For the last six days, Sweden’s Navy has been in full Hunt for Red October-mode. Ever since a mysterious, unidentified vessel was spotted south of Stockholm, Swedish ships and helicopters have been searching the area for what media reports says is a damaged Russian submarine that has surreptitiously made its way into the Nordic country’s waters. Those reports were only amplified when, on Oct. 18, Sweden reportedly intercepted communications between transmitters in the Stockholm archipelago and the Russian town of Kalingrad. If all that activity sounds like it was lifted from the screenplay of a 1980s Hollywood military thriller, it raises a very real question. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has the Cold War returned?
According to Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, the first sign that something was amiss came on Oct. 16, when Swedish intelligence detected a distress call from somewhere in the Stockholm archipelago. The next day, two civilians reported spotting a submarine-like object in waters about than 40 kilometers east of Stockholm. Sending out 200 troops on corvettes and minesweepers, the military began scouring the area for what it said was most likely a foreign vessel conducting operations in Swedish waters. The sightings, which have now increased to five, took place in “an area that is of interest to a foreign power,” said Swedish Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad at a press conference on Oct. 19. “This does not belong to us. It is a foreign vessel and we have no indications that there would be any civilians involved in underwater activity.”
Although Swedish military and government officials have not identified the nationality of the craft, nor even confirmed that it is indeed a submarine, Dagbladet was less circumspect, publishing stories about the encrypted Russian transmissions and noting that a Russian tanker supposed to be sailing to Denmark had instead been zigzagging through the Stockholm archipelago for the past week, possibly in an attempt to aid a damaged submarine. The Russian government has denied it has a submarine in the area.
Konstantin Sivkov, a retired navy officer of the former Soviet Union who is now head of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, a think tank with ties to the Russian military, said that surveillance in foreign waters was the normal practice of many navies but that it was very unlikely that a Russian submarine was currently in Swedish waters.
“Judging by the available information, there was no submarine. Had there been a submarine stranded in Swedish waters, and if it had been sighted surfacing and heard giving audio transmissions, it would be found in 3-4 hours maximum,” he told TIME.
Magnus Nordenman, deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security in Washington, D.C., suggests that the presence of a clandestine vessel in the Nordic region would certainly fit within recent Russian practices. “It’s one more data point in a larger pattern,” Nordenman says. “Over the past three years, and especially in the last year, the Russians have made more and more incursions into Swedish airspace. There have been close calls between their ships too.”
And it’s not just the Swedes who are the target. In March, Russia staged a large-scale military drill close to the Finnish border, and its fighter jets have violated Finnish airspace five times already this year. In 2013, Russian jets challenged Danish airspace more than 40 times—double the number of the previous year—and are on track to surpass that number this year. “I keep arguing that the Baltic Sea area is the next friction point between an assertive Russia and NATO,” says Nordenman. “It looks like a peaceful, prosperous area, but when it comes to security, it’s quite soft.”
Ironically, part of that softness comes precisely from the distance that the Nordic countries have tried to put between themselves and the Cold War era. With threats to their territorial integrity greatly diminished, Sweden and Denmark have, in recent years, made the strategic decision to dedicate the better part of their military budgets toward establishing a global presence (in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places). As a result, Sweden has reduced its number of submarines to just five; Denmark has gotten rid of them altogether. “In part, it was symbolic,” says Johannes Nordby, a commander in the Danish navy and security expert at the Royal Danish Defence College. “Submarines represented a Cold War weapon, and the Cold War was over.”
Or so the Nordics thought. With the conflict in Ukraine, Putin has made clear his desire to both re-establish a broader sphere of Russian influence and to stand up to NATO and the European Union. “The Cold War was a political and ideological war as much as it was a military one, and we don’t have those [elements] now,” says Nordby. “But it was also about influence. I would argue that what’s happening now is a sign of Russia wanting a new and more significant role in the Baltic region, and internationally.”
Russia’s increased assertiveness is already influencing political debate in the Nordic region. Neither Finland nor Sweden are members of NATO, and with public opinion running strongly against, neither shows any immediate inclination to join. But both signed a pact in August that would increase their cooperation with the alliance, and would allow NATO troops to assist in the two countries in case of emergencies, and there may be more concessions to come. “If the submarine proves to be Russian,” says Harri Mikkola, a global security researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, “it will further increase security policy discussions in Finland. Nato discussion will intensify, but even more so the discussion concerning the need to deepen military cooperation with Sweden.” And this week, while debates broke out in the Danish press about Denmark’s military preparedness, the Swedish Prime Minister announced he would increase defense spending.
But if history is any example, none of that will likely help capture the unidentified vessel currently hiding in Swedish waters. During the Cold War, Soviet submarines reportedly made numerous incursions into the country’s territory, but with the exception of one that ran aground in 1981, none were ever caught. Which is why Admiral Grenstad probably had the past in mind when he announced to the press on Tuesday that his navy would continue the search. “It’s like Jesus,” he said. “Everyone knows who he is but no one has seen him.”
With additional reporting from Simon Shuster/Moscow