Europe’s pipelines and cables under threat as Putin’s Russia accused of launching deep-sea sabotage campaign


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.

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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.

AT SEA, RUSSIA - JANUARY 09: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - "ALEXEI DRUZHININ / RUSSIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS AND INFORMATION OFFICE / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a naval exercise from the Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser in the Black Sea on January 09, 2020. The drills involved warships from Russias Black Sea Fleet along with several ships from its Northern Fleet. More than 30 warships and 39 aircraft, including several Tu-95 strategic bombers, took part in the exercise. (Photo by ALEXEI DRUZHININ / RUSSIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS AND INFORMATION OFFICE / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin watches a naval exercise in the Black Sea in 2020. Russia has developed submarines capable of reaching depths up to 10 times greater than any Western navy (Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press Office/Anadolu via Getty)

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.

This handout photo taken on September 28, 2022 from an aircraft of the Swedish Coast Guard (Kustbevakningen) shows the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline, in the Swedish economic zone in the Baltic Sea. - A fourth leak has been detected in undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, the Swedish Coast Guard said on September 29, 2022, after explosions were reported earlier this week in suspected sabotage. (Photo by Handout / SWEDISH COAST GUARD / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / SWEDISH COAST GUARD" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo by HANDOUT/SWEDISH COAST GUARD/AFP via Getty Images)
Gas emanating from a leak in the Nord Stream gas pipeline after a series of explosions ruptured it. A Swedish investigation found evidence of sabotage (Photo: Swedish Coast Guard/AFP via Getty)

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.”



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Putin’s stealth subs could cripple Britain by cutting undersea internet cables as Russia launches new Arctic front


VLADIMIR Putin’s shadowy fleet of submarines dedicated to tampering with vital undersea internet cables could cripple Britain and plunge the country into chaos.

The vessels are operated by a shadowy branch of the Russian military that answers directly to Putin – with a mission to deliver a catastrophic blow to the West.

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The subs are carried underneath beneath an enormous “mothership” undersea vessel and are built to lurk at the bottom of the ocean – entering the Atlantic by sailing down from the Arctic.

They then use robotic arms to tamper with or even cut key cables that help keep the world’s economy moving with potentially devastating consequences.

It comes as Putin has opened up a new front in the North Pole as he builds new military bases in the frozen wastes – giving him control of polar waters across 11 of the world’s time zones.

Tensions continue to simmer between the West and Russia who have both beefed up their presence in the polar region, which is believed to hold significant natural resources.

And cutting the undersea cables could be a key element in any conflict between the two sides.

Undersea cables crisscrossing the seafloor carry 97 per cent of internet traffic with $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions dependent on them.

Cutting enough of the network in the Atlantic could cause chaos for Britain, with Air Marshall Sir Stuart Peach previously warning such a breach could be “catastrophic”.

It could shut down the internet, cut Britain off from the rest of the world, paralyse financial transactions, and damage communications with the military overseas.

And the US is also under threat, with a report Director of National Intelligence urging Washington to push for stronger protections for the undersea cables.

The US Government is reliant on the cables to transfer information with their NATO allies – and as well as cutting them, its also feared Russia or other state actors could tap into the cables to steal information.

Defence expert Rob Clark from the Henry Jackson Society told The Sun Online “the threat is very real” from the secretive Russian subs.

“Their aim is to retain the credible capability either to disrupt or destroy the cables that the UK’s economy and its entire communications rely on,” he warned.

“Even slightly damaged that can cause untold chaos and disruption to the UK.”

And the cables are not hard to find, with their locations being open to the public as global shipping networks have to be aware of their locations.

The dire warning comes as it emerged the threat is being taken so seriously that the Royal Navy has recently ordered a special surveillance ship to protect cables from the Russians.

And one US submariner even described to The Sun Online how he witnessed the Russians practicing lifting the cables in a dress rehearsal for cutting them during any showdown with the West.

A rare picture of what is believed to a Losharik submarine, launched from the Belgorod

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A rare picture of what is believed to a Losharik submarine, launched from the Belgorod
The giant Belgorod 'mothership' submarine

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The giant Belgorod ‘mothership’ submarineCredit: Getty – Contributor

The concentration of cables in chokepoints means any disruption is likely to hit hard, as an earthquake under the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines showed in 2006.

The quake severed six out of the seven cables used to distribute internet and phone services from North America to Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

That led a 100 per cent internet outage to Hong Kong and South East Asia, cutting off millions of citizens and businesses from internet and mobile phones.

It has been estimated that cutting three cables could lead to some countries losing 70 per cent of their data traffic.

‘CRIPPLING BLOW’

The impact of any outage on that scale would severely damage the world financial system.

Globally, it has been estimated an average of 15 million transactions a day are wholly reliant on undersea cables alone.

Now Chancellor Rishi Sunak MP penned a paper on the threat in 2017 in which he warned of “full-scale outages” caused by the cable cutting and coordinated sabotage is a “major threat to the UK”.

