Last week, Sweden was all over U.S. news, and for all the wrong reasons. First, President Trump seemingly referred in a speech to a phantom terrorist attack there. Amid puzzled reactions, he clarified that he was referencing reports of violence committed by refugees, tweeting that “The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully.”
Just a couple days later, it appeared that Trump was vindicated — or at least provided a fresh anecdote — when a small riot broke out in a suburb of Stockholm that is home mostly to immigrants. No one was seriously injured, though some shops and cars were vandalized. Acolytes of Trump have latched on to Sweden's troubles with refugee assimilation as a supporting example for Trump's travel ban and other draconian immigration measures.
So when Sweden's defense minister announced a reintroduction of army conscription Thursday, it might have seemed at first like yet another vindication — things are getting so bad there that they need to call in troops. But what's really happening is a harking back to the Cold War era.
“We have a Russian annexation of Crimea, we have the aggression in Ukraine, we have more exercise activities in our neighborhood. So we have decided to build a stronger national defense,” Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told Reuters.
In recent years, Sweden has been caught underprepared in a number of incidents, including near misses between Russian aircraft and civilian airliners, and airspace violations by Russia. Speaking to Swedish television, Hultqvist said that the “security environment in Europe and in Sweden’s vicinity has deteriorated.”
Conscription was discontinued in 2010. It will restart in 2018. The Swedish armed forces are relatively small. A government investigation last year, cited by Reuters, found that about 2,500 soldiers were recruited annually. The Defense Ministry is hoping to raise that number to 4,000, which it will choose out of the 13,000 men and women soon to be called in for enrollment. Before 2010, Sweden only conscripted men.
Sweden has roughly 29,000 active armed service members to Russia's 831,000, meaning its military is about 3 percent the size of Russia's, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Voluntary enrollment has dropped as wages for professional soldiers dip further and further below the average earnings for young Swedes. Youth unemployment is near zero in Sweden.
Unlike Norway, Denmark and all the Baltic states, Sweden is “unaligned,” and not a member of NATO. But with growing Russian aggression in the region and the United States signaling a hands-off attitude toward its defense posture in Europe — not to mention the Trump administration's reputed ties with Russian interests — Scandinavia is headed back into a period of heightened war readiness.