Ryss Skräck

Kajsa Ohrlander and Bernard Porter

View full image

Sweden has always had a problem with Russians and the sea. You can see why when you visit the Stockholm Archipelago and learn about the days when whole islands were set on fire by Russian invadersin the 18th century. Covered with fir trees and little wooden houses, they are very combustible. Whole towns were burned down. It was called a ‘terror’ campaign. Against this, Sweden’s easterndefences are not too impressive. The story is told of the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke that he laughed ‘only twice in his life: once when he heard of the death of his mother-in-law, and thenwhen he visited Waxholm.’ Waxholm fort was supposed to be Stockholm’s outer defence.

Russophobia (ryss skräck) has been a constant in Swedish history. Children used to be warned that the Russians would come and get them if they didn’t behave. During the Cold War there werefrequent scares about Russian submarines snooping among the islands, the biggest of which led to a full-scale diplomatic crisis in October 1981. A Soviet sub armed with nuclear weapons was groundednear Karlskrona, a Swedish naval base. The Russians claimed it had lost its way; the Swedish military suspected it was part of more widespread and implicitly hostile Soviet surveillance of theSwedish coast. Some subsequent sightings have undoubtedly been genuine, but others turned out to be mistaken. According to Ola Tunander, in The Secret War Against Sweden: US and BritishSubmarine Deception in the 1980s (2004), many of them were set up by Britain and America to persuade the Swedes to join Nato. The Liberals, the most pro-Nato party in Sweden, are exploitingthis recent incident to the same end. There was already plenty of anti-Putin feeling over Ukraine, as well as dislike of Russian authoritarianism and fears for the Baltic States.

What the truth of it is we don’t know yet. The only picture circulating in the Swedish press, an amateur photograph purporting to show the submarine, has a Loch Ness Monster look about it. Early onpeople were sceptical; but cumulative evidence from the military authorities, experts and researchers, and from the secret services, has now persuaded most people that there actually are one ormore submarines – or maybe minisubs – in the Archipelago that shouldn’t be there, and that they are indeed Russian. As a result there has been a massive navy operation – the biggest in Sweden sincethe Cold War – to discover, and then to stop, chase or follow the submarine(s). There has been huge media coverage almost every minute of the day, with people going out in private boats to catch aglimpse of the mysterious sub. We’re all very excited. Yesterday’s Dagens Nyheter had a map showing its probable route from Nämdö, where it was first spotted on Friday, past ‘our’ island(we have a sommarhus on Svartsö), and south into the open Baltic. The latest rumour is that the Swedish military is going to let it get away. We’ll see.

Most of the attention has been on the chase itself, less on the Russians’ motives. They are difficult to fathom, which is one reason people were reluctant to believe the whole thing. What do theRussians want from us? (Surely not our wonderful parental leave?) Do they plan to invade? (In 2013 Russian bombers were spotted flying over Stockholm and southern Sweden.) It seems unlikely.Another theory is that the Russians want to scare us, after the Social Democratic/Green victory in the recent election, out of joining Nato. Or is it simply a silly game of cat and mouse?

On the Swedish side, do the military genuinely believe in this new Russian threat, or is it simply a ruse to increase defence spending? After the end of the Cold War there was a longish period ofseeming rapprochement with Russia. The idea of a strong military became more and more redundant. Expenditure on the army and navy fell sharply. This may be changing now, in response to these eventsin the beautiful Archipelago. The old ryss skräck is returning.


  • 22 October 2014 at 8:36pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Let’s see now. Sweden’s loss of the Great Northern War occurred in 1721. This ended her century and a half’s efforts to become a Great Power, having at times controlled most of Finland, the Baltic States, and a good stretch of the Pomeranian coast. In terms of ceded territories Russia was the big winner, though smaller states such as Denmark, Prussia, and Saxony (with its dynastic foot in Poland) came out ahead too. What could this possibly mean today, other than a nation’s “deep history” affecting its current mentality in a not entirely rational way? Naturally the USSR had “war plans” for invading Scandinavia during the Cold War, but this was just one among many hypothetical scenarios to be implemented if and when a non-nuclear war broke out between the USSR and NATO. Russian sensitivities about Sweden, if they even exist, don’t have the heat and recent memory associated with their strong feelings about the Baltic States, their weaker feelings about Finland, and their stronger feelings about Ukraine or potential troubles in the Caucasian regions of the state. Sweden must be very low on their list of priorities. Skulking submarines? Probably routine exercises in which the submariners try to see how clever they are and how easy or difficult to detect, as well as how efficiently they can escape capture. Remember the big “Courland pocket” of German troops that remained disengaged during the final year of WWII – all there to protect a stretch of coast where Doenitz intended to test his new-technology submarines that might reverse or slow down German defeat (phrased in these terms the argument found a willing ear in Hitler). In this fantasy the Baltic Sea was not so much an area of naval warfare but a safe testing ground for equipment that would be used in the Atlantic. Maybe this is a factor in Russian zaniness too. If the trespasses took place, they violate sovereignty, but that’s mostly a rhetorical call in this instance, because it seems unlikely that Putin has the Swedes on his target list. He’s just testing the waters, so to speak, a habit he indulges elsewhere too.

