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Sweden's Sub Hunt Evokes Cold War Memories

Swedish corvette HMS Stockholm patrols Jungfrufjarden in the Stockholm archipelago, Sweden, on Monday. Swedish authorities say they've detected "foreign underwater activity" thought to be a possible Russian submarine.
Anders Wiklund
Swedish corvette HMS Stockholm patrols Jungfrufjarden in the Stockholm archipelago, Sweden, on Monday. Swedish authorities say they've detected "foreign underwater activity" thought to be a possible Russian submarine.

The hunt for a possible Russian submarine operating clandestinely in Swedish waters might sound familiar to those of us who lived through the Cold War: That's because it bears striking similarities to a 1981 incident that made international headlines and proved a major embarrassment for Soviet authorities.

Here's what happened over the weekend, according to The Wall Street Journal:

"Late Sunday the country's navy presented a grainy picture of what appeared to be some kind of craft moving among the islands of the Stockholm archipelago, which stretches some 80 kilometers east of the capital.

"The picture, taken by a member of the public, wasn't of good enough quality for the object to be clearly identified but it showed something elongated and white in the water with a smaller black object pointing out of its upper side.

"Swedish Navy Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad told a news conference that it is likely that the picture shows what he termed 'foreign underwater activity' but declined to say which country might be behind the suspected territorial violation."

So far, Sweden hasn't said which country is suspect, and Russia has denied involvement. Even so, The Associated Press says "the submarine search sent a chill through the Baltic Sea region, where Russian forces have been accused of a series of border violations on land, sea and air in recent months."

The news agency quotes Latvia's Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics as saying the incident is a potential "game changer" in the region.

And, here's the Cold War history lesson:

"The grounding of that submarine, U137, on rocks off the Swedish town of Karlskrona 33 years ago led to a standoff between Stockholm and Moscow," WSJ writes. "Sweden's then Prime Minister Thorbjorn Falldin issued a now famous order to the Swedish military to 'hold the border' as Soviet ships approached to support the stricken submarine, which was ultimately escorted back out to international waters."

Below is a Swedish-language documentary on the U137 incident, which occurred just a few miles from Karlskrona, a large Swedish naval base on the country's south coast:

The grounding of U137, an aging diesel-electric Whiskey-class boat, became known, partly tongue-in-cheek, as the "Whiskey on the rocks" incident. It came at a particularly hot time for the Cold War: Two years after the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan, hard-liner Leonid Brezhnev was still leader of the USSR, and President Ronald Reagan, who took an uncompromising stance toward Moscow, was still in his first year in office. Months after the U137 incident, martial law would be declared in Poland as part of a Communist Party crackdown on the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa.

So, why would a Russian submarine want to be snooping around Sweden in 2014?

The Telegraph offers this:

"Sweden may not be a member of Nato, the dark alliance that Moscow's defence chiefs have identified as Russia's number one enemy. But it has always taken defence of its 'neutrality' extremely seriously.

"Its shoreline is still dotted with Cold-War era artillery batteries, and to this day it has one of the most advanced navies in the world — its new Visby class corvettes are widely billed as 'the world's first stealth ships.'

"In the relatively small Baltic Sea, that makes Sweden something of a naval super-power, and a neighbour that Russia — which has Baltic ports at St Petersburg and Kaliningrad — would naturally keep a very close eye on."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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