The picturesque Swedish town being turned into a strategic military hub

Europe  AP - Pontus Lundahl
MAR 1, 2024 LISTEN
© AP - Pontus Lundahl

By the end of this week Sweden could be a member of NATO, ending 200 years of neutrality and military non-alignment. But even before it cleared the final hurdle, the Nordic nation was already busy reordering its defences – transforming the central town of Ostersund into a military hub.

An important junction by rail and road, Ostersund is a picturesque old garrison town on the shores of the idyllic Storsjon Lake. Just over the other side of the mountains is Trondheim, a strategic harbour in Norway.

"Trondheim's ice-free port is a gateway to the Nordic region for NATO," explains Erik Essen, Ostersund's military coordinator – a recently created post.

"It houses huge NATO warehouses, the US Navy and the headquarters of the Norwegian Air Force."

Strategic role

Sweden is preparing to become a central logistics link in the defence of NATO's north-eastern front, having applied to join NATO in the wake of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

While it's not worried about a direct strike, it can't risk the chance that Moscow might one day test the strength of NATO in the neighbourhood.

"Five years ago, no one would have believed that Sweden could be drawn into a war,” Ostersund mayor Niklas Daoson told RFI.

"Now it's become a possibility … So we need to use the time we have left to rebuild a credible defence – both for the country and as a NATO member."

The biggest challenge is to rapidly modernise the country's infrastructure to allow for the transport of tanks and hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Arctic, Finland and the Baltic states.

Sweden earlier signed a deal giving the US access to 17 of its military bases. The first agreement of its kind between the two countries, it came as Sweden waited a year and half for Turkey and Hungary to ratify its accession to NATO.

Peaceful history

While Swedes have historically viewed themselves as a peaceful nation, some 60 percent threw their support behind the choice to join NATO.

The move marks a major shift in national identity, with Sweden this year also restarting compulsory civic conscription – a type of national service that ended after the Cold War.

The country reintroduced military conscription in 2018 after an eight-year pause, and is stepping up the numbers of men and women called up for duty.

According to Bloomberg, Sweden wants to almost double the number of conscripts to 10,000 by 2030 – including a small percentage who will be called up for military service whether or not they agree.

Meanwhile membership of NATO also means increased defence spending. A 2024 defence law increases spending by 27 billion kronor (€2.4 billion). Of that amount, some €58 million will be spent on NATO.

Now that all NATO allies have ratified Sweden's membership, a flag-raising ceremony is expected at its headquarters in Brussels as early as this week.