  • 23 October 2014 at 3:55am
    tony lynch says:
    Putin is testing the waters, a habit he indulges elsewhere too.

    That's right! Habitually Putin invades, bombs and drones Islamic states. Habitually he ignores international law. Habitually he uses ngos, to destabilise statesmfor favourable regme change. That god we are not like that!

  • 23 October 2014 at 2:27pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Ah, yes, the obsessive returns to the scene of his obsession, the rest of reality be damned. The discussion being about Swedish worries over Russia (rather than about crazy, brutal repetitive US "interventions"/invasions, a different subject altogether), it's only natural for alynch to bring in drones, ngos, destabilization of states, and the big, bad wolf known as imperial amerikkka. Well, I think readers can see where this discussion will go as alynch jumps in, because it always goes to the same place; "intellectual hobbyhorse" is a kind way to put it. I note that the title and subject of the piece is "Ryss Scraeck" not "USA Scraeck" or "NATO Scraeck", and that it dwells on Swedish thoughts about Russia and Putin. When I see alynch waving his threadbare banner (worn out by constant ventilation), I begin to suffer "Dreck Skraeck".

  • 26 October 2014 at 4:22am
    ivoholmqvist says:
    OK, good, but not the rubrik:

    The Swedish for being afraid of the Russians is rysskräck - one word

    rysk skräck = Russian fright

    Ryss skräck does not exist, let alone capital letters in a rubrik except for the first letter of the first word

    • 29 October 2014 at 11:59am
      Louisa says: @ ivoholmqvist
      Heh, that was actually my first thought, too.

      I don't think "Sweden has always had a problem with Russians and the sea.", though -- that's a rather "modern" view, since earlier the scares often worked in the other direction. Medieval kings crusading against the Eastern heathens (Orthodox, not proper Catholics at all!) and on into the 1600s (setting up Russian pretenders and meddling in the borderlands). Only then did the direction reverse and the Russians begin kicking in *our* teeth for a change).

    • 4 November 2014 at 9:16pm
      balticwolf says: @ Louisa
      Having done my military service in Sweden during the years real Russian submarines involuntarily stranded on Swedish shores and then later extensively tested the marine defenses, I think this discussion might be helped by an understanding of the naval doctrine of the Russians. The doctrine is not all to different to that prevalent during the times of Czar Alexander. Originally Russia was landlocked and has since more than 300 years been looking for warm water ports, connected to the Russian landmass.

      The annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war by proxy around the Eastern Ukrainian landmass along the Sea of Asimov can be seen in this context. Crimea is not a more safe naval harbor than Baltisk until it is connected to the Russian landmass.

      As the Black Sea fleet can not count on safe passage through the Bosporus Putin has increased the Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean. The logistical problem is that its only naval petrol station is a small Russian port in Syria. Loosing Assad means loosing a secured naval presence in the Mediterranean, hence the almost idiotic support of Assad.

      Many Swedes are aware of that Russia's naval presence in the Baltic Sea is dependent on the not always ice free naval bases surrounding St:Petersburg. The Kaliningrad harbor of Baltisk is an enclave surrounded by NATO states and indefensible without war with NATO.

      In the world order post WWII Finland was part of the Soviet sphere of influence and Sweden neutral. The Baltics waters were accessible to the Russian naval forces.

      With the aggressive stance of Russia in Ukraine, the Swedish and the Finish governments are pondering jointly joining NATO. The increased pressure by infringing upon Swedish and Finish airspace and the more than likely presence of Russian submarines in Swedish waters are not orchestrated by NATO to get Sweden and Finland to join them, it is the Russian way to get the message across, not to join NATO or else.

      Sweden has remained independent for 1200 years plus, not by being afraid of its enemies, but by knowing who the enemy is and what makes him tick: The Russian bear is afraid that we misbehave and is venting his frustration. So be it, not something to be terrified by, but reason to increase vigilance, so, in my opinion, "Rysskräck" is not a good heading indeed.

Read more