A joint investigation by the public broadcasters of several Nordic countries alleges that Russia has established a state-run program using spy ships disguised as fishing vessels aimed at giving it the capability to attack wind farms and communications cables in the North Sea.
The investigation quotes a Danish counter-intelligence officer who claims the sabotage strategy is designed to be implemented in the event that Russia and the west enter a full-blown conflict.
A Norwegian intelligence officer told broadcasters the scheme had been given enormous importance – and by extension, resources – by the Kremlin and was being controlled directly from Moscow.
The first in a series of reports by the broadcasters DR in Denmark, NRK in Norway, SVT in Sweden and Yle in Finland is due to be aired on Wednesday evening.
The broadcasters say Russia has disguised some espionage boats as fishing trawlers and scientific research vessels in the North Sea. According to intelligence sources quoted by the broadcasters, the boats have underwater surveillance apparatus onboard that can be used to map crucial sites of interest viewed by Moscow as potential sabotage targets.
In a separate development, the Danish government released official documents on Tuesday detailing for the first time how Danish defense patrols had taken 112 photographs of Russian vessels off its coast days before the Nord Stream pipeline explosion in the Baltic Sea in September. The explosion destroyed the pipeline and led to the discharge of large amounts of gas.
The German news portal T-Online had reported on the Danish patrol operation in September, several days before the explosion. The portal’s report said the Russian ships were equipped with loading cranes and a mini-submarine and were operating just outside Danish and Swedish radar zones.
A joint investigation into the explosion by authorities in Denmark, Sweden and Germany is under way. While there is consensus that the explosions were the result of a sabotage attack, responsibility has not been definitively ascertained, although the “clear main scenario” based on the nature of explosives used is that a state-sponsored group was involved, according to a Swedish the prosecutor is involved in the investigation.
German investigators are reportedly following up a lead relating to the movements of a sailing yacht, Andromeda, and its moderate-sized crew, which it is believed might have been behind the attack.
The Nordic broadcasters’ investigation identified what it referred to as ghost ships – vessels that had turned off their transmitters so as to keep their locations secret. Intercepted communications between the ships have been monitored by authorities and the broadcasters have also had access to recordings of them.
Particular focus has been given to the Admiral Vladimirsky, which is registered as an expeditionary oceanographic ship, but is believed to be a Russian spy ship.
An unidentified former Royal Navy expert followed the route the Vladimirsky took close to seven windfarms off the UK and Dutch coast on one of its journeys. He described how the ship, which did not turn its transmitter on for a whole month, noticeably reduced its speed when it approached windfarm sites and appeared to linger in those areas.
A reporter who approached the ship was confronted by a man clad in a balaclava and bulletproof vest and appearing to wield a military assault rifle.
The UK Defense Journal reported in November that the same ship had been seen off the Scottish coast that month, entering the Moray Firth and sighted close to Lossiemouth, home to the Royal Air Force’s maritime patrol aircraft fleet.
Two months ago, Dutch intelligence warned of possible attempts to disrupt or destroy marine infrastructure, after a Russian ship was sighted close to a windfarm in the North Sea, where it was believed to be carrying out undersea mapping.
The severing of an underwater data cable off the Norwegian coast last year, which authorities say could have been caused by human activity, is also believed to be possibly connected to the Russian programme. Earlier this month, Norway expelled 15 Russian officials accused of spying.