Beneath an opaque visage of increasingly anti-western, isolationist rhetoric lie the true intentions of the Russian Kremlin. The uncertainty surrounding the Kremlin’s intent is made more ominous by the blatant and bellicose involvement of Russia’s military in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula this year. Russia’s neighbors are understandably tense and the sanctions placed on Russia by the European Union and the United States convey and an unusual degree of western frustration with Russia. On the world stage, the man at Russia’s helm carries himself with a combination of stoicism and charisma that is reminiscent of his Soviet and Tsarist forebears, indifferent to his treatment in the press and by the world’s politicians whose commentary ranges between the extremes of vilification and adulation. Whatever cards he has been dealt, Vladimir Putin, the strongman of post-Soviet Russia, is not showing his hand.
In October, the mysterious nature of the Kremlin’s foreign policy was only compounded by the Swedish government’s announcement that an unknown foreign submersible had not only infiltrated its territorial waters but was within the tight labyrinth of narrow channels that make up the southern archipelago of islands where the populous Swedish capital Stockholm is located. The incident began to unfold when an intercepted distress communication in Russian from an underwater submersible sparked an outraged response from Sweden’s government. Possible civilian sightings of a vessel matching the submarine’s description inspired the kind of paranoia in Sweden not felt since 1981 when a Soviet submarine washed up on Sweden’s southern shores. But the largest mobilization of Swedish forces since the end of the Cold War equipped with the latest detection capabilities proved to be an apparent failure as no submarine was ever definitively produced. Today, however, the Swedish government confirmed that there was in fact overwhelming evidence to suggest that a foreign submersible of some kind had been detected it in its waters. Swedish officials were careful not to point fingers and mentioned no countries by name. Nevertheless, international suspicion of Russia is unlikely to abate.
In September, the month before the submarine incident occurred, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s highest-ranking officer General Philip Breedlove told a conference he was attending that Russia is engaging in “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.” The Atlantic, who reported this quote, argues that this is in fact a dramatic understatement. The Atlantic claims that Russia is exporting its model for domestic propaganda abroad and combining it with a barrage of other phenomena that are relatively new in modern warfare or are at least new renditions of old themes. The collective effect of this approach is that the Kremlin is writing its own truths as it goes along and broadcasting them to the world which in turn cast doubts on the objectivity of the west and its media.
Sweden and other countries in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, regardless of their affiliation with NATO or the European Union, are undoubtedly shaken by Russia’s methods and its appetite for aggression. The true identity of the foreign submersible in the Stockholm archipelago may never be known but it is clear that the polarity of the Cold War era that distanced the east from the west is creeping back into current events. Whether or not it will last is unclear, but Sweden for one will not be taking any chances.