The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!
by Ritt Goldstein
Copyright May 2013
Dateline Dalarna, Sweden: Sometimes truly extraordinary events occur, events which impact an entire nation's people, though, the word 'surreal' perhaps fits better than 'extraordinary' in describing events here during the last third of April. Of course, too much has too long been overblown, the strongest of adjectives too frequently employed to mask the weakest of circumstances; but, in this instance, I feel as if words can't convey what I've witnessed, although events indeed seem 'overblown'.
"After looking at the warlike newspaper headlines this week one might get the impression 'Sweden is under attack by the Russians'!", is what a Swedish acquaintance here emailed me. More to the point, events which the Swedish Air Force Chief of Staff, Anders Silwer, termed "Normal" precipitated events.
"Will there be war?" ("Kommer det bli krig?") was the question posed in the 22 April report by the one of country's most respected papers, Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), its article (internet edition), 'Ryskt flyg övade anfall mot Sverige' ('Russian planes practice attack against Sweden'), 'revealing' some alleged particulars of a Russian Air Force practice mission that had "so far been kept secret". Every major Swedish media outlet was soon discussing the story.
On Good Friday at about 2 am, two Russian bombers and an escort of four fighters had come within 30-40 kilometers of Swedish airspace, allegedly practicing mock attacks upon "two specific targets in the Stockholm area and Southern Sweden." Wow, except that Russia had previously announced it would be holding air exercises that week, Ladoga-2013 (Russian Air Force Readies for Massive Drills), and a large war game encompassing land and air forces was in progress. At the time, Good Friday, the conservative Washington Times actually headlined "Bear roars at Europe: Putin's surprise military exercise irks Russia's neighbors".
Most curious, the SvD report actually cites Ladoga-2013, and while there is much discussion that Swedish fighters didn't go up to identify the Russians, SvD clearly reported the planes came from Russia's St. Petersburg area. Hmmm...sounds to me as if the planes' origins and what they were doing seems pretty clear. If so, what's all the fuss about?
Defense spending, Nato, and 'a game'
Good Friday was 29 March, and while the Russian maneuvers initially received relatively little media attention globally, such events being considered by many as 'non-events', public perceptions can change when virtually every media outlet in a country carries the story, especially if threats to security are suggested. However, some might arguably say such an event would mark the highest order of 'political theatre', especially if defense spending and Nato membership were items of current political interest.
Fortunately, not every Swedish journalist was smitten with 'Bear Fever', and one respected commentator, Göran Greider, vividly explained his perception of "The need for fear of the Russians" ("Behovet av rysskräck"). He observed that fear of 'the Russians' was useful for pushing Sweden further towards Nato membership, not to mention helping defense spending. And so, not everyone here is being entertained by the ongoing show, a Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) source telling this journalist that the 'scare' was needed to justify 43 Billion Kroner in defense spending, plus aiding additions to that.
Consider how folks in The States or Russia would react if every major print, radio and TV network ran simultaneous coverage suggesting an alleged military threat. I'll add that after this coverage, the majority of those Swedes I spoke with had some degree of concern regarding Russia. I won't add that the fact such coverage could occur makes an interesting comment upon mainstream Swedish media. But, highlighting some remarkable politics here, Sweden's Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, has downplayed the incident from the start, essentially dismissing the incident as nothing that even demanded explanation from Russia, and an opposition Green MP on the Riksdag's Defense Committee seems to agree with him.
"It is ordinary training for the Russian side...all was correct", observed MP Peter Rådberg for this journalist, adding that the "Russian training wasn't special". When I then queried Rådberg as to whether the attention that the incident was getting reflected the desire of some to promote more defense spending and Nato membership, he quite candidly responded "yes, it's a game".
Fear and 'months of heated debate'
In 1966, during the height of the Cold War, Hollywood released "The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming". The IMDb description of the film observes: "Without hostile intent, a Soviet sub runs aground off New England. Men are sent for a boat, but many villagers go into a tizzy, risking bloodshed." Frankly, I regret to say that when questions are posed as to whether events suggest the possibility of a Swedish-Russian War, I personally don't know whether what's ongoing is better suited for Hollywood or the Twilight Zone. But, it is 'special'...and so, I contacted Stockholm's Russian embassy.
My first call to the Embassy was received by a diplomat who dismissed the Good Friday air exercises as simply training, a note of exasperation evident in his voice, but, he informed me that he wasn't authorized to comment and that I needed to call the Press attaché. The next day I did so, but the attaché then informed me he currently had no comment upon events.
My impression is that these folks are keeping a 'low-profile', hoping Swedish sanity will again soon prevail. Unfortunately, 'Bear Fever' even brought allegations of a 'Russian spy plane' flying in international airspace near here just 20 April, The Local headlining "Russian spy plane spotted in Swedish strait". On the brighter side, The Local's article does note that what's ongoing "follows months of heated debate in Sweden about whether the armed forces are well-equipped and funded enough".
Notably, Sweden is in fact being regularly invaded by 'the Russians'...and the 'invaders' go to Stockholm's very upscale NK department store to shop, and flock en masse to the Junibacken amusement park, for some reason having a longstanding fondness for its exhibition of Astrid Lindgren's 'Carlsson på taket' (Carlsson on the roof) character. Frankly, it's my understanding that quite a few Swedes would sorely miss these folks if they stopped 'invading', and I won't even mention the Russian oil Sweden has come to depend on. But, maybe 'all this' is partially why Swedish Foreign Minister Bildt has downplayed events from their start. Upon speaking with Minister Bildt's press secretary, Erik Zsiga, my impression is that there are indeed some that have not enjoyed 22 April's 'media show', though, I yet wonder why more wasn't done to dismiss it.
Since this 'episode' started, and especially after some foreign media began echoing questions of a 'Russian threat', I've speculated quite a bit upon why more hasn't been done to 'pop' this 'balloon', dispel all the 'hot air' that's filled it. Of course, there are those here that want Sweden in Nato, but, I personally see 'something more', something at the root of 'all this'.
Here, in Sweden, at the moment all I can think of is something former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his farewell address. It is something which some might argue is particularly relevant for explaining 'Bear Fever', and perhaps even suggesting its cure ... " In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden. His work has appeared fairly widely, including in America's Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Sweden's Aftonbladet, Austria's Wiener Zeitung, and a number of other global media outlets.