VISBY, Sweden -- Smearing themselves with face paint, the camouflage-clad men and women in the forest look like the professional soldiers now populating Europe's armed forces, some of them seasoned by deployments in conflict-torn countries far from Sweden. But they're home-guard volunteers -- part-time soldiers training to defend the Baltic Sea island of Gotland.
With Russia interfering in Ukraine and challenging Europe with close approaches by fighter jets, warships, and submarines, the island 80 kilometers from the Swedish mainland has become a strategic location that is increasingly in the focus of defense planners. And a growing number of Gotlanders are joining the home guard: 56 last year, double the number in 2013.
"People are feeling that given the current situation, they should make a contribution," says Lieutenant Colonel Hans Hakansson, the Swedish armed forces' highest-ranking officer on Gotland. He commands a tiny force of 10, aided by home-guard soldiers like those exercising outside Visby, the island's capital.
"I want to defend this country if it should become necessary," says 18-year-old Erik Fenn, one of the home-guard reservists involved in the exercise earlier this month. "Everybody in Sweden is afraid of the Russians. They might attack someday."
The home guard now has 454 members on Gotland, some 130 kilometers from Latvia and less than 200 kilometers from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Should an enemy land here, the part-time soldiers would protect strategic assets such as radar stations and weapons depots until professional units arrive from mainland Sweden.
Return Of The Cold War
The idea of Russian forces storming westward seemed all but unthinkable just a couple of years ago. But so was the notion that Russia might seize Crimea and back separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 6,100 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
Those developments have reignited Cold War tension and rattled nerves across Europe -- particularly in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which gained independence in 1991 after decades of Soviet occupation and are now NATO members.
Sweden is not in NATO. But some here say that Gotland -- an island that gave inspiration to filmmaker Ingmar Bergman -- could be seen in the mind's eye of the Kremlin as a staging point for an operation in the Baltics.
"The most concrete scenario involving Gotland concerns the Baltic states," says Hakansson, a career officer who commanded UN forces in Kosovo in the early 2000s. "There's a Russian desire to recreate a protection zone of buffer states, and in order to prevent NATO assisting the Baltic states, the Russians would park themselves on Gotland."
Gotland's location gives the sparsely populated island of 57,255 an outsized strategic value for both NATO and Russia. If Russia attacked the Baltic states, it's assumed that Sweden would let NATO use Gotland as a base from which to support a counterassault. Russia, the thinking goes, could occupy Gotland and deploy missile systems there to prevent NATO from aiding its Baltic allies.
"Or Russia could 'borrow' Gotland without invading the Baltic nations," worries Karlis Neretnieks, a retired Swedish general and Cold War-era commander on Gotland. "By doing so, it can isolate the Baltic states without attacking NATO. And it wouldn't be a costly operation. There would probably only be a few casualties on both sides and limited collateral damage."
A force of 454 squaring off against an invader until reinforcements arrive? Swedish politicians have now concluded that Gotland needs better protection. This spring, the government announced that a 150-member active-duty unit will be based on Gotland, along with 80 soldiers based here part-time. Swedish JAS fighter jets now regularly take off from Visby airport, and 14 tanks are in storage, available for use. But that's a far cry from the 5,000 troops, 60 tanks and 100 armored personnel carriers based here during the Cold War, and the 150 men won't be coming any time soon: the government has sold off all its military facilities to private owners. Hakansson's rented office, on the former military base, sits next to the local car-inspection agency.
Nord Stream Makes An Offer
When Hakansson arrived for his assignment here four years ago, the geopolitical situation was very different. "We did our thing, but it was very calm and quiet," he recalls. "Since then there's been a dramatic change in the threat scenario."
Gotlanders, to be sure, have long been wary of Russia. In the early days of the Soviet Union, parents here would tell their children to behave or else "the Russians" would snatch them.
More recent fears have been linked to a deal set in motion when Nord Stream, the Russian-German company of which state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom is the majority owner, made the Gotland county council a generous offer: Nord Stream would pay for the reconstruction of the harbor in Slite, on Gotland's east coast, and use it while building its pipeline from Russia to Germany.
