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A Baltic Power Reborn

June 30, 2009

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The Geopolitics of Sweden:
A Baltic Power Reborn
Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series
of STRATFOR monographs on the
geopolitics of countries influential in world

Comprising essentially the eastern half of

Northern Europe’s Scandinavian Peninsula,
Sweden sits across the Baltic Sea from
Poland and Germany and the former
Soviet Union. The country has literally watched over the continental strife that has swept over the
North European Plain since the Napoleonic Wars — the last war in history in which Sweden was
officially a combatant (until then it had been an enthusiastic participant in European strife). Though its
borders have fluctuated much since the Middle Ages, Sweden remains both anchored in and
constrained by its geographic circumstances.

The heart of Sweden is the southern tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula, just northeast of Denmark.
This is by far the premier territory on the entire peninsula and encompasses the most temperate
climate and fertile land in the entire region. A quick glance at a satellite map vividly illustrates just
how much longer growing seasons are in the Swedish core compared to its Scandinavian neighbors.
Click here to enlarge map

Today, this southern area is composed

principally of a region known as Gotaland,
the northern boundary of which extends
from just below the capital of Stockholm
in the east to just below the Oslofjord
region — home to modern Oslo, the
Norwegian capital — in the west.
Svealand to the north includes the capital
region itself and extends northwestward
to the Norwegian border, bounded to the
north by the Dalalven River. This area —
with its indented coastline and many
rivers — quickly and naturally gave rise
to a maritime culture. Together, Gotaland
and Svealand contain the vast majority of
Sweden’s population.

The territory stretching northeast of

Svealand all the way to Sweden’s
northern tip is known as Norrland, a land
of decreasing usefulness the farther north
it goes. Traversed by rivers running from
the mountains to the Gulf of Bothnia, the
region is densely forested and then gives
way to taiga and tundra at higher
altitudes and latitudes. So even as
Swedes moved northward, they tended to
concentrate closer and closer to the shore
and remained reliant on maritime
transport. Even today, though
infrastructure exists, only a small fraction

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of the population lives in Norrland, which encompasses more than half the modern country’s territory.

The most important of Sweden’s

neighbors are Denmark and Russia. The
islands of Denmark sit astride the
Skagerrak strait and largely bar Sweden
from expanding west into the North Sea
region, if not due to Danish forces
directly then to some other power aligned
with Denmark. This simple fact has
historically forced Sweden’s outlook to
the east and into continual conflict with
Russia. In this context, Sweden has the
best and worst of all worlds. Best in that,
as a country with a deep maritime
tradition, it can easily outmaneuver any
Russian land force in the Baltic region
(the Gulf of Finland ices over almost as
regularly as the Gulf of Bothnia, greatly
hampering Russian naval efforts). Worst
for Sweden in that Russia has a
mammoth territory to draw power from
while Sweden can truly tap only a small
chunk of the Scandinavian Peninsula,
much of which is useless in supporting
population. In any conflict of
maneuverability, Sweden will prevail —
easily. But in any conflict of attrition Sweden will lose — badly.

Norway and Finland are far less threatening for Sweden. The mountains of Norway form as excellent a
defensive barrier to invasion as they block to Sweden’s ability to project power westward. There is one
pass that accesses the Trondheim region, but it is sufficiently rugged to prevent significant power
projection (in modern times it has been used as a transportation route for Swedish goods when the
Baltic region experiences a harsh winter). And since the only portion of Norway that can support a
meaningful population — the capital region of Oslofjord — is hard by the Swedish border, and all of its
meaningful ground-transportation infrastructure has to go directly through Sweden to reach the rest of
Europe, Norway has never threatened Sweden in modern times. In fact, Norway was twice
incorporated into a union with Sweden, most recently in the 19th century.

