VISBY (Sweden) -- The idea of having to defend Gotland from a foreign invasion seemed so absurd to Swedish decision-makers at beginning of the century, that they demilitarized the Baltic Sea Island.
The Swedish Armed Forces have returned and are now training with U.S troops on how to defend the island, which has a population of 58,000 people, as well as how to seize it from an aggressor.
As part of a NATO exercise at the Baltic Sea, U.S. Marines conducted amphibious landings and air drops on Gotland.
Although the annual BALTOPS exercise doesn't take place in response to any specific threat, it is happening amid increased tensions with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Participation was attended by approximately 7,000 military personnel from 14 NATO countries and 45 ships from Sweden and Finland.
The two Nordic countries have been practicing regularly with NATO members despite their non-aligned status. Their governments also decided to join the Western military alliance after the Ukraine war.
"I feel really prepared. "I mean, we have made an enormous deployment on Gotland and we will defend Gotland," said Swedish Col. Magnus Frykvall as military hardware was being deployed along the coast. It's not an easy task to seize a defenseless island.
Strategically situated in the middle part of the Baltic Sea's southern portion, Gotland has been the site of numerous foreign invasions over its history. The most recent was in 1808 when Russian forces briefly occupied the country.
After the Cold War ended, Sweden realized that the Russian threat was far away and refocused its military on foreign peacekeeping operations. In 2005, the Gotland regiment was disbanded as Sweden reduced its military.
Russia's 2014 annexation in Ukraine of the Crimea Peninsula by Russia prompted a rethink. In 2018, a new regiment was established in Gotland. Around 400 Swedish soldiers are currently stationed on the island. Additional reinforcements are planned in the wake of Russia's invasion.
Many Gotlanders believe that Sweden is unable to defend the island by itself.
Our defense is too weak to withstand an invasion. Lars Soderdahl (33 years old), a chef from Visby, said that although we have a modern and effective defense, it is too weak.
Sweden, which has been a member of no military alliances since Napoleonic Wars, applied last month for NATO membership along with Finland. This was a historic move. The issue will be discussed by NATO's 30 existing members this month. Turkey threatened to halt the application due to its perceived support for Kurdish organizations.
During the application period, Sweden and Finland sought security assurances from NATO countries and the U.S.
U.S. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, kicked off the BALTOPS exercise in Stockholm last weekend. He stated that NATO allies should show solidarity with Sweden and Finland.
Russia would be in a difficult military situation if it joined the alliance. The Baltic Sea is surrounded by NATO members, except in Russia's Baltic exclave at Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg.
Gotland is a strategic spot that Swedes love to visit during summer. It is also surrounded by the Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia, which are especially concerned about Russian aggression after the invasion of Ukraine. Gotland lies approximately 100 km (60 miles), from Sweden's mainland and 160 kilometers (100 mi) from Latvia's coast.
According to Mikael Norrby of Uppsala University, "The fact is that from here, it makes supplying and supporting Baltic states a lot simpler or a lot harder, depending on who's in control of the islands."
Russia's Baltic Fleet began its own military exercises this week, which coincided with NATO exercises. According to the fleet's press office, the maneuvers were a scheduled exercise that included "various types security tasks," such as the destruction and tracking of enemy submarines.
The press service stated in a statement that "there are more than 20 warships, boats and ships in the sea ranges the Baltic Fleet, performing combat duties both individually as well as in ship search-and strike groups and ship strikes groups."
The exercise also included corvettes and patrol ships, small-missile carriers, antisubmarine vessels, minesweepers and landing hovercraft.
Jan M. Olsen, Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report.