The Great Paradox of Swedish Neutrality in the Cold War and Today


For years now, political observers have struggled to properly assess Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy aims and ambitions. One large obstacle standing in the way of realistic analysis might be that today’s decision-makers have ever-weaker memories of the Soviet Union and the workings of the communist state system.

As Anne Applebaum recently pointed out in Commentary, most people under the age of 40 have no personal recollection of Soviet times or any understanding of what life under the Soviet system truly was like. Yet Russia’s present-day officials, who are products of the Soviet system, and in particular of its state security apparatus, excel in the same methods of manipulation and repression. For those in charge of Western democracies, Applebaum writes, “[T]he collapse of the USSR meant that they could finally move on and think about something else.” For Putin’s generation of former Soviet leaders, on the other hand, it was “the most shattering and disorienting experience of their lives.” While American politicians felt they could begin to forget about the Cold War, emerging Russian leaders were doomed to remember it constantly as their nation adjusted to its lesser status.

The possibility that Vladimir Putin may follow up his bold moves in Syria and Ukraine with aggressive steps in the Baltic states has been widely discussed in Washington, D.C. and other Western capitals. However, the risk that he may also attack non-NATO countries like Sweden in order to restore Russia to its former glory, has not fully entered the general consciousness of Western leaders. In Sweden, on the other hand, political insiders, especially former intelligence officers and diplomats who remember first-hand the methods of Soviet rhetoric and propaganda, have been sounding the alarm for some time now.

The West is suffering from what Masha Gessen has called “a failure of imagination” when it comes to understanding Putin. As a former senior Swedish diplomat, Ambassador Bo J. Theutenberg’s recently published memoir is a corrective to this failure, underscoring for a new generation of leaders the urgent relevance of the experiences and insights gained by those familiar with the Soviet past.

Relying on the unedited notes he took almost daily over the span of his career, Theutenberg crafts a narrative that is as hard charging as it is revealing. The first volume focuses largely on Theutenberg’s involvement in a number of Cold War crises, especially the repeated violations of Swedish territorial waters by Soviet submarines during the early 1980s. The second volume examines the inherent moral ambiguity of Sweden’s neutrality policy, with its many twists and turns, as well as Theutenberg’s interactions with some of its main players, including most notably the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who was murdered in 1986. This event seems to have been, as we shall see, inextricably linked to the drama of Sweden’s Cold War neutrality.

The reaction in Sweden to Theutenberg’s revelations has been predictably muted, mainly because the content remains sensitive for a society that largely eschews public dissent. Theutenberg is widely perceived as an unapologetic political conservative. Yet, regardless of whether one agrees with Theutenberg’s views or not, the first-hand account he offers from the unique vantage point as both legal advisor and major in the Swedish Air Force Reserve, with deep insight into intelligence and defense matters, constitutes a historical document of considerable importance.

Theutenberg’s overall message is clear: What may have appeared to detached observers as fairly benign and peaceful Soviet intentions had a distinctly different feel to those who had a front-row seat at crucial events. From Theutenberg’s perspective, Sweden’s seemingly safe position of neutrality left it in fact far more exposed and vulnerable than the public and even many Swedish officials ever realized.

A lawyer by training, with a speciality in international law, Theutenberg joined the Swedish Foreign Ministry in 1966. His early postings took him to Baghdad, New York, and Moscow. In 1976, he assumed the post of chief legal adviser before resigning abruptly in 1987 in protest over the Ministry’s pro-Soviet orientation. He is the only official of his stature in the Swedish diplomatic service to ever take such a step in modern times.

Theutenberg’s resignation was prompted by what he saw as a pronounced tendency of leading Swedish diplomats to define foreign policy largely on the basis of leftist ideological preferences, rather than according to the standards of international law. In Theutenberg’s assessment, the Swedish government’s accommodation of the Soviet Union during the Cold War went far beyond what has been traditionally attributed to the country’s deep-seated fear of its powerful Eastern neighbor, and had far more sinister causes.

