A NATO rapid-reaction force is on a war footing in Swedish Lapland this week.
Ten countries, 2,000 troops, a strike aircraft carrier, and 50 fighter jets – including the US Air Force's F-15 Eagle – are participating in war games near contested Arctic territories.
Choosing this place for war games reflects the growing strategic importance of the Arctic, which is estimated to contain a quarter of the Earth's oil and gas, say analysts. But the exercises could escalate military tensions with Russia over NATO (read more here) and endanger the livelihood of indigenous people, activists say.
The maneuvers got under way on Monday and will continue into next week. The exercises are based on a fictional conflict in "Lapistan," a revolutionary, oil-rich dictatorship that has attacked a neighboring country.
The mission is to enforce a UN resolution, using mainly air forces based near Sweden's largest northern city, Luleå. The exercise spans a massive land area stretching from Östersund in southern Lapland to the Norwegian border, near the Barents Sea.
Nonaligned Sweden and Finland are participating as members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
Heightened tension with Russia
Two years ago, Russia laid stake to 500,000 square miles of the Arctic, brazenly pitching a titanium flag on the Arctic sea bed and preempting counterclaims by Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the US. Just last month, a new security strategy unveiled in Moscow warned of potential military clashes over natural resources near the Russian border.
"These exercises increase the risk of a conflict," says Anna Ek, head of Sweden's Peace and Arbitration Society. "They send out offensive and aggressive signals. Should we really be planning for a conflict with Russia while there is still a window of opportunity for cooperation in the Arctic?"
Following Russia's invasion of Georgia last year, Sweden abandoned earlier plans to scale down its air force.
Erik Lagersen, a spokesman for the Swedish armed forces, says the maneuvers are necessary to develop cooperation routines with NATO (read more recent news about NATO here).
"We contribute to the same operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo. If our fighter planes end up under foreign command, then we need to have trained on common procedures beforehand," he told Swedish public radio, adding that Russia turned down an invitation to send an observer to the war games.
Samis aren't pleased, either
Peace activists argue that the maneuvers have no relevance to peacekeeping missions and represent a slide toward greater Swedish involvement in NATO.
The country's defense minister, Sten Tolgfors, denies the claims.
"This is about UN-mandated crisis-management operations," he says. "It's not about defending Sweden, but coordinating international efforts. It has nothing to do with Swedish NATO membership."
Opponents of the war games say the term "Lapistan" is an insult to Sweden's sizable Muslim population, as well as to the country's indigenous Sami people.
"This kind of language just reinforces prejudices," says Stefan Lindgren, vice chairman of the Afghan Solidarity Association, which filed a complaint against the Swedish defense ministry last week with the country's antidiscrimination ombudsman.
" 'Stan' is an obvious reference to countries where the West is already at war and 'Lap' is an old racist term for the Sami people," Mr. Lindgren says.
These reindeer don't fly
Although the Sami people are less than enamored with the NATO nickname for their homeland, they are more concerned about their livestock, says Anders Blom, head of the Sami national organization, SSR. Reindeer farming is an integral part of indigenous culture in sparsely populated northern Sweden.
"Low-flying aircraft can create a lot of problems, particularly at this time of the year, when the reindeer are calving," he explains. "The noise causes the animals to panic and that can lead to deaths and serious injuries. If we'd been consulted earlier about where the aircraft would be, then we could have done something, but we heard nothing until the last moment."
Opposition members of Parliament, demonstrating on the streets of Luleå earlier this week were also clamoring for consultation.
"Neither the Parliament nor the defense committee were informed about the size of this exercise," says Peter Rådberg, a Green Party member of Parliament. "It looks like a serious attempt to market NATO in Sweden.... It risks causing a military escalation in a region where we should be disarming."