Brent Scowcroft Center Resident Fellow Erik Brattberg cowrites for Foreign Policy on the Russian submarine patroling off the coast of Stockholm:
What first sounded like something straight out of a Tom Clancy novel is turning out to be Moscow’s first serious test of Western resolve since the invasion of Crimea earlier this year. While details are patchy and the situation is still unfolding, three separate credible eyewitness accounts and a photo showing a dark structure descending into the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea seem to confirm the presence of a foreign submarine or mini-sub some 30 miles from Stockholm. If so, this would be a major escalation of tensions in the Baltic Sea region.
Adding to the mystery are other reports of a North Sea-bound Russian container ship sailing under a Liberian flag hovering outside Swedish territorial waters. Defense analysts have speculated that this might be the submarine’s mother ship. In response to these chilling developments, the Swedish military has launched one of its biggest military operations in decades, involving some 200 men, a number of stealth ships, minesweepers, and helicopters to locate the suspected sub and its crew. Sweden has five submarines of its own, down from 12 in the late 1990s.
While the Swedish government has not yet confirmed exactly who is behind this “foreign underwater activity” (as the incident is officially labeled), the obvious suspect is Moscow. If so, this would not be the first time that a Russian submarine has been spotted in Swedish waters. During the heyday of the Cold War in the 1960s to 1980s, the waters off Sweden’s coast were a favorite playground for Soviet submarine activities. The most notorious case was the “Whiskey on rocks incident” in October 1981, when a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine became stranded in Swedish waters near one of the country’s most important naval bases. After a 10-day standoff, the situation was eventually resolved peacefully and the submarine tugged back into international waters, where it was handed over to the Soviet navy.