by Bryan Artiles
It’s interesting Sweden is in the news regarding its bid to join one of Earth’s largest and longest-standing military alliances. You can trace the country’s militaristic past to the marauding Vikings, but Sweden hasn’t fought a war in 209 years. They escaped the bloody firestorms of two world wars without firing a shot. They continued their dance of neutrality during the Cold War while sitting geographically in the very center of that battlefield with the Soviet bloc to their east and NATO to their west. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine threatened that streak of Pax Swedana.
At the top of that 209-year peaceful run was the Napoleonic wars. Their part concluded with the little tyrant’s first downfall in 1814. You would have to go back another 100 years to see Sweden’s full participation in a continental war, the Great Northern War of 1700–1721. This war ran concurrently with another European conflagration, the War of the Spanish Succession.
However, Sweden’s military proficiency in the early modern era begins with King Adolphus Gustavus who reigned from 1611–1632. He practically invented the practice of the massed line-of-fire configuration we see in paintings and movies from this era all the way up to the American Civil War. He put his innovations to the test in the fields of Germany during the Thirty Years War, an awful 17th-century struggle between Catholics and Protestants. He won many battles for the Protestant side but in the end, couldn’t innovate a way to keep himself alive. He died at the Battle of Lützen in 1632. Yet Sweden earned a place at the table during the Peace Treaty of Westphalia and ushered in a new era of being a European great power.
They maintained their warlike stance throughout the 17th century when in the late 1690’s a very young man, a teenager, named Charles XII took the throne. Seizing upon the new king’s youth Sweden’s neighbors plotted a war. Denmark, Poland and Russia lined up against the boy king, who took his highly trained and disciplined Swedish army and defeated each of his enemies one by one. Denmark was knocked completely out of the war. Russia’s tsar, who would later assume the moniker, Peter the Great, but at the time was just plain ole Peter, was chased off the battlefield at Narva on the Baltic Sea. Poland was soundly defeated, its Saxon king Augustus ousted for a Swedish-picked puppet. The war continued with both the king of Sweden and the tsar of Russia both so obstinate and determined to beat the other that peace was delayed.
Sweden appears on a map to be very far removed from the current war in Ukraine but they are closer than you think. In fact, Ukraine is right at the heart of Swedish history. Because as Charles XII pressed his invasion of Russia he kept getting sucked deeper into the great steppe. He was the first to receive a lesson in the Russian tactics of retreat, scorched earth, and let winter do the rest. Charles’ Russian adventure ended with a loss at the Battle of Poltava in eastern Ukraine. This battle ranks as one of history’s sea changes, like Gettysburg or Waterloo. From his point onward, Sweden ceased being a great power and Russia was ascendant as a great power on the European stage.
The Great Northern War gave birth to a phase called the Great Wrath, when the Russians invaded Swedish Finland and leveled upon the unhappy citizens a most heinous rape, slaughter, and destruction of property. Change out the names, places and dates and the Great Wrath looks awfully similar to what happened in Bucha, Ukraine. This is seared into the generational minds of Finns and Swedes. It was reconfirmed again and again over the centuries, during the Soviet era and now under the naked aggression of Putin’s Russia, driving Sweden directly into the waiting arms of NATO.
Which brings us to the present. During the recent NATO Vilnius Summit Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg announced that Sweden’s bid to become a full member has successfully passed. This was not without its obstacles with member states Turkey and Hungary were against it. At Vilnius though, the Turks and Magyars had a change of heart. This occurred as always with its fair share of backroom deals, mainly with Swedish-Turkish relations. Things haven’t been this spicy between these two nations since during the Great Northern War when King Charles XII had to be physically removed by armed guards from the Sultan’s palace and kicked out of the Ottoman Empire. The aforementioned change of heart came when President Biden promised Turkey’s President Erdogan some fresh new fighter jets plus upgrade packages on some of their old ones. In return, Sweden promised to back off their previous support for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey’s borders. As to the Hungarians, their change of heart came when they realized nobody gives a damn what they think anyway.
Therefore Putin’s war has driven a once staunchly neutral and peaceful nation into one of the globe’s largest standing military alliances and a new rearmament program. King Charles XII would be proud. Peter the Great, on the other hand, might be less pleased, as he watches the great power status he won for Russia quickly slipping away under the current Kremlin Tsar. This loss of prestige hastens with every killed Russian and Ukrainian soldier in this war. This loss of power will happen with every new NATO member that gets stacked against Russia’s Western border.