The Swedish Navy continues to investigate ‘foreign underwater activity’ in the waters off Stockholm, amid claims that a Russian submarine had got into trouble after illegally entering Swedish waters. Memories of the Cold War have been evoked by Sweden’s dramatic response, which has extended to asking all civilian vessels to leave the search area.
If the intelligence is true it would be further testament to Russia’s current disregard for the territorial sovereignty of neighboring states and may also constitute the first sinking of a Russian submarine since 2003. That year, the nuclear-powered K-159 sunk in the Barents Sea whilst being towed for scrapping. This followed on three years after the Kursk Disaster, when 118 sailors perished after an explosion aboard the Oscar-II class sub, also in the Barents Sea.
Serious submarine accidents have become rarer in recent years as technology has improved and the dangerous stealth missions of the Cold War have theoretically ceased. More recent incidents have tended to occur during docking or close to shore. Collisions between submarines and undersea terrain or commercial vessels occur periodically, although military collisions are unusual.
During the Cold War, Soviet and American/British vessels tracked each other mercilessly, testing out their stealth capabilities whilst providing a deterrent against nuclear assault. Near misses were recorded and tensions were permanently high as the combat-ready vessels sought ascendancy in one of the key theaters of military competition between East and West.
These tensions and concerns were potentially manifested in October 1986, when the Soviet K-219 submarine sunk after an explosion in the torpedo room, which some later claimed was the result of a collision with the USS Augusta as it tracked its Soviet counterpart.
Whatever the true cause of that incident, such happenings were a very real possibility three decades ago. Given the nuclear capabilities of the submarines and their sensitive reactors it was a constant concern for the powers-that-be.
There is no evidence to suggest that the Russian submarine off the Swedish coast (should the rumors turn out to be true) is ailing as a result of a collision. Yet its mere presence in Swedish waters raises questions about Russia’s renewed military assertiveness in the aftermath of its Ukrainian maneuvers.
Whether it will prompt anything more than raised eyebrows at the UN Security Council, or precipitate a re-escalation in covert international submarine patrols by global powers, is probably something we will never know.
Until the next collision that is.