More than six months after the crisis in the Crimean Peninsula sparked regional agitation between Russia and the rest of Europe, the recent flare-up off Sweden highlighted the worsening relationship and unease among neighbors in the Baltic Sea region, according to experts and government officials.
Tensions between regional governments and the Kremlin flared this month over the Royal Swedish Navy’s search for a suspected Russian submarine among the inner islands of Stockholm’s archipelago.
The problems worsened on Oct. 23 when Danish F-16s and Swedish Gripen fighters were scrambled to intercept an Ilyushin IL-20 “intelligence collection aircraft,” which flew close to the Danish and Swedish coasts and violated Estonian airspace. The aircraft was eventually escorted from NATO airspace by Portuguese F-16s operating from NATO’s air base in Lithuania.
The search, the Swedish Navy’s largest sub hunt since the end of the Cold War, was triggered on Oct. 18 following multiple public sightings and reports of unusual near-coast activity by “unknown craft” inside the archipelago. Things cooled a bit on Oct. 24 when Sweden appeared to tone down its search.
The Swedish Navy has flatly dismissed reports that it had responded to intelligence gathered from signals stations that intercepted encrypted “vessel in distress” radio transmissions on the Russian military’s emergency channel.
Those reports suggested that transmissions had been sent from a location inside the archipelago to a receiving station in Kaliningrad, the exclave that is the headquarters to the Russian Navy’s Baltic Sea fleet.
Russia reacted to reports, informing Sweden that all of its “underwater vessels are accounted for.” The Kremlin further stated that no Russian naval vessel had violated Swedish territorial waters.
Moreover, Russia’s Defense Ministry suggested that the unidentified “underwater vessel” was most likely the Dutch Walrus-class submarine Bruinvis, which it claimed was tracked crossing through Swedish waters en route to the port of Tallinn in Estonia mid-October. This was quickly denied by the Dutch Defense Ministry.
The incident is the latest in a series of confirmed and suspected violations of Nordic and Baltic airspace and territorial waters by Russian forces against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine.