Swedish navy on high alert over ‘mystery sub’
Countries around the Baltic Sea are on edge as Sweden hunts for a possible Russian submarine in its waters. It has brought back the grim anxiety of the Cold War, but is the fear justified?
A Swedish intelligence officer is startled when a radio set to an emergency frequency suddenly bursts into life. It is a conversation in Russian, and a sailor anxiously reports some kind of accident to his superiors.
Days later, a ‘man made’ object is spotted in a bay near Stockholm. The Swedish military suspect it is a Russian submarine deep in their territory. Warships, planes and hundreds of troops are scrambled to hunt it down.
It sounds like the plot of a Cold War thriller, but these events happened in the last few days, prompting Sweden’s largest military mobilisation in decades. There have been five reported submarine sightings near the coast. While Sweden has avoided directly accusing Russia, it warns that it will use force if necessary. Moscow denies all involvement.
It is one of many events in recent months which recall the anxieties of the Cold War. There is Russia’s continuing involvement in the Ukraine crisis. Estonia has accused Russia of abducting one of its top security officials. Finland says Russian fighters have entered its airspace and Russian spy planes have been reported off Denmark and Sweden.
Russia has long seen the Baltic Sea as part of its sphere of influence and in 1940 the Soviet Union illegally annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Following the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, these countries later joined NATO and the EU, which angered Russian leaders.
Relations are as strained now as during the Cold War. Russia has dramatically increased its military spending in recent years, and NATO has announced it will increase its joint defence operations in Eastern Europe.
In this context, a Russian submarine found in Swedish waters would be ‘a game-changer for security in the Baltic Sea Region’, according to Latvia’s foreign minister, and would turn current cold relations even frostier.
Some say that there is not yet enough evidence to justify all this Cold War hysteria. The only sightings have come from the public and are far from reliable. Russia has no reason to be doing anything unusual in Swedish waters and the media are making a story from nothing.
Yet others note that Russia recently denied supporting Ukrainian rebels while secretly arming them, so its word cannot be trusted. In 1981, a nuclear-armed Soviet sub ran aground on the Swedish coast causing an 11-day diplomatic stand-off, so Swedes have come to expect the worst. In September, the Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly reminded the world that Russia is a nuclear superpower. Any incursion into Swedish territory would raise tensions significantly and should be taken very seriously.
- Should we worry about a Russian submarine off Sweden or is the West being paranoid?
- ‘The Western media has unfairly demonised Putin.’ Do you agree?
- Find the countries mentioned in this article on a map. Does their geography help explain their concerns about Russia?
- Research the Cold War and make a chart of its top five most significant moments with a summary of each.
Some People Say...
“The Cold War didn’t really end, it was just catching its breath. Now, it’s back.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should I care about this?
- Growing tensions and a military build up across Europe are a real concern and when there are more weapons, there is more of a chance of an accident. A NATO training exercise in 1983, Able Archer, was almost mistaken by the Soviet Union as an attack, and could have started a nuclear war. While the situation is no way near as bleak as it was during the Cold War, growing anxiety and distrust across Europe is not good for international relations.
- Why is it proving so hard to find a submarine?
- If there is one, the Swedes think it is in the archipelago of 30,000 islands south of Stockholm. This has been described as a ‘submariner’s paradise’ for hiding, with innumerable inlets, bays and channels in which a submarine could evade capture.
- Cold War
- The Cold War was a long period of military and political rivalry following WWII when the US and the Soviet Union emerged as rival superpowers, with most of the world’s states allied to one or the other. The two fought proxy wars around the globe and while they rarely confronted each other directly, the threat of catastrophic nuclear war was never far away.
- In February unidentified soldiers helped rebels secure the Crimea, which Russia then annexed. There is compelling evidence that Russia has also been arming rebels in eastern Ukraine
- The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a political and military alliance, including the USA and the United Kingdom, which safeguards the freedom and security of its members.
- Another conspiracy theory is that the Swedish military does not expect to find a submarine, and is just looking for an excuse to have its budget increased after the country’s new prime minister promised to cut it.
- In response to the West's economic sanctions against Russia, Putin was keen to remind the West that it is a ‘large nuclear power’.