For years now, political observers have struggled to properly assess Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s foreign policy aims and ambitions. Some experts are issuing increasingly urgent warnings that one large obstacle standing in the way of a realistic analysis may be the progressive erosion of the collective memory of the former Soviet Union (USSR) and the inner workings of the communist state system among the current generation of decision makers.
As Anne Applebaum recently pointed out in a piece for Commentary, most people under the age of 40 have no personal memory of Soviet times or any understanding of what life under the Soviet system was truly like. Yet Russia’s present-day officials, who are products of the Soviet system, and in particular of its state security apparatus, are not only trained in the methods of manipulation and repression, they excel at them.
For those in charge of Western democracies, Applebaum writes “the collapse of the USSR meant that they could finally move on and think about something else.” For President Putin’s generation of former Soviet leaders, on the other hand, it was “the most shattering and disorienting experience of their lives”.
The possibility that Vladimir Putin may follow up his bold moves in Syria and Ukraine with similar aggressive steps in the Baltic states, or even other, non-NATO countries like Sweden, in order to restore Russia to its former glory, has not fully entered the general consciousness or public discussion in Washington, D.C. and other Western capitals. However, in Sweden, political insiders, especially former intelligence officers and diplomats who remember first-hand the methods of Soviet rhetoric and propaganda, have been sounding the alarm for a while.
The fear that the West is suffering from what Masha Gessen has called “a failure of imagination” when it comes to understanding President Putin, is echoed in the recent publication of an intriguing memoir authored by a former senior Swedish diplomat, Ambassador Bo J. Theutenberg. His memoir is quite obviously driven by the wish to underscore for a new generation of leaders the urgent relevance of the experiences and insights gained by those familiar with the Soviet past.
Relying on the unedited notes he took almost daily over the span of his career, Theutenberg has crafted a narrative that is as hard-charging as it is revealing.
Volume One focuses largely on Theutenberg’s involvement in a number of Cold War crises, especially the repeated violations of Swedish territorial waters by Soviet submarines during the early 1980s. Volume Two examines the many twists and turns and inherent moral ambiguity of Sweden’s neutrality policy, as well as Theutenberg’s interactions with many of its main players, including most notably the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who was murdered in 1986.
Theutenberg’s message is clear: What may have appeared to outside observers as fairly benign and peaceful Soviet intentions had a distinctly different feel to those who had a front-row seat at crucial events. From Theutenberg’s perspective, Sweden’s seemingly safe neutrality position left it in fact far more exposed and vulnerable than the public and even many Swedish officials ever realised.
Regardless of whether one agrees with Theutenberg’s assessments or not, the first-hand account he offers from the unique vantage point as both legal advisor and officer [rank of Major] in the Swedish Air Force Reserve, with deep insight into intelligence and defense matters, constitutes a historical document of considerable importance.
A lawyer by training, with a speciality in international law, Theutenberg joined the Swedish Foreign Ministry in 1966. His early postings took him to Baghdad, New York and Moscow where he gained valuable international experience. In 1976, he assumed the post of chief Legal Adviser, before resigning abruptly in 1987 in protest over the Ministry’s pro-Soviet orientation. He is the only official of his stature in the Swedish diplomatic service to ever take such a step in modern times.
Theutenberg’s resignation was prompted by concerns over what he claims was the pronounced tendency by leading Swedish diplomats to define foreign policy not solely according to the standards of international law, but largely on the basis of [leftist] ideological preference. In Theutenberg’s assessment, the Swedish government’s accommodation of the Soviet Union during the Cold War years clearly went far beyond what has been traditionally attributed to the country’s long and deep seated fear of Russian power, and had far more sinister roots.
After World War II, the Soviet Union made Sweden a key target of its foreign and military intelligence operations. Many Russian intelligence officials today still consider the postwar Swedish infiltration missions among the most successful in the history of their organizations. Theutenberg warns that scholars have not fully appreciated the true extent of these operations, in large part due to lack of proper primary source materials which remain classified in a variety of international intelligence archives.
Theutenberg provides a riveting account of the previously unknown discussions that occurred inside the Swedish government and the Swedish Foreign Ministry when a Soviet submarine (U-137/S-363) ran aground in Swedish waters near Karlskrona (Gåsefjärden) in October 1981, in the immediate vicinity of the country’s most advanced naval base; and a year later, in October 1982, when a similar incursion occurred in the Hårsfjärden Fjord, in the Stockholm Archipelago, near the naval bases at Berga and Muskö.
Theutenberg’s original notes and documents shed important new light on the events behind the scenes, including the drafting of two formal protest notes to the Soviet government which Theutenberg oversaw.
Given the cumulative evidence, Theutenberg felt certain that the Soviets had acted with clear intent and that an accidental violation of Swedish territory could be excluded, especially taking into consideration the full background of Soviet attitudes and behaviour towards Sweden at the time.
When the former Soviet UN Under Secretary General Arkady Shevchenko defected in 1978, he revealed in his memoir that in 1970 the Soviet Politburo had already decided “to send submarines to probe Swedish and Norwegian coastal areas”.
By the spring of 1981, in the wake of the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. President and with the balance of nuclear deterrence seemingly shifting in NATO’s favour, the Soviet leadership reportedly feared an imminent [nuclear] first strike against the Soviet mainland. In response, the Soviet Foreign Intelligence Service (KGB) – under its chief Yuri Andropov – and the GRU (the Soviet Military Intelligence Service) launched Operation RYAN (Raketno Yadernoye Napadenie, “nuclear missile attack”) whose main purpose was to obtain information about such an impending attack through covert foreign and military intelligence operations. In the process, Sweden and the Baltic Sea became a central staging ground for a potential nuclear conflict between the superpowers.