“A successful attack would deal a crippling blow to Britain’s security and prosperity,” he wrote.

Putin’s mysterious cable cutting submarines

RUSSIA is believed to have six submarines dedicated to the cable cutting mission – with the Losharik the most modern and capable.

Only a handful of grainy photographs exist of the vessel and everything known about it comes from educated guesswork.

A fire on board Losharik in 2019 resulted in the deaths of 14 submariners, reportedly including some of the most experienced decorated in the Russian navy.

The Kremlin has never explained what the submarine was doing just 60 miles off the coast of Norway in the first place.

According to submarine expert H.I Sutton, who writes the Covert Shores blog, the submarine is constructed from seven spherical titanium hulls strung together which gives it extraordinary strength.

The vessel is named after a Russian cartoon horse, which is made up of lots of many spheres joined together.

It can operate at up to depths of 3300ft, far greater than conventional submarines and have special attachments allowing them to rest at the bottom of the sea.

The submarines are deployed from the giant Belgorod, itself designed for special operations, and currently the longest submarine currently serving in the world’s navies.

Mr Clark said disrupting the undersea cables rather than completely destroying them would fit into Vladimir Putin’s goal of goading the West.

“A more likely scenario would be to disrupt the cables rather than destroy them,” he said.

“What should be the response to this? Should we torpedo the submarine or launch a cyber-attack on the Moscow stock exchange?

“Because of that Russia will try to exploit it because they know it’s a weakness.

‘Destroying them would be such a provocation from Russia the likes of which we’ve never seen since the Cold War, even compared to the Salisbury attack.

“So disrupting them is a much more likely scenario. So for example if there was an escalation of UK commitment to the Ukraine, where the British army and Royal Navy are training, then that would a response from Russia.”

The subs are directly controlled by Vladimir Putin

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The subs are directly controlled by Vladimir PutinCredit: AFP

The Russian’s tactics were first deployed during the Cold War and they have been refining them ever since.

Former US submariner Aarron Amick. witnessed the cable cutting subs in action firsthand while working as a sonar operator off the coast of Norway.

“We were monitoring a unit around the coast of Norway when they sent out a mothership, which was a specially modified ballistic missile submarine that had the missiles removed,” he told The Sun Online.

“The area where the missiles were was basically a hanger for a second mini-sub, which they would dock in the belly and they would go down the coast of Norway, which very convenient as it was the closest country with cables.

“They would undock the sub and it would dive very deep, practically to the bottom to locate where these cables where so they could go right to them.

“They would also practice picking them up, not necessarily damage them because it was peacetime, but give them experience in doing everything except that.”

Undersea cables carry 97 per cent of the world's internet traffic

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Undersea cables carry 97 per cent of the world’s internet trafficCredit: Alamy

Vulnerable undersea cables – the width of a garden hosepipe

THE FIRST cable was laid across the Atlantic 1858 and have been at the heart of global communication ever since.

They are mostly operated by private companies with Google recently announcing plans to install a cable linking the US, UK and Spain that would come ashore in Cornwall.

Most cables are around 3cm in diameter, roughly the size of a hosepipe and are cased in galvanised steel armour with a plastic coating.

Data is transmitted down the optical fibres as wavelengths of light travelling at about 180,000 miles per second.

Each fibre has the capacity to transmit as much as 400GB of data per second – about enough for 375 million phone calls.

A single undersea cable can contain anywhere between four and 200 of these fibres.

With so much of the world now dependent on the internet, they have also seen as an Achilles heel.

The idea of tampering cables as a weapon of war was developed by the British in World War One, when German communications were intercepted and its cables cut.

But the Russians have in recent years been seen as a looming menace, building on methods from the Cold War.

When he was an MP, the current Chancellor Rishi Sunak warned about the threat in hard hitting report.

“A successful attack on the UK’s undersea cable infrastructure would be an existential threat to our security,” he said.

He said the US Navy crew observed the operation over a three months and said he was “impressed” by the Russian’s capability.

 “I was doing my job and being professional but in the back of my mind was impressed. At the time the American navy had none of this capability.

“It’s fantastic that this thing goes and this activity continues today.”

Navy warfare expert Sidharth Kaushal from defence think-tank RUSI said the submarines are operated by the GUGI or Directorate for Deep Sea Research, which answers to Putin.

“They’ve been developing a variety of special purpose submarines which are deep diving and have the capacity to withstand very deep pressures,” said Dr Kaushal.

“They could be used for a wide range of activities from tapping into the cables to gather intelligence to severing them to cause economic disruption in an extreme scenario.”

He said cutting cables “fits well” into a Putin’s strategy for fighting the West.

“He knows his conventional forces are inferior to Nato so the emphasis is to impose as much disruption to Western society to convince them the game isn’t worth the candle,” he said.





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