Nearly a week after a potential Russian submarine was spotted in the Stockholm Archipelago, the Swedish authorities are calling off their search, ending a saga in which the Scandinavian country’s anxieties towards Russia were clearly on display.
It’s not that the Swedes were chasing something that wasn’t there. Throughout the effort, Swedish military officials expressed utter certainty that a foreign vessel had violated its territorial waters, with the country’s top military commander going as far as to call the situation “f–ed up.”
The search’s inevitably fruitless conclusion owes more to the simple fact that locating and capturing an enemy submarine is one of the most difficult battlefield feats of all. Sweden predictably came up empty-handed. But the incident is significant even in spite of its inconclusive ending — and even though the Swedes never even discovered what kind of vessel they were actually hunting, never mind its purpose or destination.
Russia Dodges A Bullet
Let’s assume the Swedes were actually hunting a Russian submarine, something they never said explicitly but which anonymous Swedish officials strongly implied.
In recent months, Russia has tested the sovereignty of a number of its neighbours and geopolitical rivals. It’s abducted an Estonian intelligence agent and had its ships interfere with the mission of a Finnish research vessel in international waters. Its jets have gotten into unusually tense confrontations with the American, Estonian, and even Japanese militaries.
These incidents led to varying levels of alarm. But the Swedish Sub Hunt was the Scandinavian country’s largest mobilization since the Cold War. It was a tangible, full-scale military reaction to a possible Russian violation of a European nation’s sovereignty.
And if the Swedes had actually captured the sub, the anti-Putin block would have had invaluable and even unprecedented pieces of leverage over Moscow. It may have captured high-ranking Russian military or intelligence personnel, along with whatever equipment or information was onboard.
And it would have proven beyond all doubt that Russia is recklessly violating the sovereignty of a European state that it does not even border.
President Vladimir Putin holds a terrestrial globe, with Russian territory coloured pink, seemingly including the Crimea, presented to him as a gift.
A Possible Win For Putin?
But the sub hunt didn’t end in embarrassment for the Kremlin. If anything it revealed the degree to which certain European countries have internalized the threat that they believe Moscow may pose to them.
Sweden is so jittery about Russian policy that even the mere possibility of a foreign submarine in its waters was enough to trigger a week-long search. There’s no proof that what they were hunting was Russian and little concrete proof that what they were searching for was even a submarine. But Putin is responsible for the anxieties that obviously underlie the entire incident.
Putin can get European military commanders sputtering expletives simply by seeming to violate their country’s territory. Even Reuters began referring to Swedish efforts to locate the sub as “farce,” given the gap between Swedish concerns and actual evidence or progress in the search. As a psychological operation, the Swedish Sub Hunt may have been an unintended masterstroke.
How Long Can He Keep It Up?
Putin has had an uncanny ability to turn potentially crushing defeats into tangible victories — or at least to impose his will in a way that reverses earlier setbacks.
Putin countered the overthrow of Kremlin client Viktor Yanukovych from the Ukrainian presidency this past February by invading and annexing Crimea. The shoot-down of MH17 by Russian-backed separatists with Russian-supplied weaponry earned Moscow international scorn but it didn’t stop Putin from sending a 5,000-strong invasion force to Eastern Ukraine. A largely pro-western leader was elected to power in Kiev over the summer, but Putin responded by turning the Donbas into his latest “frozen conflict.”
The Swedish sub hunt is a microcosm of this larger pattern. A possible setback turned to Moscow’s advantage. But it only happened by luck this time and the Kremlin’s winning streak doesn’t have to last indefinitely. One of Putin’s gambits could boomerang back on him — even if that hasn’t seemed to happen yet.
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