As the frenzied, fruitless search by the Swedish Navy continues for what is believed to be a Russian submarine lurking among the scattered islands of Stockholm’s archipelago, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a news story from 1985 and that Europe was reliving the Cold War. While experts predict that if Russia and NATO become even more adversarial toward each other, such a scenario could be on the horizon, they also say that the presence of a Russian submarine in Swedish waters would not be hostile but rather a political response to Sweden and Finland’s new relationship with NATO.
“If you look at this from a Russian perspective, they see themselves increasingly circled and pressured by NATO,” said Peter Roberts, senior research fellow in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. “Finland and Sweden's new special relationship with NATO could force Russia down the Cold War route, but we’re not there just yet.” Earlier this year, both nations, formally neutral, signed an agreement whereby they will enjoy closer cooperation with the U.S.-led alliance.
Sweden woke up to the news Saturday that an unidentified vessel was operating just outside the Stockholm archipelago, a place normally reserved for the summer vacations of Sweden’s elite. Initial reports suggested that the vessel was a Russian submarine of some sort and that it might have sent out a mayday distress call, conjuring memories of the Kursk disaster in 2000, when a Russian submarine sank in the Barents Sea with the loss of the entire 118-man crew.
How exactly the Russian submarine ended up in the Baltic Sea has to do with the Russian enclave on that body of water, Kaliningrad, which is the only access to the Baltic Sea that Russia has kept after the USSR split up. The enclave is home to an air base and to the Baltic fleet of the Russian Navy. The submarine, if it is indeed a Russian submarine, almost certainly came from there.
Since the alert began, Sweden has sent out patrol boats to counter what it interpreted as a serious threat. The Russians, on the other hand, alleged that it was a Dutch submarine that was operating around the archipelago, but the Dutch denied this.
According to Roberts, it would have been more surprising if Russia had not made forays into the Baltic Sea. “The fact that they have made the move really just underlines the fact that they have a capability and they want everyone to know that,” he said.
Last year, six Russian military aircraft, including four bombers, carried out a simulated missile attack on Stockholm and southern Sweden. The mission took the Swedish military by such surprise that the country's Gripen fighter jets didn’t even take off.
Since Russia invaded Crimea earlier this year, it has repeatedly entered into airborne confrontations with other countries, most recently probing Swedish and Danish airspace on Wednesday. Russian airplanes also were intercepted close to British, Dutch, U.S., Canadian, Latvian and Estonian airspace, in actions reminiscent of the Cold War, when NATO air forces routinely intercepted Soviet planes coming close to their territories.
But the Cold War was a 50-year confrontation that required vast amounts of manpower and resources. Russia may not have them. “I don’t think Russia wants any sort of Cold War, and I don’t think its military can sustain this level of effort under its current budget,” said Roberts.
The term "cold war" also has different meanings in different political or military circles, said Kim Holmes, a distinguished fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, who previously served on the U.S. Defense Policy Board and was an assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under George W. Bush.
“The Cold War is sort of a loaded metaphor,” said Holmes. “There are patterns that are not unlike what happened during the Cold War, such as Russian submarines operating in Swedish waters.” According to the former diplomat, the goal is to “frighten some people inside the EU and the U.S. to lobby for a softer policy toward Russia. It’s an old tried and true strategy that comes from the Cold War era.”