Smoke and Mirrors: Sweden, Russian Submarines and Putin’s Brinksmanship

From 17 to 24 October 2014, the Swedish Armed Forces, operating on credible reports of “foreign underwater activities” in the Stockholm archipelago and Kanholmsfjärden Bay area, conducted a weeklong surveillance operation in search of a submarine. Although the Swedish government refused to publicly comment on suspicions as to whom the alleged submarine belonged, within 24 hours the terms ‘foreign’ and ‘Russian’ became synonymous in everything from Swedish to Esperanto. NATO’s worst fears seemed confirmed, however, when the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported on 20 October that Swedish authorities intercepted an encrypted distress signal from the area in which the submarine was believed to be located bound for the Russian naval base in Kaliningrad. The emergence of a photograph of a Russian submarine passing through the Oresund Strait between Sweden and Denmark in international waters on 23 October likewise dealt a blow to Putin’s public relations surrounding the incident. The operation ultimately proved unsuccessful, yet it proved to be Sweden’s largest post-Cold War military mobilisation. Thus, in wake of other recent events in Ukraine and Estonia that have helped shape EU and US relations with Russia, it begs the question: is the current geopolitical atmosphere indicative of the beginnings of a new Cold War, or is the brinkmanship of both the Western and Russian international media responsible for the heightened tensions and perceptions of threat? In the Swedish context, did it or does it matter if the Russian incursion was an actual or perceived threat, and is Sweden more likely to increase defense spending and forgo de jure NATO neutrality?

Image courtesy of FaceMePLS, © 2014, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of FaceMePLS, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Of course, neither Sweden nor Denmark are strangers to such activities. Owing to the Stockholm archipelago’s dense island topography and ample natural features that assist concealment and evasion from surface vessels, the area became a notorious playground for submarines during the Cold War. The most infamous incident came in 1981, during the so-called “Whiskey on the Rocks” fiasco. A Soviet (Whiskey-class) submarine ran aground and was discovered near a Swedish naval base by a fisherman. More relevantly, the last major Swedish submarine hunt occurred in 1995 and ended somewhat differently. Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson was forced to admit ‘that what was originally stated to be intrusions into our waters have proved to be minks”.[1] Indeed, skeptics of Russian involvement in the area are likely to point out that last week the media identified the individual wearing all-black as a potential Russian spetsnaz special forces soldier. In reality, the man turned out to be a local fisherman.

That said, Putin’s adoption of a more direct, aggressive posture not seen since the end of the Cold War is strong circumstantial evidence for the presence of the Russian submarine off the coast of Sweden. A NATO report released in November 2014 highlighted no less than 39 incidents of military encounters, violations of airspace and simulated bombing attacks between Russian planes and boats, and NATO forces and allies, in the last eight months. Regionally, these included: the approach of an armed Russian aircraft to the heavily populated Danish island of Bornholm in June 2014 before breaking off in what appeared to have been a simulated attack, subsequently described by the Danish as “of a more offensive character than observed in recent years”; and, a close encounter between a SAS passenger plane and a Russian reconnaissance aircraft that was not transmitting its position in Denmark in March 2014.[2]

Most prolifically, however, in September, just days after US President Obama visited Estonia to assure “eternal support” against Russia, an Estonian security operative was abducted by Russian agents at a border post and subsequently accused of espionage. NATO strongly condemned the action and regional ally Latvia warned such an action could be a “game-changer”. Nonetheless, such an assertion is uncharacteristic of the Baltic countries. Estonia, for example, is a tiny, non-nuclear Baltic country of 1.3 million people near the Russian city of St. Petersburg. Typically, it would use either formal or informal diplomatic channels to resolve matters and historically favors minimising the risk military escalation. Without recent strong and vocal assurances from the US and NATO, which included the possibility of direct military support, such actions and the corresponding dilapidation of East-West relations could not have occurred. A policy paper released by the prominent London-based European Leadership Network think tank (ELN) this month argued a “mix of more aggressive Russian posturing and the readiness of Western forces to show resolve increases the risk of unintended escalation and the danger of losing control over events”.[3] The report also speculated that Russian actions may have pragmatic goals, including testing the capability of NATO defenses and training Russian military personnel in near-combat conditions.

 Nonetheless, the submarine debacle, rhetoric of a new Cold War, and heightened threat perception are likely to have some tangible effects on security policy. As the most recent surveillance operation demonstrated, Swedish defense spending is now a shadow of its former self. Helicopters critical to submarine hunting were phased out in 2008 and replacements are not expected until 2018. On 23 October Sweden’s new center-left government, one which includes the Green Party who campaigned on a promise of cutting defense spending, duly unveiled an increase in military expenditures in the inaugural budget. The budget was not without controversy, however. “The budget is ready. The submarine hunt completed,” tweeted Maria Wetterstrand, a former spokesperson for the Green Party.[4] This year’s national elections and the surge in support for far right party Sverigedemokraterna (SD) also saw the re-emergence of debate concerning Sweden’s role in NATO. Although coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SAP) and the Green Party has indicated that they not plan to seek NATO membership, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, who are aware of the importance of Sweden to their own security, have continued to lobby loudly for the membership of Sweden (and Finland) in NATO.

Although Putin’s dangerous brinkmanship and the reactionary Western barrage of sanctions geared towards isolating and punishing Russia have certainly elevated tensions both regionally and globally, talk of a “New Cold War” by the international media is an exaggeration. In the past 25 years Russia and the West have become far more economically and technologically integrated. The propaganda and provocation that has taken center stage, termed “hybrid warfare” by the European Leadership Network are necessary but not sufficient conditions for its resumption. Even so, NATO should recognize its ongoing role in the Ukraine crisis, and Putin must understand EU oil and gas dependency is not license for reckless action.

[1] “Sweden Says Those Russian Subs Were Minks”. New York Times. February 12, 1995

[2] “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014”. European Leadership Network. Policy Brief: November, 2014.

[3] Ibid.


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