To the east, Finland is an important buffer for Sweden from Russia, although it formed part of the
Swedish Empire until its annexation to Russia in the early 19th century. Just where the international
boundary is drawn (today at the Torne River) is less important than the relationship between
Stockholm and Helsinki. Since its disastrous 1808-1809 Finnish War, Sweden has had plans for the
defense of its homeland from a Russian invasion by fighting on the turf of northern Scandinavia. So
long as Stockholm can prevent Finland from being used as a staging ground for such an attack (as
during the Finnish War, when Russian troops managed to cross via Finland and nearly take
Stockholm), Finland can serve as a buffer.

The Baltic Sea’s southeastern coastline — today home to the three tiny states of Estonia, Latvia and
Lithuania — is sandwiched between Sweden and Russia and serves as the natural cultural, economic
and military battleground for the two powers. The Polish coast is well within Sweden’s naval reach, but
lying as it does on the Northern European Plain, it forces Sweden to compete there with not only
Russia but also Germany — and, of course, Poland — all of which have far larger populations than
Sweden and less complicated supply problems. This largely limits Swedish activity there to commerce.

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Luckily for the Swedes, commerce is something that they are quite good at, but they approach trade
in a radically different way from most maritime cultures. These differences are rooted in peculiarities
of Swedish geography that make Sweden unique both as a maritime and commercial power.

Most maritime cultures are island-based and, as such, are oceangoing (the United Kingdom comes to
mind). Sweden, in contrast, is locked into a single sea and has many rivers that do not interconnect.
This made Sweden much more at home with riverine naval transport and combat than activity on the
open ocean. Also, because Sweden’s climate — especially in its northern reaches — is so hostile, in
lean years its sailors had to resort to raiding to survive, contributing to the rise of a Viking culture.
Taken together, Swedish force in medieval times proved able to push far inland using Europe’s river
networks to their advantage, and the proclivity to raid (versus the British proclivity to establish
colonies) shaped Sweden’s imperial and commercial experiences greatly.

Given a naval culture and lack of

competition, it is no surprise that the
Swedish Vikings quickly became the
preeminent power on the Gulf of Bothnia
and regularly raided the rest of the Baltic
Coast. But as Sweden matured, its
tendency to raid gave way to a tendency
to foster the development of largely non-
Swedish communities so that there would
be something to exploit in the future.
Over time, raiding turned into trading and
eventually rather deep economic links
down the rivers and back to Sweden
proper. Swedish ships are known to have
made it to the Caspian Sea through the
Volga River and the Black Sea through
the Dnieper — going as far as
Constantinople. And evidence of their
political handiwork was seen in places as
far afield as Muscovy and Kieven Rus
(political entities that eventually evolved
into modern day Belarus, Russia and


The retreat of ice around 10,000 B.C. that had enveloped most of Northern Europe during so-called
“last glacial period” allowed for the settlement of Scandinavia by various Germanic tribes that
eventually evolved into today’s Norwegians, Swedes and Danes. Population increase due to advances
in agricultural techniques, combined with a Scandinavian geography that limited growth, eventually led
to the Viking Age (approximately 750-1050). Scandinavians left their fjords and sheltered bays to
wreak havoc, pillage and loot the European continent. The Danes, closest to the Continent, were the
first to pursue political control and settlement, extending their control over the British Isles and
northern France (establishing Normandy in the 10th century, although the question of whether
Normandy was also established by Norwegian Vikings is still open). Norwegian Vikings, meanwhile,
expanded via the Norwegian Sea, which led them to various outlying islands in the Atlantic — the
Faroes, Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland — and eventually Newfoundland
in North America.

Since they were essentially blocked off from the free-for-all their relatives the Danes and Norwegians
were engaged in throughout the North and the Norwegian seas, the Scandinavians living on what is

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today Sweden’s eastern seaboard concentrated on expansion via the Baltic Sea and its various gulfs:
the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Riga. They were also able to use the land bridge
of Karelia, which stretches from the White Sea (a gulf in the Barents Sea, which itself is part of the
Arctic Ocean) to the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. Karelia was an extremely important strategic
region for the Vikings, and through its control they were able to access Europe even without complete
control of the Baltic Sea. It is also the one region that Sweden has continuously competed for against
various Russian political entities.

