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Swedish neutrality between the Cossacks and Ukraine

Frederick Lauritzen

3rd June 2022

Sweden is politically neutral yet culturally western. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed this balance. Carl Bildt, foreign Minister of Sweden (2006-2014), had already expressed reservations about the annexation of Crimea in 2014 in some tweets and more recently as well. Putin had claimed that the fact that Crimea was part of Ukraine was a mistake of historic analysis. Since it had been part of Russia in the past, it should allegedly be part of Russia again today. Bildt indicated that it was Valdemar who had been baptised, not Vladimir, or Volodymyr, i.e. that the first Christian king of Rus was actually a viking from Sweden and therefore his country could make an equal claim to Crimea. Indeed, Sweden is not indifferent to the question of Ukraine, since the descendant of Valdemar/Vladimir/Volodimyr was Yaroslav of Kiev (1019-1054) whose symbol, a trident, appeared on his coins and is now the national symbol of Ukraine. Carl Bildt thus claimed that the Viking Rurikid dynasty of Rus would give Sweden today historic claims to that part of the world. Sweden is careful and aware of its history and role in the Baltic and the wider world.

It is for this reason that Sweden has been neutral since 1815. The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) had decided this fate for the kingdom. Sweden had changed sides in the Napoleonic wars and the French general Jean Bernadotte, became Charles XIV (1818-1844) the Swedish king. The turning point was the largest battle ever fought before World War I, the battle of Leipzig 16th – 19th October 1813, in which Charles Stewart, brother to the British foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh (1812-1822), convinced Bernadotte to join the Austrian, Prussian and Russian forces and gave Marshal Blücher his most important and famous victory, before his decisive intervention at Waterloo in 1815. The premise of Swedish neutrality is therefore the essential location of the country in relation to the Baltic Sea. The neutrality continued also during World War II and during the cold war the Sweden navy observed NATO and Soviet submarines enter its territorial waters and discharge depth charges to make them leave.

Sweden has now abandoned the neutral status for fear that the expansionist policy of the Russian Federation would affect the Baltic as well as its neighboring countries changing a centuries old status quo. Sweden bordered with the Russian empire between 1805 and 1917, when to the east it had the Grand Duchy of Finland. Sweden has only been superficially neutral since the Russians invaded by crossing the frozen Gulf of Bothnia in 1808 and since a Swedish archipelago, the Åland islands, was also invaded by Russia in 1809 and annexed to Finland (to this day). This last invasion was carried out by Cossacks, from the area of Ukraine, under the Baltic German general Gotthard Johann von Knorring (1746-1825). Indeed, these islands were later the location for a battle of the Crimean War and were once more defended by Cossacks. Sweden remembers its encounters with Russians and Cossacks at home and so has abandoned the neutrality imposed on it in 1815.

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