Sabotage Plot Fears as Russian ‘Spy Ships’ Found Mapping Offshore Power Grids, Shadowing NATO Exercises

A Russian trawler "Oleg Naïdenov" ,is moored in Dakar on January 5, 2014. The s
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A classic of the Cold War — Russian spy trawlers — is back, with a group of Nordic broadcasters publishing the result of a year-long investigation into ostensibly civilian ships which spend an unreasonable amount of time loitering close to NATO exercises and underwater cables.

Broadcasters in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland have co-released an investigation into a fleet of Russian vessels, with 50 claimed involved and more hinted at, which appear to spend less time fishing and more time transiting past coastal military bases, visiting Western warships, and offshore wind farms. Remarkable claims including hidden military radios discovered by police, heavily armed Russian military-like guards onboard civilian ships, and plots to suddenly strike and destroy key infrastructure in case of a general war with the West have been made.

Particular attention in the reaction to the claims has been given to the activities of a Russian oceanographic research ship the Admiral Vladimirsky, which demonstrates the blurred lines between legitimate civilian business and government espionage by spending its time apparently delicately mapping wind farms and underwater cables used for the transmission of power and data.  Given the fundamental reliance the Western world has on electricity and the internet, the amount of time the ship and others like it spends sailing around underwater infrastructure has been the cause for serious alarm.

The Russian ambassador, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) reports, denied angrily the claims made by the four-broadcaster investigation, saying they were prompted by “ethnic discrimination” against Russians, and Russophobia.

Russia using civilian craft to engage in espionage against the West is by no means new, and in fact was so well known during the Cold War, children of the 1970s could enjoy building model kits of ‘Soviet Spy Trawlers’ sold by well-established toy companies. At one time, Russian spy trawlers operated so close to the United States they could be seen with the naked eye by bathers enjoying the sea and sand on the East Coast, and worldwide it was thought tens of dozens of intelligence vessels posing as deep-sea fishing ships were thought to be operating.

While all Russian military and intelligence operations slowed with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, they didn’t stop completely. Reports of Russian trawlers gathering intelligence in the North Sea have continued to the present day, but the Nordic broadcaster’s report underlines for the first time in years the scale and audacity of operations.

Much of the evidence presented in the reports focus on AIS data, the mandated-by-international-law broadcast of ship information designed to prevent collisions and save life at sea. Every ship over a certain tonnage is required to carry an AIS beacon, and the data is archived in such a way that the navigational history of ships going back years can be observed: such data has been used in recent memory to prove the involvement of the French Navy in the English Channel migrant crisis, for instance.

AIS tracks presented in the reports concentrate on large fishing vessels like the Lira, Ester, and Taurus, which do fish and land catches but also perform alleged intelligence sweeps too. In some examples the trawlers and ships make unusual diversions towards prohibited military training areas, perform long periods loitering near ongoing exercises, and repeatedly sailed past the known locations of nuclear submarines. In others, the distinctive grid pattern of a thorough underwater survey is easy to discern.

Åse Gilje Østensen of the Norwegian Naval Academy said of some of the infrastructure clearly surveilled: “A main goal for Russia may be to prevent Norway from receiving reinforcements if there is a military confrontation and Norway needs military reinforcements from NATO. Then ports and infrastructure around ports are a vulnerability that will be worth noting.”

One ship when approached by journalists was observed with a heavily armed guard patrolling the deck, who was said to have confronted the reporters.

Another key element in the claims are the discovery, by Finnish police of apparently secret radio equipment. Performing routine inspections of large trawlers, officers discovered a locked door and required to have it opened, and against the usual modern practice of having communications equipment on the bridge for ease of use, found what is described as a Cold War-era era radio setup with a man hidden inside.

While this is clearly not conclusive evidence, a police check on another Russian trawler the same day turned up the same locked room, and a man sitting inside beside identical Soviet radio equipment. An unnamed ex-naval intelligence officer speaking to the publication said of the radios that police took pictures off at the time of the inspections: “I can see that this is maritime equipment, and it can be used both to send and receive calls and Morse code. It looks like they are very well used… They can be used for both military and civilian purposes. It is not easy to say without knowing which frequencies have been used, or which equipment is connected.”

An expert on historic radio equipment told Breitbart News that the equipment, with the right atmospheric and weather conditions, “holds remarkable abilities to enable international communication both legal and illegal without relying on any kind of telephone lines or mobile network”, and makes possible “encoded transmissions with almost no attention”.

The alleged attention of these spy trawlers and other ostensibly civilian ships isn’t just on NATO exercises. Also of interest, it seems is the undersea civilian infrastructure that underpins the modern world like power, gas pipelines, and internet cables. Of particular interest in the UK is the time alleged Russian spy ships have spent transiting around windfarms off Britain’s east coast.

While underwater cables and pipes are remote to most, for a suitably equipped adversary they are delicate and easy-to-access critical infrastructure that can cause serious headaches for your enemy, assuming you know where they are. Indeed, underwater cables are so easy to damage they are occasionally severed by accident: a Russian ship cut the whole of Tangier from sending and receiving telegraphs from Europe for four days after a dragging anchor of a naval cruiser leaving the harbour fouled the city’s cable in 1904.

More recently, undersea cables have apparently mysteriously vanished, with Russian fishermen blamed. The Shetland Islands saw an unusual outage after both data cables serving the islands were cut, one after the other over the course of a week, leaving infrastructure from cash machines, shop tills, telephones, and the internet non-functioning. The chief of police of the islands said “We expect it will be fishing vessels that damaged the cable but it is very rare that we have two problems at the same time.”

The Danish island of Bornholm was hit with blackouts last year after its underwater power cable from Sweden was cut. This came just days after, most famously, one of the Nord Stream gas pipelines through the Baltic was destroyed. Despite the extremely high-profile nature of the attack, over half a year later there is still no officially accepted of the how or who of the attack.

Just this week, a major electricity interconnect — so-called because it allows cooperating nations to share power and balance each other’s national grids — between Sweden and Finland was cut. Apparently, this happened when a digger operator doing groundwork on shore accidentally severed the cable, which must have been a shocking discovery for all concerned.


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