The Swedes established trading outposts

on the Neva River in the 8th century, the
most famous of which was Ladoga, which
afforded them strategic control of the
most accessible land route to the rest of
Europe, the sliver of land between the
Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga known
as the Karelian land bridge. The Swedes
also established various other outposts
along the shores of the Baltic Sea and
near strategic rivers that flowed through
the Continent, such as the Oder, Volga,
Vistula and Dniepr, which became
strategic waterways for access to the
Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This
control of Eastern Europe’s rivers allowed
the Swedish Vikings to organize and
manage a very profitable trade with the
Byzantine Empire and even the various
Middle Eastern caliphates. In the course
of establishing these trade routes,
Vikings had an impact on the evolution of
the nascent Russian political entities
Novgorod and Kievan Rus.

As trade with Eastern Europe and

Byzantium flourished throughout the ninth and part of the 10th centuries, political organization in
Sweden became more complex, in part because the increased wealth allowed (and demanded) more
organization. As nascent Sweden coalesced into a unified political entity from the kingdoms of Svear
and Goter in the 12th century, it also began to lose its grip on, or face competition for control of, the
Baltic Sea due to the rising prominence of Russian kingdoms.

Denmark’s growing power and command of a strategic, powerful and profitable location on the Jutland
peninsula also curtailed Swedish expansion. A dynastic union between Norway, Sweden and Denmark
was established in 1397, in part because the Swedes were looking to gain greater protection from
various German and Baltic powers eroding their influence in the Baltic Sea. However, Denmark was far
too powerful to join with in a supposedly decentralized union of equals. With its strategic location
controlling the sea routes between the Baltic and the Atlantic and with a foothold in continental
Europe, Denmark very quickly began to dominate its northern brethren. Trouble started less than 40
years after the proclamation of the union, and throughout the 15th century the Swedish and
Norwegian nobility attempted to resist Danish domination. The political and military threat to Swedish
core regions was finally eliminated when Sweden seceded from the union in 1523.

Following independence from Denmark, Sweden grew in confidence and turned its attention towards
the Baltic region once again — its default region of interest. However, this meant conflict with Russia,
now in its much more politically coherent incarnation than when the Swedish Vikings first encountered
it. Major war with Russia ended in 1617 with great gains for Sweden, including Estonia and Latvia.
Russia was denied access to the Baltic for essentially the next 100 years.

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With a foothold in continental Europe established early in the 17th century, Sweden turned its
attention to Poland and German states bordering the Baltic. The Protestant Reformation gave Sweden
a useful excuse for deepening involvement on the Continent. Swedish engagements in Poland
eventually led to involvement with various German states, with now-powerful and assertive Sweden
supporting Protestant states against Catholic states. Eventually, Sweden pushed for involvement in
Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, which, while religious in nature, also was a litmus test for a rising Sweden
to determine how far on the Continent it could project its influence.

Sweden came very close during the

Thirty Years’ War not just to dominating
the Baltic region but also expanding its
influence deep into the European
heartland. However, as in all continental
conflicts in Europe, allegiances were
quickly created to prevent any one
country from completely dominating the
Continent. The Treaty of Westphalia that
ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 gave
Sweden the status of a great power in
Europe, but it did not conclude with
complete Swedish domination of
Germany. Sweden received possessions
on both sides of the Jutland Peninsula,
thus retaining influence within German
states, and gained complete control of
the Finnish coast and the Gulf of Finland.
Sweden, therefore, retained dominance in
its usual region of interest, the Baltic, but
its attempt to become a major player on
the European continent itself largely

Sweden’s neighbors in the late 17th

century became nervous not only because of Sweden’s conquests and dominance of the Baltic region
but also its extremely well-trained army, which had some nascent characteristics of a professional
fighting force. Impeded in its conquests by its small population, Sweden relied on military innovation
and technology to gain advantage against the much more populous continental European powers it
faced across the Baltic (military characteristics it has retained to the present day).

