Situated off Norway’s forbidding north-eastern coast, the Lofoten-Vesteralen Ocean Observatory uses a matrix of underwater sensors to monitor the sensitive ecological balance in the surrounding frigid seas.
But alongside its work recording passing shoals of fish and other marine life, the observatory has another delicate role – forming part of the front line of Nato’s defences by listening out for submarines from Russia’s Northern Fleet, entering or exiting the Arctic en route to executing the Kremlin’s orders in spheres from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
It was for this reason that the alarm bells sounded from London to Washington when some 2.6 miles of cable linking the sensors suddenly disappeared in November 2021, leaving a significant gap in the West’s subsea early warning system. When the damage was eventually inspected, it was found that the data link had been neatly severed.
Weeks later, as Vladimir Putin was massing his troops on the borders of Ukraine and Western intelligence was stretching every sinew to monitor Russian military manoeuvres, another piece of critical infrastructure in Norwegian waters was cut. This time a fibre-optic link to Svalbard Satellite Station was damaged, interrupting service at one of only two installations on the planet relaying signals from satellites in polar orbits.
In both cases, the Norwegian authorities have since concluded that the damage was the result of human intervention, although they have declined to publicly point the finger at a particular culprit. In the case of the incident involving the Lofoten-Vesteralen cable, it is understood by i that investigators tracked and interviewed crew members from a Russian trawler that was operating in the vicinity but it has not been possible to conclude who severed the cable and whether or not it was a criminal act.
Western intelligence officials nonetheless believe the incidents fit into a wider pattern of Russia widening its assault on Ukraine to increasingly undertake a “hybrid war” – using specialised military forces – designed to poke and prod Western defences, and, if necessary, launch an array of attacks on the cables and pipelines that underpin the economic and energy security of the UK and the rest of Europe. As if to underline the point, in October, Mr Putin warned, gnomically but no less menacingly, that energy infrastructure around the world was “at risk”.
The potential to cause havoc is immense. In the North Sea and the Mediterranean there are 9,600km (6,000 miles) of gas pipelines, while across the world there are now more than 580 active or planned subsea data cables. According to one analysis, data cables, the vast majority of which are owned by the private sector, carry 97 per cent of global communications and about £8.25tn in daily financial transactions.
From a mysterious incident that paralysed the rail system in northern Germany in October, after key data cables were severed in a “targeted and malicious action”, to the severing of a Mediterranean subsea internet cable linking France with Asia, governments have been left uneasy by a number of unexplained but damaging outages across the Continent.
The roll-call of headscratchers also includes the severing in October of the SHEFA-2 undersea cable that provides the Shetland Islands with its internet and telephone connection. It led the Scottish Government to declare a “major incident” after communications were lost.
The difficulties of gathering evidence beneath the waves means that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to discern between the sort of accidental damage caused by a fishing vessel and a state-sponsored criminal act. But there is an increasing consensus that, despite the Kremlin’s denials, Moscow has opened a further front in its campaign to undermine resolve in Western capitals to see off Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
A Western security source told i: “There aren’t CCTV cameras on the ocean floor. There is therefore a deniability to everything that happens 2,000m under the Arctic. But we believe that what has been happening in Norway and elsewhere is deliberate and carefully planned. It is Russia sending a signal and that signal is designed to say, ‘Look, we can cut off your communications, we can stop your gas and we can do it when we like.’”
It is a signal that was reinforced in recent weeks when a Russian scientific vessel, the Admiral Vladimirskiy, conducted a lingering six-day tour off the Scottish coast in North Sea waters, which are festooned with networks of oil and gas pipelines and data and power cables linking the UK to the Continent.
The Admiral Vladimirskiy is designated a “vessel of interest” for Western intelligence, meaning it is suspected of using its scientific status as a cover for conducting intelligence or espionage activities. In particular, the Russian scientific fleet is considered to be able to carry military mini-submarines and diving equipment capable of reaching extreme depths.
Among the locations it passed were two sensitive data cable junctions, including the southern end point of SHEFA-2. It also voyaged through areas where aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth was operating, before the Royal Navy flagship embarked to conduct training with the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force currently protecting Europe’s eastern flank.
According to the Plenty of Ships blog, which monitors Russian state shipping movements, the Admiral Vladimirskiy’s visit may also have coincided tests in the area of a new advanced British Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV, the naval equivalent of a drone).
The blog said: “The presence of Russian scientific and reconnaissance vessels around the UK could simply be strategic messaging designed to raise anxiety over the vulnerability of underwater infrastructure. However… it could be something entirely more sinister.”
