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A Belated Defence of the Soviet Union
In a rather remarkable report on behalf of the Swedish government, Ambassador Rolf Ekeus tries to blame NATO as much as the Soviet Union for clanestine submarine operations against Sweden during the 1980's. Here my account of this important debate.

A Belated Defense of the Soviet Union

Suddenly, the old issue of the incursions of foreign submarines into Swedish territorial waters during the 1980’s is back on the table.

The issue was once a big one. During the 1980’s, repeated intrusions of foreign submarines in inner Swedish territorial waters, including peace- and wartime basing areas of Swedish defence forces, come to shape much of the debate on foreign and security issues. There were vigorous clashes between different schools of thought, without some of the issues ever brought to final closure.

And now, a new attempt is made to rewrite the history. It is the attempt by those that lost the 1980’s to recover the future. But it is a distinctly odd attempt in a world that has changed beyond recognition.

The essence of the debates of the 1980’s concerned the nature of Soviet power and the essence of the Swedish policy on neutrality. These were vital and highly contested issues then, but are today hardly of any major relevance. And much that has been revealed since have reinforced the view of Soviet power advocated by the realists of those days, while much that has been revealed about the Swedish policy of neutrality has shown that it had faces less known to the public of those days. To come to a belated defence of the Soviet Union today, and to try to relaunch an attitude of Swedish equidistance between the two competing powers of those days, accordingly seems a somewhat bizarre exercise.

Then, the issues were of profound importance. There raged a major international debate concerning the nature of Soviet power and the way to cope with its consequences. A more self-confident West had decided to confront rather than appease, as the Soviet Union turned had turned more assertive after decade of military build-up.

Since the end of World War II, Sweden had pursued a policy of neutrality. Based in a national conviction that its position outside the alliances had preserved its peace in both World War I and II, it had also matured into a doctrine of some sophistication, supported by military forces that at the least during the late 40’s, the 50’s and most of the 60’s were of a relative size that anyone contemplating military operations in northern Europe had to cope with.

The philosophy was, that be avoiding any entanglements with any alliance, there would be a possibility of repeating the experience of the two World Wars if a new one were to start. By making certain to each of the sides that the other could never use its territory, it provided a reassurance that made planning for military operations using Swedish territory superfluous. This, at the least, was the theory.

The submarine operations against Sweden during those decades were hardly unique. But there was a profound difference between such operations directed against, say, a member country of NATO, and against a country aiming at a situation of neutrality in war. While in the former case, such intrusions would certainly have consequences for defence planning, they hardly affected the core if the security policy chosen.

But for Sweden, it was profoundly different. If suddenly a power started to operate submarines against and on Swedish territory, the conclusion that it was even more likely to do so in times of crisis and war was difficult to avoid, and thus the entire question of the credibility of the policy of neutrality and its possibility of success was immediately on the agenda.

And this was no small issue. In addition to being central to the security policy orientation of the country, there had developed in certain Swedish circles, notable around the Social Democratic party, a theory of equidistance between the two superpowers that was supposed to be able to facilitate some sort of evolving détente between them. But with the international climate swinging in a different direction, this policy approach was viewed with some suspicion in leading Western countries, and when there were suddenly evidence of military operations against Sweden that put the foundation of its security policy in question, the situation was indeed a critical one.

After two major commissions appointed by the government, one reporting in 1983 and the other in 1995, the essential facts of the situation can hardly be in dispute. From 1980 to 1992, there are a number of cases where the proofs is so clear that no other conclusion is possible, and we can thus speak about operations against Sweden over a longer period in time.

There is, by necessity, a dispute over numbers. And this dispute will never be resolved until we have access to the commanders that planned and ordered these operations. We are forced to rely on the not always reliable sightings, indications and informations generated over the years. Submarine operations, and particularly in foreign waters, are undertaken so as to avoid detection, and experience with also Swedish submarines operating in Swedish littoral waters and archipelagos testifies to the fact that they are rarely detected, and if there is any observation, the task of proving that it was actually a submarine is a most difficult one.

