League, a political entity united first and foremost by commerce). For much of the 20th century, however, the Baltics have been divided between two competing geopolitical blocs. With the lines of the Cold War withdrawn, the region is again gaining prominence as a center of commerce, trade and energy transportation. Sweden is very well poised not only to take advantage of this Baltic revival but also to lead it.

Sweden assumes the presidency of the European Union on July 1, and it has aggressively moved to place the development of the Baltic region at the top of its presidential agenda. It is fitting that Sweden will head the union almost exactly 200 years following the disastrous Finnish War, which relegated Sweden to regional irrelevance. In those 200 years, Stockholm has patiently waited for a chance to once again emerge as a leader of Europe's north.

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