Authorities in Sweden have said that swarms of mystery drones repeatedly violated restricted airspace over several sensitive areas and government facilities for nearly a week. The incidents began on January 13, when an unidentified drone was spotted flying near Kiruna airport in northern Sweden.
Sightings ramped up the following day when unmanned aircraft were seen flying over several nuclear power plants, hundreds of miles apart from each other, along Sweden’s eastern and western coasts. (Read more about these events)
Officials say at least 20 mystery drones were sighted in the following days, with aircraft observed over protected areas, including parliament and government buildings, the Nordborg waterworks (Sweden’s largest water supplier), and the Royal Palace.
According to Swedish news outlet Aftonbladet, at least 6-7 unmanned aircraft were seen flying over southern Stockholm on Monday, January 17, prompting an hours-long chase by Swedish police, military, and Coast Guard. Eyewitnesses described the mysterious aircraft as “black military wing drones.”
It hasn’t been confirmed that these incidents are all connected, and officials say they currently don’t have any suspects. However, in a recent interview, Swedish Minister of Defense Peter Hulqvist said it can’t be ruled out that the incursions are the work of a foreign government.
“I can not speculate about things that are not clarified… police [should] investigate now. But in general it can be said that these [drones] are of course something that can be found in the arsenal of foreign powers,” Hulqvist told a reporter with Aftonbladet.
Much remains unclear about the incidents. However, the apparent coordination and descriptions of large fixed-wing drones suggest that some of Sweden’s mystery drone incidents represent the actions of a state government, rather than reckless hobbyists.
Examining the hypothesis that Sweden’s mystery drones result from government-backed military operations, there are plenty of indications suggesting these incursions are likely to be the latest extension of Russia’s continued aggressive posture towards Europe’s Western democracies.
TENSION MOUNTING ALONG THE BALTIC SEA
Most of the geopolitical world has been anxiously laser-focused on the recent Russian military build-up on the Ukraine border. With hundreds of thousands of troops and military hardware at the ready, all indications are the Kremlin is on the cusp of invading Ukraine to keep the former Soviet state from further cozying up to NATO and the West.
Less discussed has been the recent uptick in tensions between Russia and some other Western-aligned, non-NATO member nations. Specifically, Finland and Sweden.
For decades Finland and Sweden have maintained close relationships with NATO, without ever applying to join the multinational defense alliance. However, the threat of Russia invading Ukraine, and Kremlin demands for a ban on NATO expansion, have caused Stockholm and Helsinki to reconsider the safety of formal NATO membership and the alliance’s pledge of mutual defense.
When asked in a late December press conference about comments by Finnish and Swedish officials saying their nations must not be “left behind” in Russia-NATO agreements, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova gave a lengthy response ending with the warning that if either country becomes NATO members, “this would have serious consequences which would require an adequate response on Russia’s part.”
Responding to Zakharova’s comments, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin told Finnish news outlet YLE, “Finland decides on its own foreign and security policy. There are no two ways about this. We will not be blackmailed.”
The Russian state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti responded to Marin’s comments by publishing a revisionist rebuke, suggesting Finns should be thanking Russia for its statehood while simultaneously hurling personal insults at Finland’s Prime Minister.
“So the current prime minister, Sanna Marin, who grew up (after the departure of her alcoholic father) in a same-sex lesbian family, may not know anything about this, but two years ago she became prime minister at the age of 34, partly due to the fact that her country received from Russia,” wrote RIA Novosti’s Petr Akopov.
Perhaps going behind mere insults, on Saturday, January 15, a Russian cargo flight took an oddly long flight path out of Moscow, diverting and flying straight through the middle of Finland before landing in Leipzig, Germany.
Military and security experts interviewed by Finnish media outlet Yle, who broke the story Monday, were stumped by the plane’s inexplicable flight path. Experts suggested the flight could have been a Russian protest, intelligence gathering operation, or simply a psychological warfare operation (PSYOPS) to sow confusion.
The reason for the unusually long path across Finland – rather than the direct route from Moscow to Leipzig – remains unknown. Consequently, there currently is no evidence concluding the flight had any Kremlin-backed ulterior motives. Addressing the mystery, AirBridge Cargo issued a statement saying, “The flight plan has been coordinated with EUROCONTROL and conducted in line with the current air traffic control guidance and regulations.” The Moscow-based cargo airline did not comment on the exceptional route taken by the Boeing 747-8F cargo plane.