The scene had started to change in 1980. Up until then, there had been occasional sightings of submarines in Swedish water. But suddenly, the Navy didn’t just encounter a foreign submarine, then identified as a Whiskey-class Soviet-built submarine, but also failed to get it to leave the Swedish territorial waters, and most probably operating together with some other subsurface vehicle. It was all very mysterious.

In 1981, the nation woke up one morning to find a submarine flying the Soviet Navy ensign embarrassingly grounded on a rock in a southern Swedish archipelago. The drama of the “Whiskey-on-the-rocks” attracted worldwide attention, although it might well have been an aberration from the new pattern that had started to emerge.

Many thought that this must be the end of the issue, as the incident must have embarrassed even the harder elements in Moscow. But in the early autumn of 1982, just as a Social Democratic government under Mr Olof Palme was about to assume office, submarines were suddenly detected inside the main naval base area in the southern part of the Stockholm archipelago.

After a prolonged hunt, in which the run-down and limited anti-submarine assets of the Swedish Navy, and the even more inadequate resources of the Coastal Artillery, had been pitted against what was an integrated operation of several submarines and subsurface vehicles, it was felt that the entire issue required a higher degree of attention. The government appointed a high-level commission, the Submarine Defence Commission, headed by a profound heavyweight in the former of Mr Sven Anderson, with a background as Minister for first Defence and then Foreign Affairs in Social Democratic governments during more than two decades. I was another member of this high-level commission.

When it reported in early 1983, it confirmed a larger operation of several submarines, revealed evidence of the presence of hitherto unknown minisubmarines for the deepest incursions, and said that it concurred with the assessments of experts that the overall responsibility for the operations noted during the summer and early autumn of 1982 must rest with the Warsaw Pact, effectively meaning the Soviet Union.

The government immediately accepted the conclusions of the report. But there was a profound unease over its finding in some of the quarters that had hoped to be able to pursue very different foreign and security policies, and who had based these on views of the nature of Soviet power in which there was no place whatsoever for aggressive military behaviour. For them, the Soviet Union was certainly not a perfect country, but it was a benevolent power, with which a common security in Europe now should be built.

They disliked reports about submarine incursions with the same intensity as they labelled talk about dismantling the wall in Berlin as reactionary, abhorred any mention of the three Baltic countries as occupied or strove to kept distance to the emerging new consensus of Western approaches to security and relations with the Soviet Union.

For the Palme government, the incursions were indeed a major problem. It had planned to launch major political offensives for nuclear-free zones in the Nordic area as well as along the dividing line through Central Europe. But now, it was forced to fight very much more basic issues, having to defend both the territorial integrity of the country, and try to handle an increasing questioning of the basic tenets of its policy.

The hope was, of course, that the issue would go away. Now, at least, the embarrassment should have been too great. It was difficult to see, it was argued, what foreign policy goals could be served by these incursions.

But the incursions continued as the controversy moved on. In 1987, a major secret report from the Commander in Chief to the government described a system of larger operations against key areas for also Swedish defence, and reinforced the conclusion that these originated from the Soviet Union. This time, the government under Mr Ingvar Carlsson took pains to suppress the report and question its findings, but the issue continued to loom large on the public horizon.

And so it continued. The incursions had started to come to public attention under the reign in Moscow of Mr Brezjnev. Now, the Gorbavchev era was in full swing, but there seemed to be no change. The Swedish government had tried to soft-pedal the issue as much as possible in the belief that this was the best way to get the incursions to stop, and had tried to hint to Moscow that a Sweden without incursions would be more able to launch initiatives that might run in parallel with some Soviet objectives, but even this seemed to have no effect.

In 1991, a new Swedish government, lead by myself, took over. And now, the Soviet Union was in the final stages of its collapse. It was an issue of high priority to finally get the incursions stopped. Having applied for membership of the European Union, Sweden could hardly any longer claim to be striving to neutrality in future conflicts in Europe, but the incursions were a nuisance anyhow.

