Hundreds of local election workers have been trained to spot and resist foreign influence. The country’s biggest media outlets have teamed up to combat false news. Political parties scour their email systems to close hacker-friendly holes.
The goal: to Russia-proof Sweden’s political system so that what happened in the United States in 2016 can never happen in this Nordic country of 10 million people.
Although the general election isn’t until Sept. 9, officials say their preemptive actions may already have dissuaded the Kremlin from interfering. In Washington, meanwhile, the FBI says it has received no White House orders to secure the 2018 midterms against Russian influence.
“It would be very risky for a foreign nation to do this now,” said Mikael Tofvesson, who heads the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency’s effort to safeguard elections from malicious foreign influence. “It could risk a backlash. It would be an exposure of their methods.”
The efforts, which are supported by parties across the political spectrum, contrast with the bitterly partisan discussion in Washington about Russia’s behavior during the 2016 election.
The indictments last week of 13 Russians in the interference in that election offered a detailed picture of an aspect of Russia’s alleged strategies. But President Trump’s reaction has been to claim, falsely, that his campaign has been cleared of collusion, and he has focused more on blaming the Obama administration for past lapses than on addressing current Kremlin activities.
As a consequence, the U.S. response has lacked the full institutional weight of the White House. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told a Senate committee this month that the bureau was “not specifically directed by the president” to combat Russian influence but that it is nevertheless engaged in “a lot of specific activities” to do so.
Russia has a big stake in Sweden’s political affairs: Sweden is a rare outlier in Europe, because it is not a member of the NATO military alliance, which the Kremlin sees as a strategic threat. But attitudes toward NATO started to shift here after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and now Sweden’s center-right political opposition says it wants to join the alliance if it comes to power. About 47 percent of Swedes support joining NATO, a Pew survey found last year.
Separately, Sweden is embroiled in a debate about how widely to open its doors to immigrants, a split that Russian state media have played up.
In a Stockholm conference center one recent afternoon, about 70 local lawmakers and election officials heard a presentation on how to recognize and address vulnerabilities. The risks range from loose talk among ballot counters that could betray political bias to Russian attempts to seed doubts about the trustworthiness of the elections, said Sebastian Bay, an official with the Civil Contingencies Agency who conducts the training sessions.
The officials, who included dour lawmakers from farming communities in Sweden’s frigid north and hip jeans-and-scarf-wearing bureaucrats from Stockholm, watched a news clip of Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) talking about Russian influence at a congressional hearing and looked at a breakdown of the different ways the Kremlin is thought to have targeted the U.S. election.
“We must have the ability to be aware of different kinds of campaigns,” Bay told the group. “They’re trying to invent reality and create fake information.”
Before the presentation, Bay said Swedish authorities are not trying to predict exactly what Russia might do as they figure out ways to thwart such moves. Instead, he said, they want to improve the political system’s overall readiness.
“It’s the same as fighting fires. We don’t try to predict them. We’re going to use better materials to build the house. We’re going to install better fire-prevention systems,” said Bay, a former military analyst.
Swedish leaders say the effort is a top priority.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said last month that he wants to reestablish a body, shuttered in 2008, that would work to boost psychological defenses. Officials are also preparing an updated version of a Cold War-era pamphlet, “If Crisis or War Comes,” which lays out step-by-step advice about what to do in case of invasion, terrorism and pandemics.
“To those thinking about trying to influence the outcome of the elections in our country: Stay away!” Lofven said at an annual security-focused conference last month.
Already, Sweden has reinstated military conscription, stationed troops on the strategically important Baltic island of Gotland and boosted defense spending in reaction to the Russian threat. Sweden’s Aurora 17 military exercise in September was the largest in more than two decades.
Swedish leaders say they think they are responding appropriately to the challenge.
“If you don’t react to this information and fake news,” said Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, “then you’re in a problematic situation in the long run because then you open up the arena for others.”
Efforts are not confined to the government. Four of the country’s leading news outlets announced plans last month to create a joint platform for their individual fact-checking endeavors.
The project by Swedish public television, Swedish public radio and two major newspapers, Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet, will seek to combat misinformation from both domestic and foreign sources, proponents said.
“If we collect it on a website, it will gain more strength,” said Peter Wolodarski, editor in chief of Dagens Nyheter. “With the kind of culture we have in this country, we do things together if we believe it’s for a common good.”
Despite all that is being done, or perhaps because of it, policymakers say they have not seen anything from the Kremlin as targeted as a release of private emails to sway voters, such as happened in the United States. But broader Russian attempts to manipulate public opinion — including the use of Twitter bots and a media focus on divisive issues such as immigration — are ongoing, they said.
“We see them doing these outrageous campaigns on particular topics,” said Carl Bildt, a former center-right prime minister who was a frequent target of Russian barbs when he was foreign minister during high tensions in 2014.
But in a society that prizes the freedom of expression, many of those who back the efforts to combat Russian meddling acknowledge that they struggle to define the line between ordinary democratic debate and illicit foreign influence. Authorities say they don’t want to inadvertently clamp down on domestic voices that oppose immigration, for example, even if Russia might want to stoke the same sentiments.
“This is a part of democratic society,” said Hans Wallmark, a lawmaker from the opposition center-right Moderate Party who focuses on defense issues. “We are built on openness and to rely on people and to have trust in others, and these things are used by Russians.”
Leaders of the nationalist and anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party say they worry that some of the anti-Russian efforts could target them simply because the Kremlin sometimes appears to advocate the same views.
“That’s a threat for our society for them to get together and decide what is real and what is not,” said Markus Wiechel, the lawmaker in charge of foreign policy for the Sweden Democrats, referring to the fact-checking initiative. He said his party was no friend of the Kremlin.
One analyst said that even if Sweden manages to hold its upcoming elections with minimal Russian mischief, it will still be in the Kremlin’s crosshairs.
“The interference is already constant,” said Martin Kragh, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “These methods are here to stay.”