Swedish island of Gotland cant wait for NATO membership

Starting tomorrow, the NATO summit in Madrid talks about the accession of Sweden and Finland. Those countries asked to be included in the military alliance in May. Turkey is bothering; all the other 29 Member States like to see the two countries. In particular, the addition of the Swedish island of Gotland would make the defence of NATO territory easier, say proponents. Many residents say membership offers them safety.

Two months a year, Gotland is a bustling holiday island. The rest of the year, only a few thousand people live there. But the island has a strategic location throughout the year.

At the beginning of this year, there was an increased activity of the Russian Navy from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, across the Baltic Sea. The fear was that the ships would steam up to Gotland.

In the event of war, Russia has so much equipment in Kaliningrad that it can make the passage between Belarus and Kaliningrad difficult. By land, NATO countries Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania can no longer be reached from the west of NATO territory. If Russia also occupies Gotland, it becomes almost impossible to defend the Baltic states by sea or air.

โ€œGotland is like a ship,โ€ says Ulf Hamberg, Commander of the Swedish 181st Armored Battalion and responsible for defending the island. โ€œOf course, an island cannot sink. But if you put enough equipment on this, you control the Baltic Sea. That‘s why it’s important that Gotland stays Swedish.โ€

Since 2016, military personnel have been on the island again. Not for a long time before. โ€œRussia was a partner and not an enemy,โ€ says Hamberg. โ€œBut after Georgia, Crimea and now Ukraine, no one knows what will happen next.โ€ It is that uncertainty that allowed 54 percent of the Swedish population to give up the long-held neutrality.

On the island, you‘ll notice that everywhere:

A large minority therefore does not want to become a member of NATO. Robert Hall is one of them. He lives in an eco-village on Gotland, right opposite the site where a new military base is being built. โ€œThat’s not the way,โ€ he says.

โ€œMost likely NATO troops will be there and then you know for sure that Russia will not be able to occupy the island without a fight. But I find the fear of that emotional and hysterical. Russia has its hands full with Ukraine. Moreover, Sweden already has so many partnerships with NATO countries that they really come to help us.โ€

But many people on the streets of the capital of Visby are not comfortable with that. They welcome entry into NATO. The number of applications for the Home Guard, a kind of vigilante, has increased. They train together with the Swedish army and serve as an outpost. The army itself is permanently stationed on Gotland with a small hard core.

โ€œGotland has always been important,โ€ says a man proudly at the entrance to one of the city gates.โ€ All trade routes between the eastern and western Hanseatic cities ran long Visby. The entire old town is surrounded by a thick, well-preserved wall.

โ€œGotland was and is important,โ€ agrees Commander Hamberg. โ€œAnd Gotland will remain important. I never expected Sweden to apply for membership, but it does make defense easier. Whether foreign soldiers should also be stationed here is a political consideration. I‘m not about that.โ€

Role Turkey

The key to Islanders’ peace of mind lies in the hands of Turkey. That country wants Sweden to be less lenient to Turkey‘s โ€œKurdish terroristsโ€. Whether Sweden and Turkey come to a comparison before or at the NATO summit in Madrid is not yet clear.

If the application for membership is approved, things can go quickly. The two countries are similar in everything to the other Member States and the armies are already well aligned. โ€œThe negotiations don’t have to last longer than a day,โ€ says a NATO diplomat. After that, all parliaments of all Member States still have to agree to it. In many countries, plans have already been made for this to run smoothly.