The captain said his submarine had suffered navigation problems. The Russian navy, however, said their submarine had strayed into Swedish waters following severe distress. In October of 1981, Sweden woke up to a Whiskey-class Russian submarine perched on their coast a mere six miles from one of their largest naval bases.
The submarine was heavily armed with nuclear warheads and had never sent out a distress signal. Nor had it fallen victim to the surrounding treacherous underwater terrain. Instead, it had been lurking in the grey Baltic sea during Swedish tests of new naval technology.
This isn’t the opening to a Cold War thriller. Rather, “Whiskey on the Rocks” is an early example of Russia and Sweden’s strained relationship when it comes to unexpected breaches of territory.
The Cold War may be behind us, but these incursions are far from over. Tensions were revived in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. This was the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine. A blatant move of aggression by Russia, it was synchronized with territorial incursions in Sweden similar to those during the Cold War.
In 2014 the Swedish Navy spent several days hunting for a Russian submarine outside the military base Korsö, an island in the fringes of Stockholm’s archipelago. In August and September the same year, Russia threatened a Finish research vessel with Swedish scientists aboard. Later that year, NATO followed Russian jets over the Swedish island of Öland after the Russian aircraft had crossed into Swedish airspace.
As a sign of things to come, in 2013 when the Swedish military was training with western allies, the Kremlin sent two Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers and four Sukhoi 2u-27 escort jets over the Gulf of Finland and towards Sweden. They came within forty kilometres of the Swedish coast and only turned after performing what NATO experts believed to be a mock nuclear strike.
Finland, Latvia, and Estonia have reported similar encounters with Russian aircraft.
An increasingly assertive Russia in combination with Crimea’s annexation has left traditionally neutral Sweden nervous. As recently as this year, Russia held their Zapad-17 exercises in Belarus, right on the doorstep of the Baltic States and Scandinavia. The purpose of the exercise, which involved one hundred thousand troops, was to practice repelling “the Western coalition.” The EU and NATO were the likely targets of this exercise; Russia has seen Western expansion into Eastern Europe via the European Union as a threat and hoped to send a signal.
The last war Sweden fought was over 200 years ago and as a result, military spending has fallen to the wayside. In 2013, it was a mere 1.2 percent of GDP. Much of their air defence comes from NATO’s Baltic Air Policing operation where Danish F-16 fighter jets are often scrambled to fend off snooping Russian aircraft.
There are many reasons why Russia is increasingly present in the Baltics and Scandinavia. The timing of the assertiveness, both before and after the annexation of Crimea, certainly sends a signal. It tells the story of a Russia trying to stand up to the West on several fronts. To understand the aggression, it is important to objectively examine the situation in Russia. For the last quarter of a century during Russia’s swing towards capitalism, Putin has witnessed Russia’s influence wane. The expansion of NATO into former Soviet nations as well as NATO’s involvement in the Balkans have put pressure on Russian power. Similarly, foreign-backed NGOs’ attempts to push Russia towards adopting Western concepts like democracy and human rights have made Putin re-examine his grip on power. For Putin, the West, via NATO and the EU, borders uncomfortably close to Russia. This proximity is one of the key reasons Ukraine will likely never join the EU. It would be far too provocative for Russia who, as a country, have a long and negative relationship of encirclement.
The proximity of the EU and NATO is already a threat to Russia; it’s a sign of waning influence in Eastern and Northern Europe. Therefore, increased Scandinavian, but mainly Baltic, closeness with Western alliances and unions is therefore taken as provocative by the Russians. The mock nuclear strike occurred during a NATO exercise in Sweden (a clear example of growing closeness) and sent a clear message of disapproval.
The aggressiveness is also a classic Cold War technique of intimidation in order to test military readiness. By flying close to borders and over territories, Russia triggers alarms and can observe response times. They can also learn more about the defence systems in place, and thus how to exploit them.
Despite being officially neutral, there is little doubt Sweden identifies more with the West than with the Russians. As a nation, they have been openly critical of Russian actions. For example, Carl Bildt—Sweden’s Prime Minister between 1991 and 1994 and Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2006 to 2014—took an activist foreign policy against Russia. Few will dispute that had war broken out during the Cold War, Sweden would have sided with NATO.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 elevated Russia from a nuisance to a serious threat. Russia had shown it could march into a country with few repercussions, and that worried Swedish politicians and the general public. The Hultqvist Doctrine, named after the Minister of Defence who coined it in 2017, is a series of measures designed to bolster Sweden’s military standing in response Russian aggression. This summer the Swedish government announced it would add SEK 8 Billion ($1 billion) to its military budget through 2020. Moreover, in October this year the Civil Contingencies Agency—a subset of the Ministry of Defence tasked with civil defence and emergency management—requested SEK 3 Billion ($360 million) to upgrade existing and build new emergency bunkers. This ramping up of defenses tells the tale of a Sweden legitimately worried about Russian invasion, or at the very least a government trying to address the public’s fears.
Another move demonstrating Sweden’s insecurity, yet determination to show resistance, is its restoration of a garrison on Gotland, a tactical island between the Baltic states and the Swedish mainland. Gotland is a mere 350 kilometers from Kalingrad, Russia’s outpost in the Baltic.
A major announcement in March this year was the reintroduction of the mandatory year of military service after leaving high school. The move, backed by Sweden’s parliament, was fuelled by Russia’s military drills in the Baltic and Crimea’s annexation. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence cited both, saying “the Russian illegal annexation of Crimea [in 2014], the conflict in Ukraine and the increased military activity in our neighbourhood are some of the reasons.”
Unfortunately for Putin, Russia’s aggression, rather than ply Scandinavia into submission, has made the Nordic nations even closer to the US. In 2016, Obama hosted all Nordic nations at the US-Nordic Nations Summit where Russian aggression was a key topic. The leaders left the summit with a joint statement of condemnation of Russia and a US-Sweden-Finland pact to extend existing defence cooperation in the Baltic region. The statement expressed concern at “Russia’s growing military presence in the Baltic sea region,” especially with Russia’s “nuclear posturing, undeclared exercises, and provocative actions.”
In response to these undeclared exercises, this past September Sweden hosted the Aurora-17 “war games” with NATO while Russia held maneuvers in Belarus. It involved nineteen thousand soldiers from Sweden and an additional 1,500 from Finland, Estonia Latvia, Lithuania, France, Norway, and the US. All participants apart from Finland and Sweden are NATO members. It was clear act of defiance against the Russians designed to “deter potential attackers, and force them to carefully consider the risks of attacking our country." It was the biggest exercise Sweden has hosted in twenty-three years and took place over nineteen days. The willingness of Sweden to host these “war games” is also a sign of further closeness with NATO. Public opinion is also shifting in favour of NATO membership; a Pew Research Poll revealed that more Swedes support membership than don’t.
Currently, NATO has a host country agreement with Sweden and Finland. While this gives NATO access to facilities, it’s not guaranteed. New members in the region would allow NATO guaranteed access to ground and airspace and would greater integrate the command-and-control systems. This is important for NATO and worrying for Russia because it would make the alliance more effective in battle.
Putin has himself to blame for drawing NATO closer still to his doorstep. He failed to foresee that Scandinavian countries would not be bullied into submission, and this has made NATO membership a realistic option for Sweden.
Carl Sacklen is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. Opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.