Sweden, that serene oasis of social democratic harmony in Scandinavia, is bringing back the draft.
Next year, 4,000 men and women will be called for military service in Sweden. They’ll be chosen from a group of 13,000 young people born in 1999, consisting of both volunteers and conscripts, who will undergo military tests to determine which ones are most motivated and committed. The government hopes that the nine- to 12-month stints for the chosen conscripts will lead them to join the reserves or become full-time members of the Swedish military.
So why is this happening? In a word: Russia.
Moscow has been causing great consternation among its European neighbors in recent years. Its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine has sparked fears that Russia might try to use force to intimidate, if not invade, its Eastern European neighbors.
Russia has also been flexing its muscles around the Baltic Sea, doing things like flying fighter jets within 30 feet of Swedish intelligence aircraft and using warships to threatening Finnish research vessels in recent years. Russia is also expected to engage in a high-profile military exercise this fall, called “Zapad 2017,” near its western borders. (The US’s top military commander in Europe has called for Russia to open the exercise to observers and media to “lower some anxiety” in Europe.)
Compounding all this is the Trump factor. Donald Trump’s abiding affection for Russia and his ambiguous, confusing threats to withdraw from NATO or weaken it unless member states start spending more on defense has raised doubts about the sturdiness of the military alliance, originally formed after World War II to counter Soviet expansionism.
Sweden is formally a neutral country, and so it’s not aligned with any military alliances like NATO. While it does benefit from the strength of NATO, its neutrality gives it extra incentive to think about self-protection. Last year, it began manning its large Baltic Sea island of Gotland with a permanent military presence.
The reintroduction of limited compulsory military service is not hugely controversial in Sweden. It’s basically a reactivation of a draft policy that was in place until 2010, although then it only recruited men into the military. Now Sweden’s draft, like that of neighboring Norway, is gender-neutral.
The major political parties in Sweden’s parliament back the policy and support the defense establishment’s goal to make up for the disparity between volunteer enrollment and what they see as necessary for meeting national security needs. They were pulling in about 2,500 people for military service annually through voluntary enrollment, falling about 1,500 short of their goals.
As the world enters a new stage of uncertainty about security norms, more and more countries are going to start keeping their hands on their holsters — and worrying that they might not have enough troops to pull the triggers.