Written by Matthew Lipka
Edited by Michele Puggia
On 19 April 2023, a joint investigation of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish public broadcasters found that Russia has been using boats disguised as fishing and research ships to perform surveillance and gather intelligence in the North Sea (Camut, 2023; Corera, 2023; Hamilton, 2023). The joint investigation found that some Russian ships have been completing conspicuous manoeuvres for ten years (Fastrup, Ouass, & Ledegaard, 2023; Hou et al., 2023). The broadcasters were able to intercept Russian communications about the ships, specifically a ship called “Admiral Vladimirsky” (Corera, 2023). While many shipscould be identified using data from the automatic identification system on each ship (AIS), the Admiral Vladimirsky switched it off (The Irish Times, 2023). The Admiral Vladimirsky sailed by key wind farms on its travels, and the UK thinks these ships are being used to create an undersea map for the Russians (Corera, 2023). More information will be revealed in a documentary on 19 April by the aforementioned public broadcasters (Fastrup, Quass, & Ledegaard, 2023; Hamilton, 2023).
This surveillance and map-building gives Russia more information to help with potential infrastructure sabotage, most notably to cut underwater cables (Camut, 2023; European Pravda, 2023). A Danish counter-intelligence officer specifically noted that these plans are being devised in case Russia enters a conflict with Western countries (BNN, 2023; Corera, 2023; European Pravda, 2023). Russia counters this idea by arguing that these ships are research projects diplomatically agreed upon and in accordance with international law (Camut, 2023). This explanation is flimsy for two main reasons. Firstly, some of the ships turned off their AIS transmitter, effectively stopping the reports on their specific location (BNN, 2023; Hamilton, 2023). While there is an exception to allow turning AIS off if the safety or security of the ship is at-risk or if there are imminent security threats, it seems unlikely that this would hold true for the entire month the Admiral Vladimirsky had its AIS off (Corera, 2023; Hellenic Shipping News, 2019). Additionally, when Nordic reporters approached the vessel, they spotted an armed man on the deck (Corera, 2023; European Pravda, 2023). While neither piece of evidence on their own may be enough to evidence wrongdoing, together they can point to some ill intentions.
This is not the first time that naval excursions during the Russian invasion of Ukraine have reached the news. Flagged Russian ships were spotted manoeuvring off the coast of Galway in the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone in March, causing the Irish Defence Forces to be deployed, eventually sending the Russian ships back (The Irish Times, 2023). In 2022, the Nord Stream gas pipeline was blown up near Bornhold, Denmark, and the culprit has yet to be identified (Camut, 2023; The Irish Times, 2023). This surge in Russian surveillance fits more broadly in the trend of increasingly contentious North Sea and Northern Atlantic waters, as Russia scrambles to gather intelligence on its rivals’ strategic assets.
BNN. (2023, April 19). Russian ships involved in sabotages in the North Sea. BNN. https://bnn-news.com/russian-ships-involved-in-sabotages-in-the-north-sea-244960.
Camut, N. (2023, April 19). Russia uses civilian boats to spy in the North Sea, joint report says. Politicohttps://www.politico.eu/article/russia-uses-civilian-ships-to-spy-in-the-north-sea-reports/.
Corera, G. (2023, April 19). Ukraine war: The Russian ships accused of North Sea sabotage. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65309687.
European Pravda. (2023, April 19). Nordic media reveals Russia’s secret operations in waters around their states. Ukrainska Pravda. https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/news/2023/04/19/7398468/.
Fastrup, N., Quass L., & Ledegaard, F. H. (2023, 19 April). Disclosure: Russian spy ships are preparing possible sabotage against offshore wind turbines, gas pipelines and power cables in Denmark and the Nordics. DR. https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/indland/moerklagt/afsloering-russiske-spionskibe-forbereder-mulig-sabotage-mod.
Hamilton, B. (2023, April 19). Russian sabotage in place to strand Nordics in event of war, claims documentary. CPH post. https://cphpost.dk/2023-04-19/news/russian-sabotage-in-place-to-strand-nordics-in-event-of-war-claims-documentary/.
Hellenic Shipping News. (2019, December 9). Regulatory framework for AIS: ‘Going dark’ and switching off. Hellenic Shipping News. https://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/regulatory-framework-for-ais-going-dark-and-switching-off/.
Hou, L., Goodwin, A., Chernova, A., & Cotovio, V. (2021, April 20). Fleet of Russian spy ships has been gathering intelligence in Nordic waters, investigation finds. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/04/19/europe/russia-spy-ships-nordic-waters-intl/index.html.
The Irish Times. (2023, April 19). Russia ‘has plan to sabotage North Sea windfarms, cables.’ The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/world/europe/2023/04/19/russia-has-plan-to-sabotage-north-sea-windfarms-cables/.