According to the recently published memoirs of Swedish One-Star Admiral Nils-Ove Jansson, former head of the Intelligence and Security Department of the Swedish Defence Staff, one of the key goals for the Soviet leadership was to ensure that US and NATO forces could not influence the course of war in Central Europe from strategic positions in Sweden.
If Soviet intelligence operations had confirmed plans of a NATO attack, the Soviet Union would have immediately launched Operation Anti-RYAN, a pre-emptive nuclear strike targeting the United States and Western Europe.
The alleged plans for Operation Anti-RYAN included the deployment of up to 50 radio controlled nuclear mines and other special devices. The latter included medium range missiles in the Baltic countries aimed at Sweden. The aim was to destroy strategic targets like Swedish naval bases, ammunition and fuel depots, as well as telecommunication centres, and to assassinate key military personnel.
Jansson claims that the Soviet submarine incursion in 1981 was directly connected to these efforts. The submarine’s presumed task was to pick up a group of Soviet spetsnaz divers out on a reconnaissance mission around Karlskrona.
Like Jansson, Theutenberg warns that Russia’s current President Vladimir Putin, a known admirer of Yuri Andropov, may well be taking a page out of his old boss’ s playbook.
Finnish security expert Stefan Forss recently shared similar concerns. In a recent post on Twitter and a letter addressed to Theutenberg’s blog, he urged experts to compare Operation RYAN and Anti-RYAN of the early 1980s “with the Putin regime’s analyses and statements. Andropov’s rhetoric from the early 1980s is back in a way that is dumbfounding.”
Forss seized upon Putin’s most recent remarks at the annual Valdai Discussion Club meeting on 22 October in Sochi as a prime example. At the gathering which brings together international experts with a focus on Russian affairs, Putin talked bluntly about the dangers of “unilateral domination” which have led to “an imbalance in the [global political] system.” This clearly echoed Andropov’s warning in 1983 which he issued in a speech targeted directly at the US about the risks of a “game without rules” – where one side (meaning the US) would seek unchecked dominance over the other (the Soviet Union.)
“Would the United States permit someone to achieve superiority over them?” Andropov asked. “I doubt it. And this is why we should not tolerate it either.” Interestingly, a year ago, the Valdai Club meeting’s chosen theme was ‘The World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules?’ with Putin’s address stressing Russia’s “peaceful agenda” and the risks of a “unipolar world”.
Theutenberg’s insider account effectively draws the veil from the glaring contradictions, “the grand paradox,” that characterized Swedish foreign and neutrality policy for almost seven full decades (from the 1930s through the 1990s).
Already back in the early 1950s, Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander felt that Sweden could not survive if it maintained its insular neutrality position. It was on his direct instruction that Sweden had begun the extensive and highly secret military cooperation with the US and NATO. This serious violation of Swedish neutrality was obscured and offset by the often strident pro-Soviet and pro-communist policies pursued by Sweden’s Social Democratic government in subsequent decades.
More than anyone else, it was Olof Palme, Erlander’s close aid and protégé, who personified this Swedish paradox, which many observers, including Theutenberg, fear lay at the heart of his still not fully solved murder in 1986. How could a man from a conservative social and political background, with pro-American sentiments (he had attended Kenyon College in Ohio and the actor Paul Newman was a lifelong friend) and a strong intelligence background have been transformed “into a Prime Minister who gradually favoured the aims of the Soviet Union and International Communism,” Theutenberg asks?
How did it all fit together, especially since Palme was among the elite few officials in Sweden who knew and apparently approved of the country’s de-facto alliance with the US and NATO? Was Palme’s murder “the result of the insupportable contradictions of ‘a Machiavellian double-game’ that went overboard that cold evening of 28 February 1986,” Theutenberg wonders? “Or had we been witnessing one of the most successful ID (The International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party)-KGB-GRU-operations ever,” as it was whispered among his colleagues in the GBU (Joint Intelligence Bureau)?
Theutenberg is not shy to name names when it comes to identifying those he suspects fell under the sway of the Soviet (KGB, GRU) and East German (Stasi) intelligence agencies’ sophisticated propaganda apparatus. He counts veteran diplomats Sverker Åström and Pierre Schori, both former Under Secretaries at the Foreign Ministry and Ambassadors to the UN, as well as Rolf Ekéus, a former Ambassador to the US and member of several UN disarmament commissions, among those he believes were effectively ensuring that Sweden would steer a largely leftist, pro-Soviet course.
As Theutenberg views it, this specific group of officials, who were generally known as “Palme’s boys” and who occupied key posts at home and abroad – in the advisory office of the Swedish Prime Minister (the all-important Statsrådsberedningen), as well as the UN and other international bodies – successfully exploited the main weakness in Palme’s mindset, which was his constant need to reaffirm his Social Democratic credentials.
Theutenberg clearly considers his diary as a way to set the historical record straight and to issue a warning that history is about to repeat itself. He worries that Sweden has been unable to free itself from the near-stranglehold that years of successful KGB and Stasi infiltration into key areas of Swedish society and governmental bodies have wrought.
In his mind, Sweden’s extreme leftist orientation of the past decades – with many of the current decision makers ascending to key positions in the Swedish government over the last 30 or 40 years – carries serious ramifications for the current political discourse, including the debate over Sweden’s pending membership in NATO.
While Theutenberg’s views are bound to be controversial, his unique experience as a central player in the Swedish political and defence arena over two crucial decades demands attention. If his claims are confirmed, they may well lead to a reassessment of key aspects of Swedish Cold War politics.
Bo J. Theutenberg
Dagbok från UD (Diaries from the Swedish Foreign Ministry)
Vol. 1 and 2
Skara: Solveigs Tryckeri, 2012 and 2014
320 pp (2012) & 526 pp (2014)