Submarine Hunt Underscores Nordics’ Russia Fears

A submarine search has triggered Sweden’s biggest military mobilization since the Cold War.

The Swedish submarine HMS Södermanland takes part in a memorial ceremony, April 15, 2013
The Swedish submarine HMS Södermanland takes part in a memorial ceremony, April 15, 2013 (Försvarsmakten)

Sweden’s search for what is believed to be a Russian submarine that entered its territorial waters last week underscores the whole Baltic region’s growing security concerns.

The search has triggered Sweden’s biggest military mobilization since the end of the Cold War and rekindled memories of the final years of the standoff between East and West when the neutral Scandinavian country’s navy repeatedly chased Soviet submarines along its coast.

Svenska Dagbladet reported that the hunt for what is assumed to be a submarine began after a radio transmission in Russian was picked up on an emergency frequency.

Russian defense officials told RT, the country’s international broadcaster, that if there was a submarine, it would more likely be Dutch.

A Royal Netherlands Navy submarine did take part in military exercises in the area with Sweden and other Nordic countries but then sailed for Estonia. The Dutch deny their submarine, HMS Bruinvis, is the target of the Swedish search.

If a Russian submarine crossed into Swedish territorial waters, it would fit in a pattern of incursions.

Last month, two Russian warplanes violated Sweden’s airspace. A Russian fighter jet later nearly collided with a Swedish surveillance aircraft when it flew without responders.

Sweden is not the only country in the region to have seen Russian planes breach its borders. Russian nuclear bombers have repeatedly entered Dutch airspace without authorization in recent years. F-16 fighter jets most recently scrambled in August to intercept such a plane. A month later, a similar bomber aircraft came close to violating British airspace over Scotland. It, too, was intercepted by NATO fighters.

Last week, Finland accused the Russians of interfering with an environmental research ship of theirs in international waters.

Countries around the Baltic Sea have become alarmed about Russia’s ambitions since it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March, following a row with the European Union about the bloc’s improving relations with the former Soviet republic and the overthrow of a relatively pro-Russian president in Kiev.

Given Sweden’s military strength in the Baltic Sea region, where it is second only to Russia, The Daily Telegraph‘s Roland Oliphant argues “it would be far from surprising to find a Russian submarine servicing underwater spy equipment, perhaps installed during the Cold War, or possibly shadowing Swedish navy exercises.”

He suggests Russia might even have intended the submarine to be caught.

Sending a submarine to skulk off the Swedish coast may be the Russian navy’s way of keeping up with the air force — and letting the West know that Russia will not be intimidated in this strategically vital sea.

Sweden’s navy is one of the most advanced in the world, its pride being the Visby class corvette: a stealth ship that specializes in anti-submarine warfare. Three are currently in service with two more due to join the Swedish fleet.

But what the Swedes have in technology, they lack in numbers. Elias Groll writes in Foreign Policy, “After spending the 1980s playing cat and mouse with Soviet submarines, the Swedish submarine defense is now a shadow of its former self. Most importantly, the helicopters critical to submarine hunting were phased out in 2008.”

Reversing years of defense spending cuts would be politically sensitive. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s Social Democrats, who came to power just last month, might be in favor but his Green Party coalition partners only reluctantly agreed to the purchase of ten more Saab Gripen aircraft and the acquisition of an additional submarine in government negotiations. Löfven, who doesn’t command a majority in parliament, could look to conservative and liberal opposition parties for support but that would damage his relationship with the Greens.

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