NATO’s newest ally prepared to act as a ‘porcupine’ if Russia war comes

Sweden‘s civilian society must prepare “to fend for ourselves” in a war with Russia, according to a senior official, notwithstanding its recent leap into NATO.

“There’s nothing showing that Russia is on a trajectory away from this,” Swedish Civil Defense Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin told the Washington Examiner. “We need to prepare ourselves accordingly, and that is why Sweden is one of the most ardent supporters of Ukraine, of course, but also making sure that we can fend for ourselves and make our own home work.”

Sweden, as NATO’s newest member, enjoys the shelter of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. And yet, the example of Ukraine looms large for Bohlin, the first Swedish civil defense minister since the World War II era, who credits the resilience of Ukrainian civil society with enabling the country’s stout resistance to Russia’s invasion. 

“Russia has [been] betting upon sort of trying to break the Ukrainian backbone by attacking healthcare institutions, by attacking the power grid substations,” he said during an interview at House of Sweden in Washington, D.C. “And they have failed because Ukraine has built a resilient, robust society. And, I think, the message from Sweden here is that we’re doing that as well.”

In 2018, Swedish officials distributed a brochure that urges households to stockpile “non-perishable food that can be prepared quickly, requires little water, or can be eaten without preparation” — pre-cooked lentils and canned mackerel fit the bill, for instance — and other supplies. The pamphlet notes that “everyone who lives here and is between the ages of 16 and 70 can be called up to assist in various ways in the event of the threat of war and war.” They are updating that manual, titled If Crisis or War Comes, in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Many have said it before me, but let me do so in an official capacity, more plainly and with naked clarity: There could be war in Sweden,” Bohlin said in a January speech. “But it is not enough to simply contemplate the question. Civil defense is not primarily a theoretical exercise. Awareness must be translated into practical action. Measures that actually raise the threshold.”

That address sent a signal for officials and leaders across Swedish government and society to begin the “contingency planning” that would equip them for their role in the “total defense” of the country.

“So Civil Defense encompasses everything from the energy sector to the financial services to rescue services to making sure that there are, you know, kindergartens, open for soldiers to keep leaving their children on in the event of they being needed for service,” Bohlin said. “The way we see it, [this is] an integral part of a credible defense posture — sort of creating the equivalent of a porcupine. … If you only focus on the military side of deterrence, then you run the risk of presenting a brittle posture.”

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Those efforts would seem to rest on an implicit premise that neither Swedish authorities nor civilians should assume that NATO’s nuclear umbrella amounts to a perfect shield against all forms of Russian aggression.

“We’re not, you know, saying that there is an imminent threat of war towards Sweden. … But we were saying that we cannot rule out that it would happen sometime in the future,” Bohlin said. “And that we, according to that judgment, need to take measurements, making sure that that does not happen and should it happen that we are able to fend for ourselves in such a situation.”

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