Three years ago, I was having dinner with my family outdoors on a part of Sweden’s Stockholm archipelago — a series of islands that stretch east of the capital city into the Baltic Sea.
If beauty were a gold mine, this was the motherload, with forested islands and a golden sun shimmering off blue water. My wife, born in Sweden, has cousins with a summer house that features an elevated view of this scene and trail access to the water. Beyond our field of view, the sea opened up, providing boats easy access to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and, ultimately, St. Petersburg, Russia.
This, they said, was where a Russian submarine was believed to have been spotted trolling in 2014.
For whatever reason, Sweden has long been of interest to Russia. Reports of post Cold-War submarine sightings, some later discredited, date to 1992. But each of these has provided little more than a momentary source of concern for a neutral country that has remained largely unaffected by modern wars.
All of that has changed in an instant, and the world order may be changing with it. For Scandinavia, the transformation follows other recent changes in policies regarding its liberal policies on refugees.
Ukraine’s example has spoken loudly. Not being a full-fledged NATO member made it fair game. Vladimir Putin may have to worry about sanctions and scorn, but he has known from the start that he didn’t have to worry about armed resistance from the West.
And the world now knows that Putin won’t hesitate to invent a pretext for a cruel and bloody war, perhaps anywhere he sees the desire, or a weakness.
As columnist Annie Reuterskiöld wrote this week for Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s major newspapers, “The security policy situation in Europe has undergone a metamorphosis in a few days.”
A researcher on international relations, Samuel Ramani, told the paper, "Vladimir Putin has killed Swedish neutrality and German pacifism in just one weekend."
Sweden has not officially asked for NATO membership. Many in the government remain strongly opposed. But it is supplying arms to Ukraine. So is Finland, a much closer neighbor to Russia. So, for that matter, is Switzerland, a country that has come to define neutrality.
In one sense, neutrality implies a belief that neither side in a conflict is completely right or wrong. But the invasion of a peaceful nation that posed no risk has destroyed that notion.
It is, some say, a new, unified Europe.
“I think this will have major consequences moving forward for the future of Europe, for the future of the transatlantic alliance, for the future of NATO — just when all of those things were fraying,” Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told NBC News.
In Finland, according to the website euractive,”a citizens’ initiative calling for a referendum on NATO membership gathered the needed 50,000 signatures in four days.” In Sweden, an opinion poll found 41% in favor of joining, with only 35% against. People are suddenly becoming serious about their place in a dangerous world.
Sweden has strengthened its military presence on its island of Gotland, located in the middle of the Baltic Sea, worried that it may be seen as a strategic and easy target for occupation.
Russia has issued hot warnings to both nations. The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday said the U.S. was trying to “drag” the two nations into NATO, and warned it would lead to “serious military-political consequences.”
Finland’s foreign minister brushed this aside, saying, “we’ve heard this before.” Sweden reacted indignantly. “I want to be extremely clear,” the prime minister said. “It is Sweden that itself and independently decides on our security policy line.”
Both countries are seen as allies of NATO. They are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Russia also has been a partner since 1994, but that relationship has soured, particularly after Russian incursions into Georgia in 2008.
The rest of Scandinavia — Norway, Iceland and Denmark — have long been full-fledged NATO members.
But the war in Ukraine also may accelerate other changes in attitudes that already were underway in Scandinavia as those countries increasingly have been affected by other events in the world. Sweden, for instance, has long had an open policy toward immigration, and especially refugees. In 2015, Sweden accepted 163,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But late last year, the woman who has since become prime minister issued a warning to them to obtain high school diplomas, learn to speak Swedish and get jobs.
During my last visit to the country, it was clear many Swedes were concerned with immigrants who take advantage of the nation’s generous welfare state without having contributed to the taxes that support those programs.
In Norway, some anti-immigrant politicians have proposed stripping all refugees of their money and valuables as they enter the country, as a way to recoup the cost of providing services. The Independent reported similar concerns in Denmark.
Although these are minority opinions, welfare programs may come under further stress if Russia’s aggression spreads a refugee crisis across Europe.
The cycles of history are a bit more elongated in Northern Europe than in the United States, but they are not forgotten.
As we dined on the archipelago three years ago, our hosts pointed to the expanse of quaint buildings that dotted the islands around us. None of these, they said, was more than 300 years old — an oddity in a nation where some church buildings have stood for more than a millenium.
The reason? In the summer of 1719, enemy forces totaling 26,000 men on 132 ships invaded the archipelago, burning virtually every building to the ground.
That enemy was Russia. Maybe the times aren’t changing as much as coming full circle again.