In recent weeks, Sweden has likewise drawn the ire of Moscow by declaring its sovereign right to make its own security arrangements.
Currently, there are no indications that Sweden is looking to join NATO. However, in early January, after a call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, newly appointed Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Sweden would be “deepening its partnership with NATO.”
The same week mystery drones started appearing over Sweden, the Swedish military deployed a rapid reaction force of 150 military personnel to the Baltic Sea island of Gotland in response to an increase of Russian Ropucha-class landing ships – designed to transport troops and vehicles for amphibious landings – seen operating in the Baltic Sea.
While the idea of a Russian invasion of Sweden seems extremely unlikely, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, shockingly, said, “an attack couldn’t be ruled out.”
Head of Sweden’s Ministry for Defence since 2014, Hultqvist has offered some of the strongest comments on the situation, calling recent Russian actions a “serious security crisis,” and that “Sweden and Swedish interests are attacked every day” in a “conflict about values that we want to survive.”
Considering the overall political climate in the Baltic Sea region, the suspicion that Russia is responsible for the mystery drone flights in Sweden only deepens.
In terms of capabilities, Russia possesses several fixed-wing drones, such as the Orlan-10 or Tachyon, that could account for the “black military wing drones” eyewitnesses have described.
Adding stock to the theory that the recent mystery drones over Sweden are the work of a potential foreign adversary, officials recently announced that the Swedish Security Service would be taking over the investigation into the incidents. The Swedish Security Service, or Säkerhetspolisen, is the government agency responsible for counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, and investigating crimes against national security, akin to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States.
Assuming Russia is behind the incursions with the ability and possible motive, the other question is- Why?
WHY WOULD RUSSIA WANT TO FLY “MYSTERY DRONES” IN PROTECTED SWEDISH AIRSPACE?
Determining exactly why Russia (or anyone for that matter) would be flying unmanned aircraft over Sweden is difficult. However, some plausible reasons can be deduced.
Surveillance and intelligence collection on sensitive Swedish sites would seem to offer the most obvious explanation for the mystery drone flights. Of course, if airborne reconnaissance is the real rationale behind the flights, whoever is responsible doesn’t seem to have any desire to be covert about it.
Numerous eyewitnesses described the drones as having clearly visible running lights. At least one security guard at a nuclear facility said the unmanned aircraft was flying low enough to hear it. An image taken by a passerby, Mathias Ogendal, and published by the Swedish Daily Express of a drone flying over the central Stockholm amusement park Gröna Lund, appears to show two bright red lights on the aircraft.
One reason for not hiding the fact that you’re flying within a nation’s protected airspace could be to conduct a specific type of reconnaissance mission typically called “ferreting.”
The purpose of a ferret mission is to intentionally trigger active air defense systems–such as search radar, fire control radars, and communication networks–to understand adversary vulnerabilities that can be used for later suppression of air defenses.
One problem with assuming these are ferreting missions is that the vulnerabilities by virtually all nations to small unmanned aerial systems are widely known.
Likewise, while there are obvious security concerns at places like nuclear facilities and major waterworks, none of the locations that mystery drones were seen represent high-value military targets where sophisticated air defense systems would most likely be found.
Instead of high-value military targets, locations like parliament and government buildings, the Royal Palace, amusement parks, police stations, or the capital city of Stockholm are more consistent with being high-value political targets. Considering this, a picture of the mystery drone flights over Sweden being part of a Russian psychological warfare operation emerges.
MYSTERY DRONES AS A TOOL OF PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE
Shortly after coming into power in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced the Kremlin’s “Information Security Doctrine.” As part of the new policies “for ensuring information security in the Russian Federation,” Russia reinstated the Soviet-era offensive information warfare concept called “reflexive control.”
Reflexive control is a psychological warfare tactic aimed at social engineering and influencing a foreign populace to influence decision-making processes favorable toward Russian interest.
Reflexive control uses some of the well-known psychological warfare techniques, such as disinformation and propaganda. However, the overarching goal is to control perception through specially prepared information to steer individuals into voluntarily making a desired decision.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, reflexive control serves as a “massive psychological manipulation of the population to destabilize the state and society.” (To reiterate, those are the Kremlin’s words, not mine).
As an act of psychological warfare, Sweden’s mystery drone flights could serve several purposes toward gaining reflexive control over public perception and ultimately influencing internal and external politics.
