By Amanda Billner and James G. Neuger
Oct. 21 (Bloomberg) — Is it a submarine? Is it Russian? And what’s it doing off the coast of Sweden?
The swirling nautical whodunit in the Baltic Sea brought back memories of Cold War fact and fiction, fueling the hypothesis among jittery neighbors that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is making more regional trouble.
That is, if the vessel is one of his.
The facts are these: Late last week, Sweden’s navy was tipped off about an underwater intruder near the islands around Stockholm. It’s still searching for the unwelcome “foreign vessel.” Russia pleads not guilty. The rest is mystery.
“What other country could it be?” said James Rogers, a lecturer in European security at the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia. “Russia wishes to assert itself and intimidate countries around it. It wants to achieve recognition that it is a great power in the 19th-century sense. It wants to flex its muscles to make the Western powers listen.”
A stealth infiltration of Swedish territorial waters would fit a Russian pattern that started with Putin’s attack on Georgia in 2008, extended to economic warfare against countries such as Poland and reached an interim climax with the annexation of Crimea and support for eastern Ukraine’s armed separatists this year.
As with the operations in Ukraine, the Kremlin has tended to issue denials of involvement. In this case, the Dutch were to blame, Putin’s spokespeople said. The Dutch, for their part, said their submarine, along with four navy ships, left Stockholm for Estonia on Oct. 16 and is now heading home.
Russian submarines have had a habit of showing up in the wrong places, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design. Submarine hunting became a Swedish hobby during the 1980s, with frequent sightings on the Baltic coast.
The most notorious came in 1981, when a Russian sub known as the U-137 beached itself by Karlskrona in southern Sweden, near a naval base dating back to the 17th century that once projected Sweden’s imperial power in the Baltic.
Russia’s military hit a post-Cold-War low in 2000, when a submarine named after the 1943 tank battle of Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, killing all sailors aboard and denting confidence in the newly elected Putin.
Actual naval disasters — and fictional ones like in “The Hunt for Red October,” Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel — point to sea power as Russia’s weakest military link. While the U.S. has free run of two oceans, Russia’s warm-water outlets are limited mainly to the Baltic and Black seas and the northern Pacific.
“Closely following events in the Swedish territorial waters, may become a game changer of the security in the whole Baltic Sea region,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said on Twitter over the weekend.
The nautical incident tests a minority government that took power in Sweden this month. Determined to steer an independent course on foreign policy, Prime Minister Stefan Loefven used his inaugural speech to announce that Sweden would recognize Palestine as a state, earning an instantaneous rebuke from Israel.
To show where Sweden’s interests lie, Loefven is touring Baltic capitals. In Vilnius, Lithuania, today, Loefven said he is “fully behind” European sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and called for a buildup of Sweden’s military capacity.
Sweden occupied a hybrid position during the Cold War, and still does. Like neighboring Finland it isn’t part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, technically looking after its own security.
As a member of the European Union, however, Sweden is bound into western defense arrangements. It maintains close ties with the three Baltic countries — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — that as NATO members are counting on the U.S.-led alliance to shield them from Russia.
Lithuania put out its own conspiracy theory, noting that the submarine caper coincides with the transit through the Baltic of a vessel carrying liquefied natural gas to its port at Klaipeda. Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said on Twitter that the “lost” submarine was a “weird coincidence.”
Meanwhile, in the normally recreational seas off Stockholm, the usual cast of fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries was joined by more than 200 Swedish sailors and airmen hunting for the underwater gate-crasher.
The latest sounding: a foreign intrusion of Swedish territory “is likely,” Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces Sverker Goeransson told reporters today. That, he said, is a “plain and simple disgrace.”
–With assistance from Niklas Magnusson in Stockholm and Corina Ruhe in Amsterdam.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.