The Swedish military is looking for a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea, according to local media reports. If the reports are true, the incident would be the latest in a string of increasingly aggressive incursions by the Russians.
The Försvarets radioanstalt—Sweden’s counterpart to the American National Security Agency—picked up a radio message in Russian the day before, SvD said, citing unnamed sources.
And the transmission went out on a frequency usually reserved for distress signals. Now, Stockholm has approximately 200 personnel in the area conducting an intensive search.
The “counter-intelligence operation” will “continue until we consider that we are done,” Jesper Tengroth, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Defense told the TT news agency. Swedish officials have refused to confirm or deny they are looking for a Russian sub—stricken or otherwise.
However, the search force does include one’s of the Swedish navy’s newest ships—HSwMS Visby—as well as other vessels, helicopters and aircraft. Visby-class ships have powerful sonars and deadly anti-submarine weapons including torpedoes and depth charges.
The Scandinavian nation’s small navy also includes a number of Gotland-class submarines. These undersea boats are among the most advanced in the world and could help with the current mission.
For its part, the Kremlin has insisted that “no extraordinary, let alone emergency situations have happened to Russian military vessels,” according to the RT network. We could not verify rumors of ships racing to the rescue, including the deep sea survey vessel R/V Logachev.
But the “Swedes would not be making such an effort if they didn’t think something was going on,” explains Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and the author of the U.S. Naval Institute’s authoritative Combat Fleets of the World. And Moscow does have a records of similar provocations in the Baltic—and an unfortunate history of submarine accidents.
As the crisis in Ukraine simmers, Russia has stepped up military activities along its European boundaries. NATO and the European Union both accuse Moscow of aiding separatist rebels who have been fighting Kiev for almost a year now.
The North Atlantic organization has responded by sending warplanes and troops to the Alliance’s eastern borders. The E.U. has also hit Russia with economic sanctions.
Increasing isolation seems to have only provoked Moscow. “The Kremlin has already sent its aircraft to spy on Western maritime exercises in the Baltic and its surface warships to shadow them closely,” according to Iain Ballantyne, author of Hunter Killers, a book about Royal Navy submariners.
Two Russian Su-24 fighter-bombers briefly violated Swedish airspace in September and warplanes have also been harassing neighboring Finland. On top of that, Moscow’s interceptors recently forced an American spy plane out of the Baltic and over Swedish territory.
“So why not submarines to keep an eye on the Swedes or NATO?” asks Ballantyne, who is also the editor of Warships International Fleet Review magazine and intermittent War Is Boring contributor. Russia could readily send out submarines from naval bases in the Kaliningrad enclave.
“One of the most important roles of submarines is intelligence collection,” Wertheim points out.
Plus, “there is an eerie parallel here with … the so-called ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ episode,” according to Ballantyne.
In 1981, the Soviet Whiskey-class submarine S-363 ran aground while apparently spying on the Swedish naval base at Karlskrona. The accident quickly turned into an armed standoff, but the Swedes eventually freed the Soviet sub and escorted her back out into international waters.
The Stockholm Archipelago is also difficult to navigate and another Russian submarine could easily have damaged itself trying to get close. Moscow’s submarine force has suffered a number of high-profile accidents since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In 2000, a fire and subsequent explosions sunk the missile sub Kursk, killing all 118 submariners on board. Eight years later, another fire on Nerpa—an attack submarine now serving in the Indian navy—killed 20 people and injured more than 40 others.
“A new generation of diesel boats is … being built at St. Petersburg at the top end of the Baltic,” Ballantyne says. “Could one of these be on sea trials and have gotten into trouble?”
Of course, whatever prompted the current Swedish investigation could also be a “false positive,” Wertheim explains. The disappearance of a Malaysia Air flight in the Pacific earlier this year showed that finding an object under the waves, even a large one, can be a difficult proposition.
Swedish authorities might also know more than they’re letting on, but want to protect their sources and methods too. Stockholm would want to keep close any details about coastal defenses and intelligence-sharing.
Regardless, “it would be negligent of the Swedes not to investigate this,” Wertheim says.
“This really is an extraordinary case of Cold War rewind, plunging Sweden right back into a nightmare it thought it had left far behind,” adds Ballantyne.