It’s a disappointing kind of victory, but in the shadow war Russia is waging with its neighbors, Friday’s announcement that the Swedish navy has secured hard evidence that a foreign submarine breached its waters in October is about as good as it gets.
Flanked by Sweden’s prime minister and top defense official, the commander of Swedish armed forces, Sverker Göranson, told a crowd of assembled reporters that an exhaustive analysis of evidence collected during last month’s submarine hunt in the Stockholm archipelago had definitively concluded that a small submarine had in fact violated Swedish sovereignty. He could not, however, confirm the submarine’s nationality, though it is all but certain that the boat was Russian. Moreover, there may have been more than one.
“There is no doubt. All other explanations have been eliminated. Sweden has been subjected to a gross and unacceptable violation by a foreign power,” Göranson said.
In making the determination that it was in fact a submarine that his troopers hunted mere miles from the Swedish capital, Göranson pointed to three key pieces of evidence. First, a close examination of a photograph of the vessel that was taken by a member of the public revealed that its wake was consistent not with a surface craft moving through the water, but with a submarine discharging water from its valves before diving.
According to Göranson, the submarine pictured in the image below was moving at a speed of about one knot and dove shortly after the photograph was taken.
But that image isn’t the most damning piece of evidence in the Swedes’ investigation. Göranson also revealed a sonar image of a submarine track left on the seabed. The image was made after one of the corvettes patrolling the archipelago picked up a signal from the area where the image of the submarine track was later captured.
If that image is a bit difficult to understand, Sweden’s armed forces also released a sketch of the submarine track:
Göranson added that the submarine had also been observed from a height by a resident of the archipelago. Swedish sensors later confirmed that an echo was recorded in that area, and the resident’s observation was corroborated by other members of the public.
While confirming the presence of one submarine, Göranson emphasized that there may have been other underwater vessels present in the Stockholm archipelago. Moreover, Swedish authorities aren’t revealing all the evidence they have collected in an effort to keep their full military capabilities a secret, Göranson said. The newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, which has far and away the best sources inside the Defense Ministry, reports that its military sources say it’s likely a larger submarine, perhaps in the class of 28 to 30 meters, may have assisted another, smaller sub, perhaps 10 meters in size. The paper reports that Spetznas, the Russian special forces, are known to use such tactics and equipment.
The violation of Swedish waters comes on the heels of a series of Russian incursions on its neighbors’ territory, and on Friday Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven issued a stark warning to his country’s adversaries. “Those who are considering entering Swedish territory should be aware of the enormous risks this entails for those who are involved in such violations,” he said at the press conference with Göranson. “We will defend our territorial integrity with all available means.”
In response to the incident, Löfven announced that he will be forming a national security council, charged with coordinating Swedish security policy among its ministries and armed forces. During the Cold War, Sweden investigated such a bureaucratic reshuffling but never took the step, even in the face of repeated Soviet submarine incursions. In public appearances, Swedish generals and parliamentarians active on the issue regularly speak of a completely changed security environment in the Baltic — always in reference to Russian military moves. Federation planes have violated Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland. Russian bombers practiced a bombing run this year on Stockholm. Russia is in open war with Ukraine, even if no one in Europe wants to admit it.
Sweden’s politicians struck a remarkably unified front in response to Friday’s news, with party leaders from the entire political spectrum closing ranks behind Löfven, the newly minted Social Democratic prime minister. At the press conference, Löfven spoke in broad terms of a world in flames, citing the ongoing Ebola epidemic, fighting in Iraq and Syria, the participation of Swedes in that conflict, and Russian intervention in Ukraine.
But it is unclear how much Sweden can do to counteract what is all but certainly Russian military activity on the doorstep of its capital. Sweden’s military has seen its funding plummet in recent years, and the country’s coastline is a notorious haven for submarine warfare. The littorals around Stockholm represent one of the most difficult terrains in the world for spotting submarines. On Friday, Löfven noted Sweden has a coastline as long as the entire east coast of the United States. And even if Swedish politicians decisively increase funding for its military, the effects of that spending are unlikely to be felt for several years. Troops have to be trained. Equipment must be procured, then deployed.
But maybe the best part of this turn in the bizarre story is the reaction in Russia. The paper Rossiyskaya Gazeta argues in a commentary that it was a NATO boat in Stockholm. “But to say that means to admit that the Russians are innocent,” the paper writes, according to a translation by Sweden’s Aftonbladet. “But such a manly step is one the Swedish military is apparently incapable of taking. As a result, Mr. Göranson behaves as if he has water in the mouth.”
Aftonbladet translates the expression “water in the mouth” as: a person who “like a clam” is mute, showing a stubborn silence or unwillingness to speak.
So there it is: A perfect distillation of the nationalist revanchism currently running Russian policy. Every credible defense expert agrees it was a Russian submarine in Swedish waters, but on Friday Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said while visiting the World Chess Championship in Sochi that “we have no information about submarines in waters near Sweden; we concentrate on what we are best at: chess.” A source within the Russian defense ministry told RIA Novosti that it could have been a Dutch boat.
The Russian military does one thing, Russian leaders say the opposite.
Where will it end?