After World War II, the Soviet Union made Sweden a key target of its foreign and military intelligence operations, focusing in particular on governmental structures and the media. According to Theutenberg, Russian intelligence officials today still consider the postwar Swedish infiltration missions among the most successful in the history of their organizations. He warns that scholars have not fully appreciated the true extent of these operations, in large part due to lack of proper primary source materials which remain classified in a variety of international intelligence archives.

Theutenberg also provides a riveting insider’s account of the previously unknown discussions that occurred inside the Swedish government and the Swedish Foreign Ministry in October 1981, when a Soviet submarine ran aground in Swedish waters near Karlskrona, in the immediate vicinity of the country’s most advanced naval base (known as the “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident). A year later, in October 1982, a similar incursion occurred in the Hårsfjärden Fjord in the Stockholm Archipelago, near the naval bases at Berga and Muskö.

Several aspects of these incidents remain controversial.  Various Soviet and later Russian governments claimed that the captain of the S-363 had simply made a navigational error and some analysts like Ola Tunander of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway (PRIO) , as well as Russian officials like Boris Grigoriev, a former Soviet foreign intelligence rezident in Stockholm during the 1980s, have argued that the Hårsfjärden incident was a non-event.  Given the cumulative technical evidence, however, Theutenberg insists that the Soviets acted with clear intent and that an accidental violation of Swedish territory could be ruled out, especially taking into consideration Soviet attitudes and behavior towards Sweden at the time. Indeed, the former Soviet U.N. Under Secretary General Arkady Shevchenko, who defected to the United States in 1978, revealed in his memoir that as early as 1970 the Soviet Politburo had decided “to send submarines to probe Swedish and Norwegian coastal areas.”

A related topic that Theutenberg discusses is the war scare of the early 1980s and the unprecedented Operation RYAN mounted by the Soviet intelligence services to ensure that they would not be caught unawares by a Western military attack. By the spring of 1981, in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s election, the Soviet leadership’s reported fear of  a nuclear first strike against the Soviet mainland increased even further. In response, the KGB — under its hawkish chief Yuri Andropov — and the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) launched Operation RYAN (Raketno Yadernoye Napadenie, “nuclear missile attack”) whose main purpose was to obtain information about such an impending attack through clandestine foreign and military intelligence operations.  As a result, neutral Sweden and the Baltic Sea took center stage as a staging ground for a potential nuclear conflict between the superpowers. The planned attack routes of U.S. and NATO jets ran straight through Swedish airspace; and from places like the Bothnian Sea, Soviet nuclear submarines could easily target NATO bases in northern Norway.

According to the recently published memoirs of Swedish one-star Adm. Nils-Ove Jansson, former head of the Intelligence and Security Department of the Swedish Defense Staff, one of the key goals for the Soviet leadership was to ensure that U.S. and NATO forces could not influence the course of war in Central Europe from strategic positions in Sweden. If Soviet intelligence operations had confirmed plans of a NATO attack, the Soviet Union would have immediately launched Operation “Anti-RYAN,” a preemptive nuclear strike targeting the United States and Western Europe. The alleged operation entailed, among other things, the deployment of up to 50 radio-controlled nuclear mines and other special devices. The latter included medium-range missiles in the Baltic countries, aimed at Sweden. The intent was to destroy strategic targets like Swedish air and naval bases, ammunition and fuel depots, as well as telecommunication centers, and to assassinate key military personnel. In fact, Jansson claims that the Soviet submarine incursion in 1981 was directly connected to these efforts. The submarine’s presumed task was to pick up a group of Soviet spetsnaz divers out on a reconnaissance mission around Karlskrona.

