Sweden brings back conscription amid fears of Russian aggression

Russell Hope, News Reporter

Sweden is reintroducing conscription next year to restore armed services numbers amid fears of Russian military build-up in the Baltic region.

Four thousand 18-year-old men and women will be called up for training each year in 2018 and 2019 as the country looks to fill gaps that have developed since compulsory military service was abolished in 2010.

About 20,000 people work for the Swedish armed forces, but a recent study found they are struggling to recruit the 4,000 new young people needed annually.

Currently they lack 1,000 active troops and 7,000 reservists, according to government statistics for 2016, despite running large recruitment drives in recent years.

Announcing the move, Sweden's defence minister Peter Hultqvist pointed to a "deteriorating security environment in Europe and around Sweden".

"We have a Russian annexation of Crimea, we have the aggression in Ukraine, we have more exercise activities in our neighbourhood. So we have decided to build a stronger national defence," Mr Hultqvist said.

Whilst the 2014 annexation of Crimea is the most obvious example of Moscow's expansionist plans, there have also been alleged attempts to influence neighbouring Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Reports of Russian spies operating in Sweden as well as airspace violations by Russia's military aircraft in the Baltics and a military buildup in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which sits across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, have heightened anxieties in Stockholm.

As a non-aligned country Sweden cannot count on the protection of NATO, but it has already tried to counter Russian aggression, stationing permanent troops on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland in September.

Since then, Donald Trump has become US President and his closeness to Russia's Vladimir Putin and "America First" anti-globalist stance has caused further uncertainty.

In 2013, Sweden was given a stark reminder of the threat and its own lack of readiness, when Russian warplanes caught its air defences on the hop by staging a mock bombing raid.

With its reintroduction of the draft, Sweden will join Norway to become only the second country in Europe where military service is compulsory for women as well as men.

Norway legally extended conscription to both sexes in 2015, and last year about a third of 10,000 new recruits were female.

Nevertheless, Mr Hultqvist said motivation would be an important factor when selecting recruits.

Teenager Sofia Hultgren, who turns 17 this year and could be drafted in the coming years, said of a prospective military career: "I think many see it as something lame, something your father did, when there are so much other fun things to do."

But she welcomed the premise of the plan, saying: "Conscription strengthens our defence when we see so much ugliness in the world."

Politics has also played a part in the plan, as 2018 is an election year in Sweden.

A recent poll found as many as 72% of Swedes back the return of conscription, while only 16% said they thought it was a bad idea.

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