Finnish Assistance and Russian Media

Note: After a few posts mainly made up of news, headlines and specifications, this post will feature opinions.

Finnish Assistance

As I hinted at earlier, I strongly believe that Finland should offer its support to Sweden in light of current activities. For a small country situated next to an authoritarian greater power, it is crucial that international laws and principles are respected. This includes respecting the territory of foreign countries, both air, land and sea. If our close neighbors, in whose ability to protect their own territory we (according to PM Stubb at a press conference today) trust, says that they strongly suspect a foreign underwater incursion, that should be all the info we need to have a high government official issue a strongly worded condemnation aimed at whoever it is that is behind the incursion. After this, we can start thinking about offering concrete steps to help solve the issue, as it is in our own interest to know who it is that conducts illegal operations in the Baltic Sea. It would be naïve to believe that a string of successful missions directed against Sweden would not put Finland at risk for similar incursions. Thus, we do not need to argue about whether or not we are morally obliged to offer help to the Swedish authorities, as even if one would believe that we weren’t, we should still do so out of respect for our own security needs.

MHC Katanpää (’40), leadship of a class of three new mine countermeasure vessels. The brand new vessel has some of the most advanced sensors currently available in the Baltic Sea for finding underwater items, and could be of great assistance to the Swedish operation. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI.

It might be that Sweden believes that our direct support is not needed, but the offering of assistance would in itself be a powerful signal. If the Finnish government believes it is a too strong signal, more indirect means are available. Yesterday would have been a good opportunity to send out a naval vessel to escort Professor Logachev on its way through the Gulf of Finland. It could have been done at a respectful distance, and as part of a “normal” cruise. This would have given credible deniability in case Russia would have reacted, while still sending a message of support to our western neighbors. Also to note is that as Russia has repeatedly stated that they do not have a submarine in the search area, the Finnish government could credibly state that any participation is directed against our easterly neighbor. However, it must be said that with the Swedish government taking such a low-key approach to the whole incident, it might be out of place for Finland to take the lead in condemning it. If this is the case, I hope that Stubb at their meeting today expressed to Löfven that he has our support if the Swedish government would decide to change their current stance. There are currently only two non-NATO countries aside from Russia bordering the Baltic Sea. While it is a cliché, the cause of Sweden is indeed very much our own as well. And vice versa.

Russian Media

The Red October-incident continues, and today Russian media and psychological operations were activated on a larger scale, with the information originating from TASS. The story was simple: there is no Russian submarine in Swedish waters, but instead the Swedish authorities should “request explanations from the Dutch Navy command”, as it was claimed that it was the Walrus-class submarine HNLMS Bruinvis which would have been spotted while conducting an emergency surfacing drill. This was rapidly debunked by the Dutch Navy, which denied that their submarine would have been in Swedish waters after finishing the joint exercise Northern Archer earlier last week. As it was clear that the Bruinvis had been moored openly in Tallinn during a large part of the weekend, the Russian claim was easily shown as being completely unfounded.

HNLMS Bruinvis, photo taken by Mika Peltola on Saturday (18102014) morning at 8 AM in port of Tallinn.
HNLMS Bruinvis, photo taken by Mika Peltola on Saturday (18102014) morning at 8 AM in the port of Tallinn.

As a side not, TASS has also posted an article with the headline “Sweden’s search for unknown submarine raises tensions in Baltic region”. One could be forgiven to think it was Sweden who has practiced air strikes against neighboring countries… This brings up an important point, which has become increasingly clear since the start of the invasion of Crimea earlier this year: Russian media and officials cannot be trusted to objectively tell the truth. Instead, there has been a number of cases were Russian authorities, including Vladimir Putin, has told outright lies, which have been repeated by Russian media without any kind of critical analysis. The list includes such clear-cut cases as the statement that there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea (later confirmed by Putin himself) and that a Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack plane would have shot down MH17 (when the Russian aircraft manufacturer themselves state that the plane can’t reach the altitude MH17 flew on). HeadlinesThis is in line with what experts in the west has stated about the Russian view of the use of media in psychological warfare [1], [2], [3], and this can in turn be connected to an increasing number of reports about the systematic use of social media to spread fabricated stories [4 see also list of recommended reading at end of source]. Bottomline: unfortunately, due to the above mentioned recent events and a long negative trend with regards to freedom of press in Russia, western media must stop its use of Russian media and authorities as a source of equal value to their western counterparts. To go back to the story above, YLE quoted the Russian Defence Ministry stating that the Swedes should be looking for the Bruinvis, and then quoted the negative answer by Dutch authorities in a way that gives both the sources the same value. In my opinion, this is clearly not in line with good journalistic conduct. A journalist should indeed strive to present both sides of a story, but not all sources are created equal, and a failure to properly explain this gives the casual reader a tilted view of the story.

