Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Whisky on the Rocks Crisis (27 October 1981)

Grounding of a Soviet submarine on the Swedish coast that caused an international incident in October 1981. Throughout the 1980s, neutral Sweden was plagued by a series of Soviet submarine intrusions into its territorial waters. The most significant and public of these events was the grounding of a Soviet Whisky-class diesel-powered attack submarine inside a restricted zone located near the Swedish naval base at Karlskrona. The sub ran aground on the night of 27 October 1981 and was discovered by a Swedish fisherman as its crew was attempting unsuccessfully to extricate themselves.

When queried by astonished Swedish Navy officials, the Soviet captain declared that a "navigation error" brought the submarine to its resting place. Swedish signals intelligence, however, intercepted orders from a Soviet Kashin-class destroyer instructing the captain to concoct a cover story. Sweden formally complained to Soviet officials and asked them to apologize, pay for salvage costs, permit a Swedish salvage crew to do the job, and allow the submarine's captain to be interrogated. The Swedish ambassador to the Soviet Union was then confronted by a Soviet deputy foreign minister—and ten silent Soviet admirals behind him—who agreed to the first three demands but refused to allow the submarine captain to be questioned.

Meanwhile, a formidable Soviet naval task force assembled off the Swedish coast in international waters to intimidate the Swedish government. Six days passed. Then, a Swedish radiological survey team discovered that radiation was leaking from the Soviet sub's torpedo tube area. At that point, the Swedes concluded that the Whisky-class boat contained nuclear weapons. Sweden eventually permitted the submarine to depart after having taken full advantage of the crisis for propaganda purposes. It was later determined that the Whisky-class boat had been covertly observing classified Swedish torpedo trials off Karlskrona.

In 1982, unidentified submarine intrusions into Swedish territorial waters increased dramatically. It was assumed that they were of Soviet origin. Small submersibles, some using a tracked propulsion system, infiltrated Swedish minefields, and divers tampered with the mine suspension chains. On a number of occasions, Swedish antisubmarine forces dropped depth charges on suspected submarine contacts. The number of intrusions increased to sixty in 1983, finally tapering off to fifteen in 1986. The reasons behind this Soviet submarine activity are uncertain, although it is assumed that this was prompted by a combination of reconnaissance, intimidation, and training exercises.

Sean M. Maloney


Further Reading
Leitenberg, Milton. Soviet Submarine Intrusions in Swedish Waters, 1980–1986. New York: Praeger, 1987.
 

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