Theutenberg (like Jansson) now warns that President Putin, a known admirer of Yuri Andropov, may well be taking a page out of his old boss’s playbook. Finnish security expert Stefan Forss shares similar concerns. In a recent letter published on Theutenberg’s blog, he urged experts to compare Operation RYAN and Anti-RYAN of the early 1980s “with the Putin regime’s analyses and statements. Andropov’s rhetoric from the early 1980s is back in a way that is dumbfounding.” Forss seized upon Putin’s most recent remarks at the annual Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi as a prime example. At the gathering, which brings together international experts with a focus on Russian affairs, Putin talked bluntly about the dangers of the “unilateral domination” that has led to “an imbalance in the [global political] system.” Putin’s statements clearly echoed Andropov’s warning in 1983, which is cited in the recently declassified report “The Soviet War Scare” issued by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in 1990. Andropov targeted his speech directly at the United States, referring to the risks of a “game without rules” — where one side (the United States) would seek unchecked dominance over the other (the Soviet Union). “Would the United States permit someone to achieve superiority over them?” Andropov asked. “I doubt it. And this is why we should not tolerate it either.”

Theutenberg’s insider account also addresses the ongoing difficulties of Swedish neutrality. He effectively unveils the glaring contradictions (“the grand paradox”) that characterized Swedish foreign policy of neutrality for almost seven decades, from the 1930s through the 1990s. Although nominally neutral, the country had in fact maintained an extremely close and completely secret military cooperation with the United States.

As early as the early 1950s, Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander felt that Sweden could not survive if it maintained its insular position of neutrality. It was on his direct instruction that Sweden began extensive and highly secret military contacts with the United States and NATO. This serious breach of Swedish neutrality was obscured and offset by the often strident pro-Soviet policies pursued by Sweden’s Social Democratic government in subsequent decades.

More than anyone else, it was Olof Palme, Erlander’s close aid and protégé, who personified this Swedish paradox. Palme rose to become prime minister in 1969 but was assassinated in 1986 as he walked through downtown Stockholm. Many observers, including Theutenberg, fear that the deep contradictions of the Swedish neutrality policies lay at the heart of his still unsolved murder in 1986. How could, Theutenberg asks, a man from a conservative social and political background, with pro-American sentiments (an alumnus of Ohio’s Kenyon College and lifelong friend of actor Paul Newman) and a strong intelligence background, have been transformed into a pro-Soviet and pro-Communist political leader? How did it all fit together, especially since Palme was among the elite few officials in Sweden who knew and apparently approved of the country’s de facto alliance with the United States and NATO? Theutenberg wonders whether Palme’s murder was “the result of the insupportable contradictions, of ‘a Machiavellian double-game’ that went overboard that cold evening of 28 February 1986.” Or, as his colleagues in Sweden’s Joint Intelligence Bureau speculated, was it one of the most successful Soviet covert operations of the Cold War?

In his memoirs, Theutenberg is not shy about naming those Swedish politicians who he suspects fell under the sway of the Soviet or East German intelligence services. He counts veteran diplomats Sverker Åström and Pierre Schori, both former under secretaries at the Foreign Ministry and ambassadors to the United Nations, as well as Rolf Ekéus, a former ambassador to the United States and member of several U.N. disarmament commissions, among Sweden’s Soviet supporters. As Theutenberg views it, this specific group of officials, who were generally known as “Palme’s boys” and who occupied key posts at home and abroad, successfully exploited the main weakness in Palme’s mindset, which was his constant need to reaffirm his Social Democratic credentials.

Theutenberg clearly sees his diary as a way to set the historical record straight and to issue a warning that history is about to repeat itself. He worries that Sweden is unable to free itself from the near stranglehold wrought by years of successful Communist infiltration into key areas of Swedish society and governmental bodies. In his mind, Sweden’s extreme leftist orientation of the past decades carries serious ramifications for the current political discourse, including the debate over Sweden’s pending membership in NATO. Theutenberg worries that the discussion is far from objective and that the voices arguing in favor of Sweden joining NATO are simply drowned out.

While Theutenberg’s views are bound to be controversial, his unique experience as a central player in the Swedish political and defense arena over two crucial decades demands attention. If his claims are confirmed, they may well lead to a reassessment of key aspects of Swedish Cold War politics.


Susanne Berger is a writer and historical researcher, with a focus on Sweden and the Cold War. From 1991–2001 she served as independent consultant to an official Swedish–Russian Working Group that investigated the fate of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Russia.


Image credit: Nicolas Raymond (adapted by WOTR)