The 'Russian Submarine' in Swedish Waters Isn't the Only Unwelcome Visitor in the Baltic Sea

HMS Kullen
Swedish minesweeper HMS Kullen patrols the Stockholm Archipelago October 19 2014, searching for what the military says is a foreign threat in the waters. Reuters

Last week Sweden received a decidedly unwelcome visitor. Following a Russian-language phone call between the Stockholm archipelago and the Russian city of Kaliningrad, intercepted by Sweden's FRA signals intelligence agency, the Swedish military discovered what it believes was a Russian submarine just outside Stockholm. Though Russia denied any submarine presence in the Stockholm archipelago, this time the Swedish military reacted swiftly, quickly dispatching a large naval vessel and several helicopters.

Sweden has learnt from experience: on Good Friday last year, six Russian military planes – including four heavy bombers – carried out a simulated missile attack on Stockholm and southern Sweden. The incident, which became known as the Russian Easter, took the Swedish military by such surprise that its Gripen fighter jets didn't manage to take off. "What's happening in the Stockholm archipelago is a serious matter," says Karin Enström, who was Sweden's defence minister until the elections this autumn.

"Russia is modernising its military equipment and testing it, but there are also more military exercises. It's a sign of Russia increasing its -military capabilities, both when it comes to equipment and fighting abilities. These developments in combination with the war in Ukraine are very serious and alarming. Ukraine is impacting on our part of the world very negatively."

While the world is watching Ukraine, Russia is engaging in a much more important power game here in the Baltic Sea region. The figures are startling. In 2010, only one Russian military vessel was spotted close to Latvian waters. This year, the figure has already exceeded 40, Latvia's ministry of defence says. During the same period, the number of Russian military approaches to Latvian airspace resulting in scrambles by Nato's Baltic air policing mission has skyrocketed from around five to more than 180. Neighbouring Lithuania has already seen 132 scrambles this year, up from four in 2010. Estonia, meanwhile, is seeing not just unwelcome approaches to its airspace and waters but also the abduction of one of its intelligence officers to Russia.

Then there is the smaller number of violations of neighbours' airspace and waters. In 2010, there were no Russian violations of Finnish airspace. This year, the Finnish ministry of defence figures show, there have already been five. "What are intentions of [these activities]?" asks Major General Jonas Vytautas Zukas, Lithuania's Chief of Defence. "We can only speculate. From my point of view, it can be a show of military power as part of an information operation or the test of preparedness of the Nato air force."

At the same time, Russia is engaging in information warfare against its small neighbours to the West. According to Latvia's foreign ministry, Russian-affiliated outlets assert that Latvia's integration into the Western hemisphere was a geopolitical mistake; that the country has always been a part of Russia; that the country discriminates against ethnic minorities including its 26% share of Russians; and that Latvia supports Nazism.

Indeed, the consensus among Russia's small neighbours in the wealthy and crucial trading region around the Baltic Sea is that the mighty former superpower in the East is either trying to bully them, or to test their defence, or both.

"It's partly big-power arrogance," says Colonel Jan Mörtberg of the Swedish Defence College. "Or it can be contingency planning for a conflict in the Baltic Sea, or they're trying to make us spend more money on preparedness. Military preparedness is expensive, but you have to respond to provocations. That means we'll have less money to spend on other military matters."

Last week's submarine discovery forms an ominous sequel to the infamous "whisky on the rocks" incident in 1981, when a Soviet submarine went aground in Swedish waters.

Indeed, notes Mörtberg, during the Cold War the Soviet Union gave Sweden and Finland plenty of ominous attention as well. "But in those days it didn't have to restore its superpower -status. That status was clear. That is what is different now."

The Russia now apparently sending a submarine to Stockholm is a country that's rapidly growing its defence budget and upgrading its military equipment. "Russia is trying to position itself as a -dominant centre of power on the global stage", notes a high-ranking Latvian official. "Its ambitions are not limited to Ukraine."

Though enrolment in the Lithuanian -Riflemen's Union – a civil defence organisation – has skyrocketed in recent months and Lithuanian MEP Gabrielius Landsbergis reports that his countrymen would willingly take action if green men materialised in their streets, nobody believes that Russia plans Ukraine-style military actions in the Baltic states, Sweden or Finland. Its more likely objective, especially with the US preoccupied elsewhere, is instead local -decision-making based on fear of Vladimir Putin.

"Today Russian provocations are on the minds of decision-makers in the region when they make their decisions," notes Pauli Järvenpää, a Finnish security expert and former ambassador now based in Tallinn.

"In Finland, 60% of people now consider Russia a threat, compared to 30% at the beginning of the year." Putin's goal, argues Mörtberg, may be to ensure that neither Sweden nor Finland joins Nato. Indeed, three distinguished Swedish diplomats recently argued that Swedish membership of Nato would needlessly provoke -Russia. "If things get worse we'll ask for more Nato involvement," vows Landsbergis. Nato is, of course, already conducting air policing missions in the Baltic states.

Subjugated neighbours or neighbours turning to Nato for help: both scenarios are alarming. After year of dismantling its military, Sweden has woken up to the threat. "We [Sweden] need to strengthen our defence and be more present in the air, on water and underneath the water and we have to be prepared to use our military capabilities," says Enström.

Lithuania is already taking action. "In view of the current security situation in the region the Lithuanian armed forces are looking to summon up certain capabilities and form a very high national readiness response force that can react within two–24 hours and have sufficient combat capacity to prevent hostile actions within the territory of Lithuania in peacetime," reports Zukas. The force will consist of ground troops, air force and special forces.

Tiny Lithuania, in other words, is planning to fight back. And Sweden? It's vowing not to let the intruder get away this time.