Sweden goes 'Back to the Future' with Russia war-prep booklets

Sweden goes 'Back to the Future' with Russia war-prep booklets
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The recent announcement that the Swedish government plans to issue booklets to all Swedish households on what to do during a national crisis or in wartime made the news in both Europe and the United States.

But far from being a newfangled invention, it is a "Back to the Future" moment for Sweden, albeit with an internet age twist, and the Swedes are not alone in this. Indeed, the U.S. may have a thing or two to learn from Sweden and other European nations on crisis preparedness.

The planned booklet of advice on civil preparedness has roots in the Cold War. In spite of Sweden's peaceful profile, during the Cold War years, the then-neutral nation maintained a sizeable military and general conscription, along with far-reaching preparations for how to mobilize and protect Swedish society if war between the Soviet Union and NATO ever broke.

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Detailed lists were kept of trucks, buses and boats, in case they needed to be requisitioned for national defense purposes. Schools, sport facilities, garages and apartment buildings were designed and prepared to be used as shelters, aid stations or refugee collection points.

Food and fuel were stored across the country, and the phone book included information sections on what civilians should do "in case the war comes."

The Swedish civil preparedness system was never truly put to the test as the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Much of it was quietly retired in the decades following, as Europe seemed to have settled into an eternal peace and the Swedish armed forces refocused on missions far away from home, ranging from keeping the peace in Bosnia to reconstructing Afghanistan and suppressing piracy off the Horn of Africa.

But today, Sweden finds itself in the friction zone between a revanchist Russia and the West, and little suggests that Sweden would be able to steer clear of a future crisis or war in the region. Along with increased defense spending, the government in Stockholm is therefore dusting off the old Cold War plans for civil defense.

But the new approach to civil defense also included updates to take into account, among other things, Russian disinformation campaigns and the important, but fragile, cyber networks that Swedish society is now reliant on.

In this effort, Sweden is not alone. Lithuania has published similar booklets on civil preparedness and what its citizens can expect during a crisis. Finland recently inaugurated a center dedicated to combating hybrid warfare and is also reviewing its civil defense plans.

Germany, meanwhile, has asked its citizens to store water and food to last them for more than a week, in case a future crisis affects vulnerable supply chains.

But restoring civil defense will take time, and the distribution of booklets is just the beginning. Being able to protect and care for a population under warlike conditions requires, among other things, planning, infrastructure changes and, not least, a substantial amount of money.

Embedded in these efforts are lessons for the United States too. High-impact challenges, such as Russian meddling in the last presidential election and the effects of the recent natural disasters in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, highlight the fact that defense of the American people needs to include more than just military power and counterterrorism.

Magnus Nordenman is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Nordenman's areas of expertise include Nordic-Baltic security, transatlantic relations and U.S. defense policy.