Surprise! That Russian Submarine in Stockholm Got Away From the Swedish Navy

After spending a week scouring the waters off Stockholm for a reportedly Russian submarine, the Swedish Navy has given up. On Friday, the country’s military reported that the vessel (or vessels) in question have left the Stockholm archipelago and that the intelligence operation, as military officials had insisted on calling it, would be coming to ...

ANDERS WIKLUND/AFP/Getty Images
ANDERS WIKLUND/AFP/Getty Images
ANDERS WIKLUND/AFP/Getty Images

After spending a week scouring the waters off Stockholm for a reportedly Russian submarine, the Swedish Navy has given up. On Friday, the country's military reported that the vessel (or vessels) in question have left the Stockholm archipelago and that the intelligence operation, as military officials had insisted on calling it, would be coming to an end.

It's a frustrating end to what has been a fascinating story. During the last week, Swedish vessels have searched in futility for a Russian submarine while sightings of the submarine have streamed in from the public. According to the Swedish military, there have been five credible sightings, all made by the public. It is all but certain that Swedish military intelligence have made their own observations, but officials have so far made no public comments about what Swedish sonar and other sensors have picked up underwater.

In announcing the search's end, however, Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad said that the military had ruled out the presence of a large, more ordinary-sized submarine. The vessel, he said, had been spotted in area too shallow for a larger vessel to operate in, indicating that the submarine in question is of a smaller variety.  

After spending a week scouring the waters off Stockholm for a reportedly Russian submarine, the Swedish Navy has given up. On Friday, the country’s military reported that the vessel (or vessels) in question have left the Stockholm archipelago and that the intelligence operation, as military officials had insisted on calling it, would be coming to an end.

It’s a frustrating end to what has been a fascinating story. During the last week, Swedish vessels have searched in futility for a Russian submarine while sightings of the submarine have streamed in from the public. According to the Swedish military, there have been five credible sightings, all made by the public. It is all but certain that Swedish military intelligence have made their own observations, but officials have so far made no public comments about what Swedish sonar and other sensors have picked up underwater.

In announcing the search’s end, however, Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad said that the military had ruled out the presence of a large, more ordinary-sized submarine. The vessel, he said, had been spotted in area too shallow for a larger vessel to operate in, indicating that the submarine in question is of a smaller variety.  

"We say with confidence that this is not a larger, conventional submarine," Grenstad said. "Other alternatives will now be evaluated based on the considerable sensor and and analytic data that is available."

In launching the operation, the Swedish military said that its primary goal was to determine what had violated the country’s territorial waters. Its objective was not to destroy its opponent — though commanders said their ships were authorized to use lethal force if necessary — but to learn more about it. Because they were operating in a highly populated and heavily trafficked area, the Swedish military conducted the operation with a remarkable degree of transparency.

In carrying out that operation, the military has, at least according to its statements, been heavily reliant on the public’s help. What evidence the Swedish military has collected on the submarine remains unknown, but it is all but certain that its military intelligence units know more than Grenstad is publicly letting on. On Friday, he said that Swedish forces had been able to follow the mystery vessel "through the public’s and our own observations," one of his most concrete comments to date about whether Swedish defense systems have spotted the sub.

Regardless, it’s an anticlimactic end to what has been a captivating and often bizarre story. A fishing pensioner was confused for a Russian spy. The commander of the Swedish military called the incursion "fucked up." And the country’s decommissioned anti-submarine warfare helicopters turned out to have been stashed away in a museum.

Then again, the operation’s anticlimactic conclusion should come as no surprise. During the 1980s, the Swedish navy engaged in a decade-long cat and mouse game with the Soviet military, which repeatedly sent underwater vessels and divers into Swedish waters. Over the course of a decade and hundreds of Soviet missions, the Swedish military failed to surface or destroy a single one of those submarines. The Swedish military captured just one Soviet submarine — and only because it ran aground.

Having seen its resources and funding rapidly dwindle, it’s no surprise that today’s Swedish military failed in the same way as its better-equipped Cold War counterpart.

During the Cold War, especially in the 1980s, the Soviet navy carried out a series of aggressive submarine operations in Sweden’s coastal waters. Those operations primarily targeted Swedish military operations and appeared to focus on gathering intelligence about its naval and intelligence infrastructure. The Soviets used a variety of tools to infiltrate Swedish defenses, including miniature submarines, combat divers, and tracked vehicles that could travel along the ocean floor.

The Soviet calculation appears to have been mostly military. Then, as now, Sweden was ostensibly neutral, but its military posture remained friendly toward the West and NATO. In the event of an all-out war between the Soviet Union and the West, Moscow’s military planners doubted that Sweden would remain neutral. As a result, Swedish naval installations along the Baltic became objects of enormous intelligence value.

Sweden tried and mostly failed to fend off these incursions. The Swedish navy went so far as to use depth charges in its coastal waters, but the Soviet subs kept coming. These incursions dropped off with the end of the Cold War, but with Russia’s newly aggressive military posture toward the West, particularly against countries that during the Cold War served as a buffer between mother Russia and NATO, it should come as no surprise that Moscow’s underwater adventures in the Stockholm archipelago have also made a comeback.

So don’t expect the Swedes to be catching submarines any time soon.     

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

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