This week the Swedish navy has gone on full alert – looking for a Russian submarine. After sightings of a strange shape in waters near Stockholm, numerous ships have been combing the area searching for the vessel. Swedish suspicions have been strengthened by the fact that they allegedly overheard distress signals in Russian from somewhere in the area, followed by encoded messages from Russian’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. It’s another sign of tensions between Russia and the West, seeing as the exact same thing happened numerous times back in the Cold War. So what went on then? And is Russian now stepping up a ‘bad-neighbour’ policy?
The most serious and bizarre of the ‘Swedish submarine incidents’ was in 1981, when a Soviet submarine actually got stuck on rocks in Swedish waters, just 10 km from a Swedish naval base. The situation led to a stand off between Sweden and the Soviet Union, with the Whiskey-class submarine (giving the incident the fantastic name of Whiskey on the Rocks) surrounded by Swedish forces. The Soviet Union said the submarine had ‘accidentally’ sailed through miles of narrow waters and had innocently gotten stuck, and sent their own navy to the area. The standoff finally ended after ten days, with the submarine being towed back to international waters, but over the next six or so years there were numerous submarine sightings and hunts. It’s still not clear which of those were actual incidents, or even whether some of them were NATO submarines.
The incident this last week has brought back all these bad memories of Russian threats and deep suspicion. As Sweden is not a member of NATO, it has historically been more vulnerable to pressure from its Eastern neighbour, and like Finland it treads carefully when it comes to relations with Russia. But even countries like Estonia, ‘safely’ in NATO, have been made to feel vulnerable. Recently an Estonian security agent investigating smuggling was kidnapped by Russian security forces on the Estonian side of the border, dragged across to Russia and is now to be put on trial for allegedly violating Russia’s sovereignty.
All of this, including the war in Eastern Ukraine, is part of Russia’s pushback against NATO. The way Putin sees it, NATO has pushed into Russia’s sphere of influence, and he wants to show his neighbours that Russia is still a threat. While this is in many ways understandable, the form this pushback takes isn’t always Cold War style spy games. Since Russia began its proxy war in the East of Ukraine in April, almost 3500 Ukrainians have died.
This is a region that hasn’t seen war since the 1940’s. No one could ever have wanted this. While much of the region was mired in poverty and the ruins of industry, Donetsk was taking steps forward. Now all of that has been destroyed. Yesterday I saw photos of the small city museum that I regularly went to as a child, mainly to see the stuffed moose and wild boar in the wildlife room, and to play on the old tank parked as a memorial outside. Now real tanks are rolling around, and the museum has been destroyed by artillery. The wildlife room has completely collapsed around those animals. Other exhibits lie shattered in their cases, exposed to the open air through the torn away roof. This is the cost of Putin’s attempt to force back NATO – it might be submarines in Sweden, but it’s death and pointless destruction in Ukraine.