By flying drones over sensitive areas and sacred sites, it impresses upon the Swedish public that they are vulnerable to attack. “If the government can’t stop drones from flying over their own parliament buildings and Royal Palace, how could it ever stop the onslaught of a full-on armed conflict?!”
The ultimate goal of inducing the perception of vulnerability would be reducing any public support for Sweden from further cozying up to NATO. Particularly when the passing discussion of joining NATO is already being met by Russian threats. In early January, Russian state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti published an article with the headline: “NATO is Preparing to Turn Finland into a New Ukraine.”
Effective psychological warfare persuades targets to voluntarily make predetermined decisions through subtle cognitive cueing. By flying unmanned drones over nuclear power facilities, it discreetly infuses feelings of vulnerability with the idea of nuclear destruction.
Russia has carefully cultivated an opaque image of itself as an irresponsible nuclear power, willing to use tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict with NATO states. The Kremlin presents the false dichotomy that the best way to avoid a potential nuclear war is for the few remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons to be moved out of Western Europe.
Coupling nuclear power with defenselessness implicitly reinforces the idea that you don’t want to make the Kremlin mad, lest you run the risk of facing destruction by a nearby nuclear-armed Russia.
The drone incursions likewise serve as a reasonably low-risk, low-cost method for testing the promise of future psychological warfare narratives. Data mining public sentiment following the incidents provides you with a better understanding of how compelling specific threat narratives might be on an unsuspecting populace.
Finally, psychological warfare can often be used as a distraction by shifting attention away from an unfavorable issue. In this regard, it is important to note that the Swedish mystery drone sightings all occurred as Russia began moving amphibious landing ships into the Baltic Sea, prompting the Swedish military to increase its troop presence on the island of Gotland.
During a time when the press might have usually been focused on the unexpected movement of six Russian naval ships -designed to transport troops, vehicles, and equipment – regional news outlets suddenly had a compelling mystery that seemed far more impactful to the local life.
The day unidentified unmanned aircraft started popping up over Sweden, the U.S. Intelligence Community announced Russia had inserted covert operatives in eastern Ukraine, intending to conduct a false-flag operation to create a pretext for an invasion.
If indeed Russia has plans for manufacturing a crisis to substantiate further, “unplanned” encroachment of Ukraine – as it did when it started invading Ukraine in 2014 – the Kremlin would undoubtedly want to try and reduce any attention to any pre-event military preparation going on.
COMBATING PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE in free societies can be challenging. Maintaining a fair electoral process, public influence over one’s governance and a free press make democratic institutions inherently vulnerable to malign information warfare.
The prevailing public view of “war” in most Western societies also makes them highly susceptible to psychological warfare. Western nations traditionally view war like an on/off switch. Being at war means conventional armed conflicts involving uniformed militaries squaring off against each other. A lack of armed conflicts represents “off” and de facto not at war.
Conversely, Western adversaries- like Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea – do not share this binary view of warfare. They view war against foreign adversaries as a continuous process. Rather than engaging with bombs, tanks, or ground troops, nations like Russia actively engage in hybrid or “gray zone” warfare – such as cyberattacks and PSYOPS- during times of “peace.”
A 2018 paper published by the Royal Military College of Canada on Russian reflexive control measures points out, “it is difficult if not impossible to prescribe countermeasures for attacks, as the appropriate response will vary as widely as the attack itself.”
Notwithstanding its dynamic and constantly evolving nature, the first line of defense against informational warfare is the general public recognizing it is a target for malign foreign influence. Opting to take a rational approach when consuming ambiguous or complex information can equally go a long way towards combating psychological warfare.
If creating an air of vulnerability and anxiety were one of the goals behind the recent mystery drones in Sweden, it can also be beneficial to put these events in perspective. Indeed, there are real concerns about unidentified drones flying within protected areas. However, these events are not synonymous with Russia Tu-95 “Bear” bombers flying impeded through Swedish airspace.
Ultimately, with the caveat that there are still many unknowns surrounding these events, with what is known, circumstantial indicators suggest the recent mystery drone sightings in Sweden are the work of Russian PSYOPs and part of the Kremlin’s ongoing “gray zone” warfare against the West.
In response, the Swedish people should take a similar position to that of Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin: affirming that Sweden alone will dictate its own foreign and security policy, free of influence, blackmail, or bullying by foreign powers.
Follow and connect with author Tim McMillan on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan or encrypted email: LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com