By Amanda Billner
Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) — Sweden said it’s responding to a new security situation and won’t tolerate breaches as the navy tries to confirm whether an underwater vessel steered by a foreign power entered its waters.
“We have a different political security situation in the Baltic now, which means we react more quickly and more clearly state that we don’t accept this,” Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad, deputy chief of operations at the Swedish Armed Forces, said yesterday in an interview after a press conference in Stockholm.
The development, which Swedish media have reported may be a damaged Russian submarine, is the latest to remind the region of Cold War operations. Neighboring Finland said in August it had suffered multiple airspace violations by Russian planes. The complaint was echoed by the Baltic nations which, unlike Sweden and Finland, are NATO members.
Sweden is continuing with full-strength operations in the Stockholm archipelago, Grenstad said yesterday. The navy deems it “probable” that there’s foreign activity below the surface after three sightings since Oct. 17, he said. The alert is the second-highest level on the armed forces’ assessment scale and operations will continue at least until tomorrow, he said.
The search is reminiscent of the 1980s, when Sweden conducted frequent submarine hunts along its Baltic coast and Russian submarine U-137 in 1981 even ran aground in a military zone near the southern town of Karlskrona. The heightened alert comes amid a backdrop of rising tensions between Europe and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
The “intelligence operation” in the archipelago involves more than 200 personnel on corvettes, minesweepers, and helicopters. It started Oct. 17 after sightings of underwater vessels by private individuals. They added to a pattern of reports of underwater vessels in the same area since 2000, Grenstad said. The army also released a picture of the intrusion yesterday.
“If we verify the underwater presence of a foreign power, we will then need to figure out how we can make this stop,” he said. “It’s not about sinking a submarine, it’s more about establishing that this is going on.”
Sweden’s government said earlier this year it wants to raise defense spending, adding 10 more Jas 39E fighter jets in a move that would bring its fleet to 70. It also wants to buy two more submarines and refurbish other vessels and push forward a plan to buy medium-range anti-aircraft artillery.
Newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported over the weekend that Sweden had intercepted communications from a damaged Russian submarine in Swedish waters. Grenstad said the armed forces had no such information.
Russian Navy warships and submarines haven’t been involved in any incidents, Interfax reported yesterday, citing an unidentified spokesman at Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Sweden’s new Prime Minister Stefan Loefven said after meeting his Finnish counterpart Alexander Stubb in Helsinki today that while the two Nordic countries must strengthen their readiness and cooperation to address increased Russian activity in the Baltic Sea, it’s “hypothetical” to assume that the potential underwater vessel in Swedish waters is Russian.
“We don’t know exactly if there is something,” Loefven said. “We can’t speak of a submarine chase. It makes no sense to speculate what it could be.”
Stubb said Finland and Sweden, whose armed forces already collaborate and are targeting a broader exchange of services such as radar information in the future, have “a joint understanding about the security situation of the Baltic Sea” and that they “shall continue cooperation in this area.”
Allan Widman, member of parliament for Sweden’s Liberal Party and chairman of the defense committee in parliament, said in a phone interview today that Sweden would need to expand its defense budget if the armed forces find proof of foreign underwater activity. That would be a “new phenomenon” that means Sweden would need to improve sea deployability, he said.
While Sweden has ordered new helicopters, submarines and fighter jets for the years after 2018, the country now needs “to think about resources that will strengthen our ability in the near future,” Widman said. “We are in a loop of a quickly worsening situation in the world around us, with increased pressure on Sweden and Swedish territory,” he said.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.