Putin has 'both eyes' on a strategic island belonging to new NATO member Sweden, army commander says

  • Putin is eyeing a key island in the Baltic Sea to dominate the waters, Sweden's army chief said.

  • Gotland is near both Sweden and Russia's Kaliningrad exclave.

  • It became a key NATO asset after Sweden joined the bloc earlier this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is targeting a strategic Swedish island that offers mastery over the Baltic Sea, the commander-in-chief of Sweden's army warned this week.

"I'm sure that Putin even has both eyes on Gotland. Putin's goal is to gain control of the Baltic Sea," Micael Bydén told German news outlets, according to Politico's translation of his remarks.

Sweden joined NATO in early March, and the alliance is now the dominant force in the Baltic Sea, thanks in large part to its control of Gotland.

The island is one of the Baltic Sea's largest, situated about 50 miles from the Swedish coast and 150 miles from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. It's comparable in size to Rhode Island, but has a population of just 60,000.

"If Russia takes control and seals off the Baltic Sea, it would have an enormous impact on our lives — in Sweden and all other countries bordering the Baltic Sea," Bydén said.

"We can't allow that," he added.

According to Bydén, Russia could seek to harm NATO's interests in the Baltic directly, or by underhanded tactics.

He raised the possibility of Russia's aging oil tankers deliberately causing an environmental disaster there, with Moscow then passing it off as an accident.

He also said the tankers offer Russia the possibilities for espionage, illicit transport, and underwater sabotage.

More directly, invading Gotland would end the peace and stability of the Nordic and Baltic region, Bydén said.

The sea cannot become "Putin's playground" from which he can intimidate the eight NATO countries that surround it, he added.

Russia's Ministry of Defence did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment on Bydén's remarks.

Russia caused uproar this week with the publication of draft proposals to unilaterally redraw its map of the Baltic Sea, expanding its claim on what waters are part of Russia's territory, as The Moscow Times reported.

Sweden Gotland Island C-130
Swedish military officials watch a Swedish C-130H take off from a non-traditional runway on Gotland Island on October 23, 2021.US Army/Sgt. Patrik Orcutt

The proposal quickly disappeared from the Russian government portal on which it had been posted, following scathing remarks from leaders in Lithuania, Finland, and Latvia, Politico reported.

Fortifying Gotland was brought up as one of the first topics of discussion after Sweden joined NATO in March, Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told the Financial Times at the time.

Following the relative calm of the post-Cold War years, the island was demilitarized in 2005.

But in the wake of Russia's attacks on Ukraine, it has slowly seen an increased military presence, including the revival of Sweden's Gotland Regiment.

Two months into Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Swedish government allocated $160 million toward the island's military infrastructure.

And late last year, the US signed a defense agreement with Sweden giving the US access to a number of military bases, including Gotland — a move that would enable it to move quickly against any threats in the region.

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