The fulcrum for Sweden’s decline was the Great Northern War (1700-1721), which pitted Sweden
against essentially all of its neighbors: Poland, Denmark, Norway and Russia. Early on, Sweden
successfully defended against the attack using its well-trained military, but it soon became apparent
that it could not withstand the combined forces of all four rivals, particularly because a rising Russia
during the reign of Peter the Great was ready and willing to fight Sweden in a war of attrition to gain
access to the Baltic. Sweden ultimately lost its Baltic possessions, Estonia and Latvia, as well as parts
of the crucial Karelia land bridge. Peter the Great, looking to establish a permanent Russian presence
on the Baltic that could withstand future Swedish encroachment on the Neva River, founded St.
Petersburg while the war against Sweden was still going on. That the Russian Empire moved its capital
to St. Petersburg is a testament to just how serious Russia perceived the Swedish threat to be and
how much importance it placed in the land bridge between the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga, which St.
Petersburg was meant to control.

In 1721, Sweden’s defeat in the Great Northern War ultimately relegated its status to that of a
secondary power in Europe, and the next 87 years saw much warfare in the region as Sweden tried to
regain its lost influence. In the process, Sweden became a pawn in the larger geopolitical game of
containing Russia’s rising power. Both France and the United Kingdom encouraged Sweden’s wars

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against Russia, since they wanted to distract Russian advances on the crumbling Ottoman Empire,
which would have threatened the Mediterranean. Sweden’s attempts to regain influence ultimately
ended in 1808 in the disastrous Finnish War against the Russian Empire, which cost Sweden its Finnish
possessions and essentially ended its influence over the eastern Baltic region. For all intents and
purposes, Sweden had been reduced to irrelevance by 1808, when it established an official policy of
neutrality that has lasted, essentially unchanged, for the past 200 years.

By retreating to its core, Sweden was fortunate enough to be left alone by other powers. Its policy of
neutrality was largely respected because of its geography; invading Sweden was simply not necessary
for any participant in the great continental wars that followed the Napoleonic conflicts. Sweden also
kept itself out of the colonial scramble that dominated European affairs in the 19th century and thus
did not enter into any conflict with its European neighbors even beyond the region.

Nonetheless, Sweden’s tradition of military innovation, nurtured by the conflicts of the 17th and 18th
centuries, continued with the advent of industrialization, which Sweden embraced in earnest. Sweden
began a serious rearmament program in response to German militarization before World War II. The
combination of Swedish military innovation with industrial capacity and its aggressive defense of
neutrality (similar to the Swiss approach) has bestowed Sweden with one of the most advanced — and
independent — military-industrial complexes in Europe, certainly one that belies Sweden’s small
population and puts many more powerful countries to shame.

Geopolitical Imperatives

Sweden’s core is the extreme southern tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula — in essence a peninsula on
a peninsula — because that tip is the warmest and most fertile area on any landmass in the region.
Sweden’s peninsular nature gives it a strong maritime culture, but the geography of Denmark —
blocking access to the North Sea and thus the wider oceans — forces Sweden to focus its activities
eastward toward the Baltic region. Thus, here are Sweden’s key imperatives as a nation-state:

• Expand the Swedish core north to include all coastal regions that are not icebound in the
winter. In the west, this grants Sweden coastline on the Skagerrak strait, giving it somewhat
more access to the North Sea. Stockholm, the current capital, is situated at the southernmost
extreme of the Baltic winter iceline.
• Extend Swedish land control around the Gulf of Bothnia until reaching meaningful resistance.
The tundra, taiga, lakes and rivers of northern Sweden and Finland provide a wealth of
defensive lines that Sweden can hunker behind. Due to the region’s frigid climate, the specific
location of the border — at the Torne River in the modern era — is largely academic. At
Sweden’s height it was able to establish a defensive perimeter as far south as the shores of
Lake Ladoga, just east of modern-day St. Petersburg.
• Use a mix of sea and land influence to project power throughout the Baltic Sea region. Unlike
most European powers, Sweden does not benefit greatly from the direct occupation of adjacent
territories. The remaining portions of the Scandinavian Peninsula boast little of economic value,
while the rest of the Baltic coast lies on or near the Northern European Plain, a region that is
extremely difficult to defend against the often more powerful Continental powers. This gives
Sweden the option, perhaps even the predilection, to expand via trade links, cultural influence
and the establishment of proxy states. Using these strategies along with rivers as routes of
influence, Sweden has dominated the Baltic Sea region for centuries and at times its influence
has reached as far inland as modern-day France, Ukraine and the Caspian Sea.