The precise nature of “something entirely more sinister” remains to be seen, but a likely flavour of Russian intent was provided on 26 September when a series of explosions tore apart the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. Swedish investigators looking into the blasts said last month that they had found traces of explosives at the breakage sites, indicating a military strike using carefully-laid explosive charges. Despite a degree of puzzlement as to just why the Kremlin should choose to blow up its own infrastructure, the finger of suspicion for the blasts remains firmly pointed at Moscow.
Alarm at Russian interest in Europe’s pipelines and data cables is not new. In 2017, a British commander in Nato warned Russian underwater activity was already at unprecedented levels, while in January this year, Britain’s most senior military officer, Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, spoke of a “phenomenal increase” in Moscow’s deep-sea exploits over the past two decades.
Britain is thought to be one of the countries better prepared to deal with Russian interference. The Royal Navy and the UK military have a long record of being able to track Russian deep-sea movements in home waters, allowing for locations to be checked for tampering and interference. A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “We constantly observe our areas of UK responsibility and interest. This includes protecting critical infrastructure such as underwater cables.”
Leading experts told i that the greatest concern for the West is the emergence of a Russian military doctrine, outlined by the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, that any future conflict could be won – or at least settled on terms favourable to Moscow – by the nimble destruction of economic targets such as subsea infrastructure rather than a head-on battefield confrontation with a better-equipped adversary.
Professor Katarzyna Zysk, an expert in international relations at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, said: “The worry is that selective attacks could electronically isolate, or severely damage or disrupt the economy of, individual countries or regions, [and] sow financial or societal chaos.
“There is a broad understanding in Russia that much lower levels of damage than those planned for during the Cold War may be sufficient to break the Western will to continue to fight. The Russian strategic documents… underline therefore that the destruction of economic targets, along with the adversary’s system of state governance, will be given a priority in a conflict.”
At the sharp end of this strategy lies the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, known by its Russian acronym of GUGI, a shadowy elite force directly answerable to the Russian defence ministry and thereby the Kremlin, which is specifically trained and equipped to carry out both undersea sabotage and the tapping of data cables for intelligence gathering.
The unit has been suggested as a likely culprit for the Nord Stream explosions and is trained to use equipment unmatched in the West. This includes the Losharik, a nuclear submarine whose hull is fashioned from a series of conjoined titanium spheres capable of withstanding pressures that can take the vessel to depths perhaps as much as 10 times greater than any crewed Nato subs. The inherent dangers of such capabilities were underlined in 2019 when the Losharik, which is now transported beneath a vast £3bn converted nuclear missile submarine called the Belgorod, suffered a battery compartment fire that left 14 sailors dead.
The question remains as to just what more Britain and its Nato allies, who have already made clear that they consider any act of hybrid warfare to be on a par with a conventional act of war, should be doing to counter the Russian threat.
Norway, now the main European source for gas supplies, has already vastly increased patrols and security around its oil and gas installations with the help of allies, including Britain. The UK has, meanwhile, announced the purchase of two Multi-Role Ocean Survey Ships, designed to try to spot and intercept tampering, along with the development of a new £15m drone submarine – named Cetus after a sea monster of Greek mythology – capable of travelling 1,000 miles per mission and likely to be used to monitor and safeguard underwater energy and data cables.
The European Union has, in the meantime, urged a new regime of “stress testing” for subsea energy and data infrastructure, with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, describing the sector recently as “the new frontier of warfare”. Among those who should be more than alive to the risk are Rishi Sunak who, while still a backbench MP in 2017, authored a think-tank report calling for vastly improved protection for “highly vulnerable” marine pipes and cables.
One school of thought is that increased investment in spare cable and cable-laying vessels would allow outages to be rapidly repaired. But there is no equivalent quick fix for pipelines and there are deep qualms that, in general, the action taken so far does not go nearly far enough.
While UK intelligence services are understood to liaise with private pipeline and data cable operators to collect information on outages and possible interference on British territory, other countries are less engaged and, where they are, there is no single collection point to pool equivalent information. Technology to equip cables with sensors to detect tampering or to harden new infrastructure is being rolled out spasmodically and the key problem remains of the near impossibility of policing a domain thousands of feet under the sea.
Bart Groothuis, a Dutch MEP and a former specialist in cyber security for the Dutch defence ministry who has long campaigned on improving cable and pipeline security, told i that existing measures were “hardly sufficient”.
He said: “I’ve been asking for a giant leap forwards when it comes to protecting our subsea infrastructure. We’ve neglected a threat that has maintained equal pace with the speed with which we have built out our electric, fossil fuel and data transport infrastructure.”