Now, the soft-pedalling of the issue stopped. After a major incursion in 1992, since confirmed by a number of independent evaluations, I brought the issue up in direct talks with new President Jeltsin of Russia. Expert talks between the Swedish and Russian navy representatives had then lead to the latter agreeing that the sonar tapes produced by Sweden did indeed indicate a submarine, although they continued to deny that it was theirs. Jeltsin promised to look closely into the issue. In private conversations, he referred to the difficulties he had had with getting the true story of the biological weapons program run, in direct violation of both international treaty commitments and assurances by Mr Gorbachev, by the Soviet military for years.

When the Swedish Commander-in-Chief later reported that there had been continued incursions during 1993, it was logical to bring these reports up with President Jeltsin again. Later, it transpired that these specific reports had been caused by biological phenomena, as new and sophisticated listening devices had been brought into use. An exchange of letters between President Jeltsin and myself in 1994, accordingly, did not bring the matter forward.

Today, it however seems to be an accepted view that the large-scale incursions ceased. The last major operation that can be confirmed is the one in 1992. There are reports even thereafter that cannot be discounted, but with all probability, we can talk about the end of the era of large-scale submarine incursions into Sweden during 1992 or 1993. The success that had eluded us for so long was now there.

But the controversies continued. A group of opinion, anchored primarily on the left of the political spectrum, continued to develop different conspiracy theories, and launch them in the public debate. Sometimes, all the reports were simply fake, while sometimes, they were the results of devious Western plots. The CIA was accused of having undertaken all the incursions in order to discredit the Soviet Union and to bring Sweden closer to the West.

The theories were very diverse. But what united all these attempts and theories was that no indication pointing in the direction of Soviet incursions was ever accepted, while practically any theory involving some sort of NATO responsibility was supposed to be taken very seriously.

Now, the Social Democrats were back in power again, and set up a new high-level commission to look into all the observations and indications. Reporting in 1995, it confirmed the incursions, and claimed that at the least eight causes since 1980 were absolutely certain, with up to twenty more observations highly likely to have been incursions as well.

Although the revisionist claimed that these numbers were much smaller than the numbers of alleged sightings and reports, they did indicate a rather substantial activity against Sweden. If, on an extremely optimistic assumption, every third incursion had been positively confirmed, or very close to that, one ended up with between thirty and a hundred operations against Sweden during a decade. This was no small military effort, unlikely to be undertaken if there was not solid reasons for it.

But the 1995 commission did not believe that one could conclusively prove that the 1982 incursions has been Soviet, and noted that it had not been possible to prove the nationality of any of the indications since then either. For those with knowledge of the issues, this was conventional wisdom, since it is virtually impossible to prove the nationality of a single indication, but for the revisionist it was manna from Heaven.

Even the 1995 commission did not settle the issue. Now and then, the media went into frenzy as some so-called independent reporter claimed that he could prove that it had all been a set-up by NATO and the Americans. And after the latest of these, the new Prime Minister Persson asked Ambassador Ekeus to do an evaluation of the entire issue.

In contrast to all previous cases of commissions being set up, this was not a decision taken with support from the political opposition. It had called for a broader report on the security policy of Sweden, to follow an earlier report whose work only covered the period until 1969, and that had proven to be both revealing and controversial. But Persson overruled the opposition, and appointed Ambassador Ekeus to single-handedly evaluate both the entire submarine issue and the entire Swedish security policy since 1969. Key figures of the time, including the two principal Under-Secretaries of Foreign Affairs, reacted by saying that they had no intention to cooperate with the Ekeus efforts. It was too narrow, and there was too large a risk that it was to be politically biased, they claimed.

In mid-November, Ambassador Ekeus has presented his report. It represents a determined attempt to switch the national consensus towards the revisionist view. By downplaying and questioning every single bit of information pointing in the direction of the Soviet Union, and by playing up different theories indicating NATO responsibility, he arrives at the conclusion that nothing can be known, accordingly nothing must be said, but that the motives for the Soviet Union and for NATO were roughly the equal in importance.

This is bizarre in itself. Since the 1980’s, we have gained not only more information about the nature of Soviet power, but also about the previously little known Soviet units operating minisubmarines also in the Baltic. The theory that the governments in Washington, London or Bonn would have conducted extensive secret submarine operations against Sweden, and preserved that secret since, looks even less realistic than it did then. And while one could have argued a certain caution in relations with the neighbouring superpower in those days, we are now dealing with a Soviet Union that is history. It is a rather belated defence of the Soviet Union.

