Uncatchable Russian submarines may be loose once more in the cold, northern waters of the Nordic nations of Europe. Their mission? To break the Internet.

Last September, explosions hit the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, severely disrupting supply flows, an event still shrouded in mystery. Any number of actors have been blamed for the sabotage – America, Britain, Ukraine – but in April it emerged that Danish defense patrols had taken 112 photographs of Russian vessels loitering near the pipeline in the days leading up to the outrage, including one with a mini-submarine on-board. Had the sub disgorged frogmen with mines to hold Europe energy ransom?  

A pan-Scandinavian TV investigation revealed fears that Russian “fishing vessels” were disguised spy-ships, equipped to sever undersea communications lines. In January 2022, two fiber-optic cables connecting Norway to its remote Svalbard archipelago were cut, seemingly by a Russian “trawler”. Coming just prior to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, was this a warning to the West not to intervene? 

Trillions of dollars could be wiped off enemy economies if web-connected Western ATMs, servers, electricity networks and water supplies failed due to such activities taking months to repair. Former Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev explicitly said in June that Russia had the “moral” right to cut such cables. Proclaiming “the proven complicity of Western countries in blowing up the Nord Steams,” Medvedev gave President Putin free rein to ruin our sub-sea infrastructure likewise.

Whiskeys Galore?

Nordic fear of Russian submarines is therefore wholly rational. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they are actually always there. One sub which definitely was there was the S-363, a Soviet-era Whiskey-Class patrol submersible, possibly equipped with nuclear weapons, which ran aground off the Swedish Coast in October 1981, in an event dubbed “Whiskey On The Rocks“. Eventually, the sub was refloated and exited Swedish waters peacefully.

Sweden was technically neutral during the Cold War, leading to its marine defenses being probed by both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The “Whiskey” incident made this fact abundantly clear. From 1982 to long after the Cold War had ended, nervous civilians and military alike reported sightings of subs across Scandinavia. In 1994, the Swedish PM sent an angry letter of complaint to Russia’s then-leader, Boris Yeltsin. But were these uncatchable “ghost-subs” really ever there?

As with Nord Stream, the evidence is highly ambiguous, perhaps by design. It has been argued Russia pushes two contradictory messages with such events simultaneously (i.e, “Look what we can do! Not that we ever actually did do it, you understand. . .”). Denial and ridicule are key parts of this psy-ops toolkit. The Russians try to make those voicing reasonable suspicions look like paranoid idiots.

UFOs: Unidentified Farting Objects

A classic example came with the conclusion by Magnus Wahlberg, of the University of Southern Denmark, that the 1980s ghost-subs were overexcited naval misidentifications of herring farts. Swedish vessels recorded “enemy” sound signals resembling “popping”. In 1996, bioacoustics specialist Wahlberg was invited to analyze these for himself. Knowing Sweden’s fame for herrings, he got one, put it into a fish tank, and made it break wind by squeezing it. The acoustic signature matched those of the 1980s. When an entire shoal farted en masse, possibly frightened by the approach of a surveillance ship, the sound was large enough to register onboard. 

This is often reported humorously on pop-science websites – some of which, despite being in the English language, are actually Russian – as solving the entire mystery, the implication being that anyone who thinks such ghost-subs really are penetrating Scandinavian waters is a tinfoil-hat nut stupid enough to waste their time recording fish farts. Yet there was actually much more to the 1980s panic than simple sound recordings, an inconvenient fact such reports conveniently elide.

Unknown undersea objects are known in military circles as USOs (Unidentified Submerged Objects) and such things do imaginatively resemble the more familiar UFOs in many respects. When the US military wished to debunk UFOs in the 1950s to avoid panic, they often explained them away as “temperature inversions” or “marsh gas”, technical-sounding terms designed to calm public worries. The “fish farts” line fulfils a similar function with regards to USOs. 

Yet, whatever UFOs may or may not be, marsh gas and temperature inversions can’t really account for many of their reported alleged behaviors, any more than fish farts can account for many 1980s reports of phantom Soviet subs. Suspicious magnetic signatures and radio intercepts were also detected, and periscopes were seen. Herring farts don’t do that.

ET Phone Kremlin

Everyone is familiar with images of strange soil-markings and footprints in remote areas which believers claim came from landed UFOs and their diligent, sample-gathering ET occupants. Compare these to sketches of similar-looking marks from the beach adjoining a Swedish air base at Luleå, where in June 1983 a day-tripping husband and wife, the Alvhuts, found unusual tank-track-like trails and footprints leading up from the water onto the shore and then back out again.  

Not being saucer-heads, the Alvhuts presumed frogmen from Moscow, not Mars, were responsible; the apparent landing-point was close to some undersea cables linked to the airbase. Analysts later guessed some top-secret, tracked, seafloor-crawling Russian submarine was responsible, and that its occupants, like those of UFOs, were taking sand samples. By the time military investigators made sketches, though, the tracks were almost obliterated by rain, meaning you either believe the original witnesses’ word or you don’t – as with most UFO cases. 

Bizarrely, the footprints had rivetted hobnails, like antique diver’s boots, whereas 1980s Russian frogmen would have worn rubber swimfins. Plus, whilst other enigmatic tracks were photographed by the Swedes on their seabed at various different locations, none matched up with each other. How many different models of tank-sub did Moscow have? Were these all misidentifications of some natural phenomenon which just looked like tank-sub tracks to suspicious Scandi eyes?

Warlords of Atlantis

There were other panics about “alien frogmen” (the specific descriptor used at the time) in 1980s Sweden. Like most UFO-disgorged aliens, these too proved remarkably impossible to capture. 

Extraordinary 1984 reports of a military blockade of an apparent trapped sub within the Karlskrona archipelago speak of Swedish troops and helicopters dropping shock grenades and depth charges, while firing machine guns at fleeing, yet supernaturally evasive, frogmen. On 79 separate occasions, guns or grenades were used. 1984 marked the first year soldiers had fired in anger on Swedish soil since 1809. 

Troops even stopped a funeral procession and opened the coffin, checking for Russian spies – the plot of a 1960s Avengers episode. Urban legends about wounded Soviet frogmen being carted off to secret military bases strongly recall similar legends about dead ETs being treated likewise at places like Roswell. Were the 1980s Swedish military spooked into becoming inadvertent ufologists here? 

The Phantom Menace

The whole affair, whilst sparked by a genuine initial event, ultimately became at least partly a mass social panic. But the results were unambiguously genuine. As one 1986 naval report shows, Sweden massively boosted its defense budget in response to the ghost-subs, even developing innovative new weapons to pierce the ghosts’ hulls. Sweden’s Ambassador to Moscow was recalled, whilst civilian shipping’s freedom became severely curtailed. 

So, even if Russia wasn’t sending out any subs, merely by giving the impression it was, it won a certain economic and tactical victory nonetheless. With Russian subs seemingly on the loose again (or not) in Scandinavian waters today, NATO should reanalyze the 1980s episodes to prepare themselves for how Moscow could play similar mind-games once again.

As for the true ontological status of the 1980s vessels, nobody really knows. Clearly recognizing the magnitude of the philosophical puzzle, one internal investigation into the affair was headed up by a retired Swedish Rear Admiral with the appropriately intellectual name of Soren Kierkegaard! If even Kierkegaard couldn’t solve it, perhaps no one can.