What Was a Russian Sub (Possibly) Doing in Swedish Waters?

The Cold War came roaring back last week, albeit briefly. To recap: On October 16th the Swedish military intercepted a distress signal being transmitted to the Russian city of Kaliningrad. Sweden determined, based on other reports, that there was potentially a submerged object or vessel inside its territorial waters just west of the island of Uto, which is about 60-70 kilometers south of Stockholm. Russia, of course, has denied that anything belonging to them is in the area. However, their track record on denying things is not so good of late.

For those sailors stuck on board, living in what equates to a closet without electricity or WiFi, the basic story is filled with uncertainty. It may also represent another signal from Moscow regarding its intentions, with great implications for the West as a wake-up call from its “navy holiday.” The incident reminded me of the lyrics of Randy Newmans Mama Told Me Not to Come:


Want some whiskey in your water? Sugar in your tea?
Whats all these crazy questions youre askin me?
This is the craziest party that could ever be
Dont turn on the lights cause I dont wanna see,


I am sure the skipper of whatever submarine was, or may have been, trapped in Swedish coastal waters was thinking along the lines of this famous song.


Cold War History Redux

In any case, this weekend the Swedes called off the search. Reportedly the object was not found. Old songs are not the only thing from yesteryear brought to mind by the brouhaha.  “Want some whiskey in your water?,” is precisely what happened so many years ago during the last decade of the Cold War when a Soviet Whiskey-class diesel submarine tried this stunt in the water off of neutral Sweden. In fact, during the 1970s and 1980s the Swedes and Soviets played an ongoing game of cat and mouse as the ever more aggressive Soviet Red Banner Fleet under Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov practiced submarine infiltration in the vicinity of the major Swedish naval base at Karlskrona.

In Moscow, the old ways die hardIt is far more likely that the Russian Navy is going back to its old Soviet-era bag of tricks. This should give the West reason for pause.

Most famous was the Whiskey-class submarine S-363 (also dubbed U-137), which ran aground on the rocks near the shore of the Swedish coast becoming infamous as the “whiskey on the rocks” incident in October 1981.  This faux pas occurred just as the Cold War was heating up again under the new American President Ronald Reagan.

To the horror of the neutral Swedes, the offending submarine had nuclear-tipped torpedoes, which came at a very bad time for the Soviet Union when it was accusing the United States and NATO of nuclear provocation as the alliance began the deployment of short-ranged nuclear weapons to Western Europe such as ground-launched cruise missiles and the ballistic Pershing systems.

So this is nothing new. Neither is Russia’s reaction. One might posit that Vladimir Putin assumes Americans—and Swedes for that matter—do not read their history.  But the real take away here is what this indicates about Russian intentions and motivations. In the Soviet era these sorts of moves suggested an expanding and confident government, willing to use naval power to control, coerce, and leverage the advantages of the sea.  Clearly the Russians today see the Swedish Navy as a threat.  But why?


The High Stakes of Anti-Submarine Warfare

It might mean they are testing the waters, just as Sergei Gorshkov did all those years ago, to further a program aimed at expanding Russian influence in the Baltic and intimidating neighbors. During the Cold War, they realized that they had to “fight” through a layered defense composed of NATO and its maritime partners to get access to the areas of most concern, in this case the Atlantic and the fjords of Norway that the U.S. was planning on using to “terrain mask” its naval forces for its maritime strategy against the Soviet seaward flanks.

Or not.  If the object really was not a Russian submarine, then we can all go back to what we were doing prior to this surreal moment in the news cycle. But if it was, we should not.  In the case of the Russians, all too often the old mutual fund caveat, “past performance is no indicator of future trends,” is usually wrong. In Moscow, old ways die hard, especially when, as is the case with Vladimir Putin, one’s heroes are guys like Josef Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria. It is far more likely that the Russian Navy is going back to its old Soviet-era bag of tricks.

This should give the West reason for pause. Anti-submarine warfare is very difficult, slow, and often leads to exhaustion and tedium.  But that is war at sea in a nutshell.  As Randy Newman asked, “Want some whiskey with your water?” If not, and surely we do not if that means Russian subs, then this story is a wake-up call for that part of the so-called “navy holiday,” from strategic importance, at least as regards hunting submarines.


[Photo: Flickr CC: Mikhail Kamarov]



Commander (Ret.) John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Chair for Historical Research at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He served previously as a naval flight officer in EP-3s and ES-3s. His publications include A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century and Agents of Innovation.


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