A Russian spy ship in the North Sea threatens key maritime infrastructure

Admiral Vladimirsky

A new documentary produced by a consortium of public television channels Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway has revealed what appears to be a profound threat to offshore and subsea power and data infrastructures in the North Sea and Baltic region. The Shadow War includes footage of a Russian research vessel called Admiral Vladimirsky which allegedly collects data on wind farms, gas pipelines, and electrical and internet cables.

The film, widely reported in the British press this week, claims that Russia is systematically mapping vulnerable points in the maritime infrastructure of the North Sea. This would allow Russia knowing weak points, for example, the places where undersea power and data cables intersect, which would make it easier to organize a sabotage attack if the Kremlin deemed it necessary.

These reports tell maritime safety experts nothing they don’t already know. We have known for some time that Russian forces are mapping maritime infrastructure, including wind farms, communication cables and oil pipelines. In fact, in the 1990s and 2000s, when NATO and Russia were cooperating on some security issues, Russian espionage activities in Nordic waters never ceased. In 2013, they took me on a Royal Navy ship to the North Sea, where part of their mission was to keep an eye on Russian spy ships.

But since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 these activities have intensified. Throughout European waters, including Irish and Portuguese and the Mediterranean, Russian ships have been sighted conducting intelligence operations.

Nord Stream sabotage

He sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in September 2022, in which a vital energy pipeline in the Baltic Sea was destroyed, raised great concern in the West about the damage that a hostile power could cause by destroying or disrupting this important energy or information infrastructure.

The culprit in the sabotage of the Nord Stream has not yet been identified. But the latest reports show that these concerns are justified.

The Admiral Vladimirsky is seen sailing in unusual areas
An armed man aboard the Russian ship Admiral Vladimirsky

NATO and the EU have launched ambitious plans to improve the resilience of maritime infrastructure. NATO and the EU created new working groups and coordination bodies to develop better protection strategies and coordinate the activities of civilian and military agencies. In March this year, the European Commission published an ambitious action plan as part of the updated EU maritime security strategy. It foresees studies to identify the most serious vulnerabilities and better surveillance. But do these plans go far enough?

Why is the North Sea so important?

Oil and gas supplies from the North Sea are an important resource for the entire European energy market. The growing interest in green energy production makes this strategic importance even greater. There are more than 40 wind farms in the region and, with ideal conditions for wind power, facilities are expanding continuously and rapidly. The North Sea is therefore vital to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and lower CO₂ emissions.

But given what we now suspect about Russian intelligence and its possible sabotage activities, the North Sea must now be considered as a vulnerable and critical strategic security space. A concerted act of sabotage, damaging undersea power cables, for example, can seriously hurt energy markets. Cutting undersea data cables can limit Internet connectivity, even across the Atlantic, as important data cables connect, for example, Denmark and the United States. Repair at sea is expensive, as it requires specialized vessels, which can only operate if weather conditions permit. After all, the North Sea is a harsh environment.

Recent NATO and EU initiatives focus on improving surveillance. They intend to improve the detection of suspicious activities, such as those reported in the Nordic documentary. Satellites, radars and patrols – including unmanned vehicle patrols – CCTV on all infrastructures and contributions from maritime users such as fishermen reporting suspicious activity can go a long way to improving knowledge. general.

This can help provide quick answers and can also be a deterrent. The exchange of information between States and with the industry is important. NATO, the EU, the UK and Norway must work closely together, as none of them can do it alone. It is necessary to bring together different sources of information to identify suspicious patterns.

Importance of a quick repair

The Admiral Vladimirsky is seen sailing in unusual areas
The Admiral Vladimirsky is seen sailing in unusual areas

What often receives little attention is the issue of repair. If an attack does occur, it’s vital to be able to repair any damage as soon as possible to get back on track. Not only that, but if there is a demonstrable repair capacity in the region, the strategic value -and therefore the probability- of an attack of this type is reduced.

But at present, these key repair capabilities – such as specialized repair vessels and cable depots – are very limited in Europe.

New models of collaboration between security policy and industry are needed to develop strategic remediation capabilities. This could be public-private partnerships operating repair ships and providing contingency for crisis situations. This would have the double benefit of increasing repair capacity and perhaps at the same time providing an opportunity to improve infrastructure efficiency by reducing repair times in the North Sea and elsewhere in general.

*Article originally published by The Conversation. Christian Bueger is Professor of International Relations, University of Copenhagen

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