Independence, the floating LNG storage vessel, is the centrepiece in Lithuania’s energy independence policy aimed at securing alternatives to Russian gas, a move obviously resented in Moscow. Provocations in the Baltic Sea, where the giant Korean-made LNG terminal should dock within weeks, are therefore likely. According to defence expert Aleksandras Matonis, it is quite premature to speculate about what kind of submarine might have been spotted near Sweden or what might be the intentions of the crew. However, he says, it sends a clear message to the Baltic Sea countries to be watchful.
Swedes recall a precedent
Reporting on the incident in the Stockholm archipelago, Swedish media compared it to a similar occurrence during the Cold War. Matonis remembers the incident, too.
“It reminds me of the situation in 1981, when a Soviet submarine got stranded in shallow waters in a fjord near Karlskrona. It sparked a massive security crisis, Sweden took over the ship, deported the crew, the ship was later returned to the Soviet Union. At the time, it was a sign that Russia had been walking on very thin ice by sending its submarines to spy in other countries’ territorial waters,” he says.
He thinks the situation today bears disconcerting resemblance to the one three decades ago. “Russia – both its navy and aviation – is acting quite aggressively in the Baltic Sea region. It engages in actions that do not contribute to mutual confidence and good neighbourhood, but rather escalate tensions. Any such incidence, a military ship turning up in the territorial waters of a foreign country, creates conditions for further incidents. Dangerous incidents,” Matonis warns.
One more ship from Russia, the tanker NS Concord, is zigzagging in international waters near Sweden. Matonis agrees with Swedish experts who say that the movements of this latter ship – which sails under the Liberian flag but is owned by a Russian company – are suspicious to say the least.
“Strange manoeuvres of another ship makes one think that this ship might be a part of a search and rescue operation. When it comes to international navigation, at least in the old times, it was not unusual for civilian ships – or ships disguised as civilian – to bring supplies to offshore submarines,” he says.
According to Matonis, the supporting ship might bring fuel supplies to the submarine.
Above and below water
Matonis says that Russia has repeatedly displayed disregard for international rules. He thinks that Moscow is just as interested in the Seaport of Klaipėda and Lithuania’s LNG terminal it will soon be hosting as in the Stockholm archipelago.
“It makes sense to be alert about the security of our waters – patrolling, monitoring. As we know, several weeks ago, a Russian cargo ship was spotted in Latvian waters. It raised a little concern. With a neighbour like that, one must be constantly watchful about what it is doing,” Matonis warns.
He adds that Russian submarines might be there to watch over the Nord Stream underwater pipeline.
Kursk part two?
Sweden’s defence experts claim that Russia’s number one concern is to avoid being caught red-handed, while safety and lives of the crew is of secondary importance. Russia’s defence ministry has already issued a statement denying that there are or have been any Russian submarines in Sweden’s waters. Matonis recalls another incident – the Kursk submarine disaster.
“If we see that Russia refuses to admit facts or accept help in saving crew members, we might find ourselves in a situation similar to the one in 2001, when the Kursk submarine drowned [in the Barents Sea]. The international community had resources to help. But the Russian president took all charge and sentenced his own men to death in order to protect military technology secrets.”
Sweden’s media speculates that the Triton-NN type submarine might have been spotted near Stockholm. It is a small ship, more suited for small intelligence operations than military missions. The ship is compact, fast, manoeuvrable and can easily escape detection by radars.
Matonis warns, however, not to jump to conclusions before the ship is even discovered.
“We will not know anything before they fish out the ship. It is hard to comment on speculations – it’s nothing but guesswork,” he says.