As the decades have passed, it would have been more natural to expect a more open treatment also of the issue of the nationality of the intruders. The fact that the Ekeus report wants to go in the opposite direction will be seen as very strange by any foreign observer, and can only be explained if the report is seen as an expression of present domestic politics rather than as a serious attempt to write the history of the period.

This becomes obvious if one notes that the reports devotes no attention at all to the way in which different Social Democratic governments of the 1980’s dealt with the issue in its interaction with the Soviet Union, although this was an issue much debated at the time.

The only instance of political action versus outside powers examined by the Ekeus report, and the only time when the word “failure” is used in the report, is concerning my exchange of letters with Jeltsin in 1994. With the not unreasonable assumption that the aim of Swedish policy during these years should have been to get the incursions to stop, the word “failure” would not have been out of place for what happened during the 1990’s, while the early 1990’s, through a combination of factors, brought the success that hitherto had eluded us. This would be the perspective natural for any more serious student of the challenge these incursions represented to the security policy of Sweden. But the perspective of the Ekeus report is, obviously, a different one.

This is confirmed by the way in which Ekeus deals with the way successive Swedish governments dealt with the issue. That he condemns the attempts by my non-socialist government to deal with the issue also in direct talks with Moscow is hardly surprising. More surprising, but also revealing, is that he takes Mr Palme to issue for setting up the Submarine Defence Commission in 1982. Its report, he claims, produced a crisis for the foreign policy ambitions of the then government, and he even says that Mr Palme abdicated from his constitutional responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs and – just hear! – failed to live up to the expectations of his voters.

Any more detached observer would probably say that the crisis was produced by the incursions rather than the report on the incursions. And the same observer would probably have lauded Palme for seeking to anchor policy on a critical issue like this more broadly in the political system. As for the expectations of the voters, that might well be an issue where Mr Ekeus can claim at the least to be one of the observers.

But the thrust of the Ekeus report is that whatever reports there might have been, they should have been suppressed the one way or the other, so that the foreign policy initiates of the governments would not be jeopardized by issues derived more from national security concerns than from wider ambitions of some sort. While critical of Palme, rather preposterously making himself a custodian of Swedish constitutional principles, he applauds Carlsson for de facto suppressing the 1987 secret report by the Commander-in-Chief, having a group of primarily political appointees question all its basic assumptions, and discarding everything that could not be proven beyond any doubt.

Ekeus has spent most of his diplomatic career outside of Sweden. He has never dealt with core issues of national security, or with the relationship with the Soviet Union. His main field has been the fields of disarmament and the United Nations, where he has also served with distinction. As such, he is likely to have been among the politically committed Swedish diplomats during the 1980’s that saw the entire question of the submarine incursions as a diversion at best and a threat at the worst, longing for the days when they could say that it was all a delusion, and that one could return to an agenda that never should have been lost.

His report has opened up the old issue again, and has produced more questions than answers. But the questions apply less to the substance of the issue, which belongs to the past, than to how the issue is handled today, and what that might mean for the future.

There is a risk that the report will do damage to the image of Sweden.

Sweden needs no longer be concerned with safeguard the credibility of a neutrality policy that disappeared in the early 1990’s with the great changes in Europe, but rather with building credibility as a partner with other European countries as well as the US when it comes also to security issues of different sorts.

And then, the question might be asked if a nation that is unable to be honest with its past can be relied upon to deal with the critical issues of the future.

Trying to be a constructive member of the European Union, and developing a relationship also with NATO, isn’t their a risk in starting to throw out accusations on deliberate incursions into Swedish waters against key Western nations, when there is absolutely nothing in any serious Swedish or international reporting that suggests that this has been the case?

The Ekeus report has opened up the debate over these issues again. It’s a discussion about the history of security issues in the Baltic Sea area during the final decades of the Cold War that should be told. But it is unfortunate that the Ekeus report, by its attempt at a belated defence of the Soviet Union, and its fallback into past attitudes of a past era in Swedish foreign policy, risks doing itself, the issue and Sweden a disservice.

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