Russian Sub in Trouble in Swedish Waters? Evoking Memories of the Cold War

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.

A Swedish minesweeper patrols the Stockholm Archipelago
A Swedish minesweeper patrols the Stockholm Archipelago

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.

The Royal Navy's HMS Astute ran aground off the Isle of Skye in 2010
The Royal Navy’s HMS Astute ran aground off the Isle of Skye in 2010

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.

K-219 Damaged
K-219 Damaged

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.

History Against Controlling the Ebola Virus: Time for a Lockdown?

As the number of victims of the Ebola virus nears 5,000 in West Africa, and a second case is confirmed the USA, two opposing camps are forming:

1. Those that believe that whilst isolated cases may appear in any country, there is no reason to believe that we are on course for a global pandemic.

2. Those that fear international authorities are underplaying the inherent risks of disease transmission and believe that it is only a matter of time before the virus spreads globally.

Corpses of Ebola victims are removed by highly-protected medics
Corpses of Ebola victims are removed by highly-protected medics

Although the worst case scenario seems unlikely at this stage, there is historical precedent to suggest that battling the Ebola virus will provide a unique challenge.

Belief, Tradition and Education

The ‘Black Death’ of the 14th century is perhaps the first well-documented instance of an international pandemic. Bubonic plague wiped out as much as one-third of the European population, destroyed communities and devastated national economies.

One of the features of the early spread of the plague was the sheer ignorance among the population about what they were facing. Conditioned by religious law, they deemed the disease an indictment by God of mankind’s fall.

Families often lived in cramped, unhygienic conditions and tended to their ill relatives in a communal setting. Such a lifestyle allowed a rapid transmission of the disease and is not dissimilar to the spread of Ebola through the impoverished shanty towns of West Africa.

The Black Death was exacerbated by filthy living conditions and poor disposal of corpses
The Black Death was exacerbated by filthy living conditions and poor disposal of corpses

Additionally, the importance of a religious burial attended by kinfolk was paramount in most 14th century societies. This enforced close contact between an infected corpse and other ‘healthy’ family members, further enabled the disease to spread. In West Africa, too, the dead bodies of Ebola victims have been claimed by their families and taken home for burial as per their religious/traditional beliefs, often condemning others in the process.

No Immunity/Vaccination

One of the major issues with controlling the Ebola virus is the absence of a clinically-tested, widely available vaccine. This is, of course, crucial when dealing with a disease against which humans have developed no immunity.

Whilst the European immune system had built up a degree of resilience to diseases such as smallpox, the indigenous Americans were helpless. Without an effective cure, they died in their millions, helping pave the way for undisputed European domination of their territories. (For more information, download Sickness on early Hispaniola)

Nahua smallpox sufferers at the time of the Spanish conquest
Nahua smallpox sufferers at the time of the Spanish conquest

The rapidity with which the Ebola virus claims its victims is alarming and comparable with the swift mortality of the indigenous American sufferers on contact with the Europeans.

Globalization and Transmission

We now live, indisputably, in a globalized, highly-interdependent world. Thousands of flights cross international boundaries on a daily basis, creating the opportunity for the wide and rapid transmission of a variety of diseases.

Between 1918 and 1920, at least 50 million people – potentially up to 5% of the global population – died as a result of a vicious strain of the influenza virus dubbed ‘Spanish Flu’. The pandemic reached all corners of the globe at a time when international travel and dissemination had begun to advance at great pace.

Today, we are far more globalized. Without putting a complete lockdown on the population of West Africa – whereby all sea, land and air borders are sealed – it is inevitable that some people will carry the Ebola virus to every continent.

When you add to this the potential of international volunteers helping fight the Ebola outbreak bringing back the disease, the prospects are quite worrying. Even with the most carefully-observed hygiene procedures, the level of contagion inherent in the disease makes infection difficult to avoid.

Time for Lockdown?

Although it would be a dreadful decision to have to make, there is an argument to enforce a lockdown on West Africa to at least isolate the Ebola virus in that region. Indeed, limited curfews in Liberia and Sierra Leone have succeeded in preventing further spread of the disease.

A three day lockdown in Sierra Leone proved effective
A three day lockdown in Sierra Leone proved effective

Through a combination of poor education and traditional beliefs, lack of vaccine and immunity, and globalization, Ebola is an undoubted threat to global health.

How practicable a lockdown is in reality is hard to say, though it must be an avenue which the international community endeavors to explore.