"The vote was very rushed, and those of us who expressed reservations were bullied," says Solveig Artsman, at the time a member of the county council.
Artsman voted against the Nord Stream project, arguing that foreign companies shouldn't know the design of strategically located Swedish harbors. She was joined by a scattering of other council members, including Rolf K. Nilsson, who was then also a member of parliament.
"I told the county council, ‘We're becoming a pawn in Russia's power game,' but many people dismissed me as a cold warrior and Russophobe," Nilsson says. He says he turned down repeated invitations from Nord Stream representatives to dine at upscale restaurants, and the energy company made large, legal donations to the local university and museum.
The contract was signed in 2008 by Gotland's technical director and Nord Stream CEO Matthias Warnig, a former East German Stasi officer and acquaintance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"When we made the decision I felt it was the right one," says Lilian Edwards, the then-chair of the county council. "Now the world has changed and there's a new threat scenario, relatively close to our island. If we were to decide on Slite harbor being rebuilt by Nord Stream today, I'd vote no."
Lars Gronstedt, Nord Stream's senior adviser in Sweden, says he doesn't understand critics' concerns about the firm's involvement in Slite harbor. "It was extremely well placed, but the harbor was in a poor condition," he says. No Russian in a senior position has been to Slite in connection with Nord Stream, he adds.
An Open Harbor
Today, the Slite port looks much like any other harbor. During a recent visit, several fishing boats were docked at the quay while residents lovingly cleaned another, and an imposing Swedish coast-guard vessel was the only sign of any potential security concerns.
The naked eye cannot see that Slite lacks blast chambers, a Cold War fixture that allows a country under attack to swiftly destroy a harbor should it fall into enemy hands -- though Gronstedt says that nobody ever requested that Nord Stream build one.
"Gotland is a hub in the middle of the Baltic Sea," Joakim Martell, a recently retired Swedish colonel now living on the island, says in an interview at the harbor. "And if somebody wanted to provoke their enemy without starting a world war, Gotland is a good place. But right now, you can sail into the port here and you'd only encounter a couple of police officers."
Martell, who has served as a military adviser to the Swedish Defense Ministry and commanded UN and IFOR forces in the Bosnian city of Tuzla, says that Slite's location on Gotland's east coast makes it an attractive landing point -- and that armed men disembarking would not even have to be soldiers.
He describes a chilling alternative: "A staged terrorist attack in Slite harbor that Sweden doesn't manage to deal with, and then Russia steps in with civilian guards and solves it, thereby parking itself on Gotland."
This hybrid-warfare scenario was, in fact, part of a major Swedish military exercise this spring.
Intelligence Gathering 'Brazen'
Meanwhile, military snooping is on the increase, officials say.
Locals report a larger number of Russian tourists when a military exercise is afoot, as well as cars with Russian number plates parked close to strategic sites -- such as the two signals-intelligence towers here on Gotland.
Swedish military sources tell RFE/RL that larger-than-normal numbers of military-grade maps are currently being bought. "There's foreign intelligence gathering going on here, though it's not something we quantify," Hakansson says. "But the people engaged in it have become much more brazen."
Russia's military attache in Stockholm did not respond to a request for comment on Russian activities on Gotland.
All this activity does not mean that an occupation of Gotland is imminent, and some residents are confident it won't happen. "I don't think there's any reason to have more military here, because I don't think Russia is a threat," says Yvonne, a woman in Visby.
But the armed-forces headquarters is calling on Hakansson's part-time soldiers with increasing frequency, asking them to perform duties such as opening weapons depots and guarding naval ships 60 times last year -- up from 30 in 2013.
During RFE/RL's visit, they were conducting a shooting exercise, and while out with their families, they keep their eyes open for suspicious behavior by strangers.
"It's incredibly sad that the political situation has changed in this way," Hakansson says. "Our security mechanisms aren't working."
With reporting by Margot Buff