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Some Reflections on the Stockholm “Subhunt”

In the media the current intelligence operation south of Stockholm has been described as the Swedish Navy searching for (or even hunting) “a Russian submarine”. I would like to point out that the picture might be quite a bit more complex. As said earlier, out of respect for the fact that it is an ongoing operation and the possible need for OPSEC, I will not include any attempts at an OOB.

The Swedish Defence Forces yesterday (Friday the 17th of October) stated that during the day they had received information from a reliable source about “foreign underwater activity”. As a response to this, the Swedish Defence Forces have decided to conduct an intelligence gathering operation in the area, with sea, air and land units.

The “foreign underwater activity” was immediately translated into “Russian submarine” by the media. There are Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea, namely the two ‘Kilo’-class submarines B-227 Vyborg and B-806 Dmitrov of Projects 877 and 877EKM respectively.

However, there are a number of other possible explanations.

The possibility of Russian divers and/or light underwater equipment has to be accounted for. This could include midget submarines or diver propulsion vehicles, with either a supporting land-based unit, or support from ships/submarines in international waters. Possible missions include intelligence gathering, e.g. with regards to the ability of the Swedish units to detect and respond to incursions of this kind. This kind of mission would most probably go to Russian naval Spetsnaz units, which made headline during the 2008 war in Georgia when they apparently entered into the port of Poti and destroyed the majority of the surface units of the small Georgian Navy.

Another possibility is that some other country sent a submarine into the area.

Polish Project 877E ‘Kilo’-class submarine ORP Orzeł (291), outwardly similar to the submarines of Russia’s Baltic Fleet. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Poland operates a single Project 877E ’Kilo’-class as well as four German-designed Ex-Norwegian Type 207 ’Kobben’-class submarines. All are of the diesel-electric type, meaning they are extremely quiet when submerged, but have to go up to the surface and recharge their batteries every now and then. Although the submarines are somewhat dated, they still constitute a very proficient striking force.

Germany has continued its long and proud tradition as builder of submarines. Currently its submarine force consists of four Type 212 A submarines based in Eckernförde, close to Kiel. These are some of the most modern submarines in the world, being so called AIP-submarines (air independent), meaning that thanks to their hydrogen fuel-cells they don’t have to surface regularly.

Neither the three Baltic countries nor Denmark has any submarines left. Sweden has three Gotland-class and two Södermanland-class AIP-submarines, but these are naturally not part of the equation. However, the Netherlands currently has a single Walrus-class submarine in the Baltic Sea, which has taken part in exercise Northern Archer together with the Swedish units now scanning the waters south of Stockholm. As far as I know, no details about its route home have been published.

It is possible that some of these countries have decided to test the Swedish response to underwater incursions. It could have been a unilateral decision by the country in question, or as a proposal/request/idea from some kind of higher-level NATO forum. The purpose in that case would most probably be intelligence gathering, to get a validated picture of the Swedish response and capabilities in case of a Russian incursion, where the secondary goals could include highlighting these deficits in capability to the Swedish politicians and general public. The Navy is already well aware of its (lack of) capabilities.

This would naturally be a very high-risk operation politically, as getting publicly caught with your submarine in the territorial waters of a friendly country is not desirable, to put it mildly. To lessen the risk, a similar operation could naturally be launched with divers as discussed above in the case of Russian units.

I will not rank any of these scenarios as to what is most likely, but bear in mind, there are a lot of things happening under the surface of the Baltic Sea about which we know very little.

Edit 18/10/2014 18:15 (GMT +2): On the press conference that just finished, it became clear that the Swedish navy increases number of units involved in intelligence operation outside Stockholm, stresses focus is on intelligence NOT on subhunt. They still believe the original intel about foreign underwater activity was “very reliable”, and declines to comment on “What further circumstantial evidence we have received”. No further specifics were revealed.