In 1981, the very year I was born, a whisky-class Soviet submarine ran aground in restricted waters near a Swedish naval base on the Baltic Coast. This event was dubbed “Whisky on the Rocks”, and was one of many known Soviet intrusions on Swedish territory during the Cold War. It was later made public through reports published after the fall of the Soviet Union – 50-odd Soviet operations had taken place in our waters after the end of World War II. Once the submarine was found, the Soviets apologized for what they called “an honest mistake.” While the explanation was accepted as an official matter, we everyday Swedes went back to warily watching our powerful neighbor flex its muscles in apparent provocation.
As the wall came down along with the Soviet Union, Swedish authorities exhaled and saw an opportunity to drastically cut military spending: scrapping compulsory military service, halting ongoing defense programs, and slashing billions off the defense budget, all while claiming that the threat had been removed and the money would be better spent elsewhere. Military personnel went public, blowing the whistle on what they saw as an historic mistake, but politicians took no heed. Or most of them, I should say. In 2007, continued cuts lead to the resignation of Defense Minister Mikael Odenberg of the Conservative Party, who said “I have to be able to look myself in the mirror and defend these cuts to our military personnel. I cannot, and therefore I must resign”.
Roughly 10 days ago I was, along with the rest of Sweden, thrown back 30 years in time. A foreign submarine was spotted in Swedish waters and, within days, the Swedish Navy was said to have had three more sightings. Along with those incidents, various media outlets reported that radio transmissions in Russian had been detected a day before the first sighting and that a distress call from a Russian submarine had been intercepted by Swedish counterintelligence. With that, the search for what was referred to as “foreign underwater activity” was on in full-scale.
At first, I made several jokes on social media about the whole operation. The reports were just too comical: The King had been informed (I dare anyone not to make a meme out of that one) that there were frogmen running lose in the archipelago; the reporters stood on rubber dinghys talking about “mysterious foam.” But then, a few days in, I watched the live broadcast of the military briefing on the operation, and everything suddenly felt way too real.
The military was calling the sightings “extremely reliable” and saying that there was more to be done in order to find these submarines — but saying that they lacked necessary equipment, and were doing all they could with what they had. I — probably like most of my fellow countrymen — was asking myself: What do we do when we find them? With what do we defend ourselves if they attack? For 30 years we have cut more and more out of an already small pie and we are basically left with a white flag and a ’90s answering machine saying “We give up” in four different languages. Russia is in our backyard, in our waters, and what have they come for? Why are they here?
A few days ago, the search for the underwater vessel was called off after an unsuccessful weeklong operation. The military released a statement saying that it was “probable” that Russian submarines had invaded our waters, and that this was unacceptable, but that the search for the submarines in question was now being halted. Again, we were all having ’80s flashbacks; yet another Russian intrusion, yet another failed hunt for Red October.
Sweden is famously (or rather infamously) neutral. The world around us is not, however, and failure to accept that simple fact has left us with a bewildered rock and stick army forced to “do the best they can with what they have.” In a world where Russia has violated Swedish and Finnish airspace, invaded Crimea, and walked all over Estonian sovereignty — all in just a little over a year — that just isn’t good enough. But while deconstructing an army takes little more than a vote, rebuilding it takes generations.
The Kremlin, of course, denied having anything to do with this incident and released a statement saying it was probably the Dutch. As if they aren’t really trying to lie convincingly; as if they know that Sweden is theirs for the taking, a rubber ducky sitting in the fjord.