Sweden Today

Sweden originally chose neutrality because it had lost. Russia seized not only its forward positions but
shrank Sweden down to little more than its core territory. As the decades rolled by, German states
that Sweden had once dominated unified into a major Continental power, introducing a player to the
south that Sweden could not hope to influence, much less dominate.

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So for Sweden, changes imposed by post-World War II alignments were somewhat of a relief.
Denmark’s alliance with the United Kingdom and the United States in the context of NATO ensured
that the Soviet Union would have to focus its efforts on Copenhagen, not on Stockholm. The division of
Germany between NATO and the Warsaw Pact removed from the board the one power that had flirted
with the idea of conquering Sweden in World War II. (Germany occupied Norway and was outraged
with the Soviets for their invasion of Finland, considering it “their” territory.) Sweden may have been
isolated and surrounded by much larger powers, but these powers were focused on each other, not on

Nonetheless, German flirtations with invading Sweden during World War II convinced Stockholm that
an independent and advanced military-industrial complex was certainly a useful thing to cultivate.
Sweden was even suspected of developing an independent nuclear deterrent in the 1960s. Sweden
was not leaving its neutrality up to chance, or to the benevolence of its neighbors.

If the Cold War architecture was an

improvement, the post-Cold War
architecture is a godsend, and Sweden’s
warm relationship with NATO has become
even more cordial. What is most notable
about Sweden in the modern world is
how much it looks like it did in the 17th
century. Russia is resurging at the
moment but will face, over the long term,
a plethora of fundamental structural
problems; the Baltic states are looking to
Stockholm for leadership (and financial
capital); and Finland and Norway are fast
allies. The biggest difference, in fact, lies
in Denmark, which, while still jealously
guarding its sovereignty as an
enthusiastic ally of the United States —
the power that has taken the firmest
stance in containing Russian power — is
quite friendly to Sweden. In many ways,
Sweden has already reconstituted the
Swedish Empire at its height, and it has
done so without firing a shot.

Swedish foreign policy began reacting to

these shifts immediately upon the end of the Cold War, with Sweden joining the European Union in
1995. Now, a regular topic of discussion in Swedish political circles is NATO membership. Whether
Sweden formally abandons its neutrality at this point is irrelevant; for all practical purposes it already

Sweden today plays a key leadership role in the Baltic Sea region. Its financial institutions practically
own the Baltic states (although the current economic recession has negatively exposed Swedish
penetration in the Baltics, this penetration is likely to continue despite potential losses). Sweden also
boasts a strong military with an independent military-industrial complex and is respected as a key
member of the European Union by the main powers on the Continent. The Baltic Sea region has
historically been one of the more prosperous regions of Europe (giving rise to the Hanseatic League, a
political entity united first and foremost by commerce). For much of the 20th century, however, the
Baltics have been divided between two competing geopolitical blocs. With the lines of the Cold War
withdrawn, the region is again gaining prominence as a center of commerce, trade and energy
transportation. Sweden is very well poised not only to take advantage of this Baltic revival but also to
lead it.

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Sweden assumes the presidency of the European Union on July 1, and it has aggressively moved to
place the development of the Baltic region at the top of its presidential agenda. It is fitting that
Sweden will head the union almost exactly 200 years following the disastrous Finnish War, which
relegated Sweden to regional irrelevance. In those 200 years, Stockholm has patiently waited for a
chance to once again emerge as a leader of Europe’s north.

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