Baltic and North Sea nations are getting nervous about Russia’s unabashed surveys of infrastructure-laden seafloors.
The seabed around Denmark holds data cables that connect Europe with the world, gas pipelines that until their sabotage powered German industry, and power cables that promise to light up Europe through the world’s soon-to-be “largest power plant.” And Russia is mapping it all so it can cause havoc, stopping short of war if need be but ready to sow destruction in the event of actual conflict, experts warn.
The latest alarm came after a Scandinavian documentary series revealed how dozens of Russian vessels are being used for nefarious purposes in waters around Northern Europe. The series focuses on the Admiral Vladimirsky, a Russian research vessel that was caught traveling through Danish territorial waters last November with its positional transmitter turned off, turning it into what is known as a “ghost ship”—the same tactic that states such as North Korea use to hide illicit trading. Reporters who got too close to the so-called research vessel were greeted with masked gunmen on deck brandishing automatic weapons.
Multiple experts agree that this ship was engaging in a different illicit activity, as it was likely mapping out critical infrastructure ripe for sabotage—for example, the data cables in Danish waters that connect it and Europe to the United States and the United Kingdom; some of those very cables were the ones the U.S. National Security Agency tapped to listen in on then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“The Russians have always done this, used regular ships to listen, photograph, and map areas of interest. This is clearly them laying the puzzle of our vulnerabilities,” said Nils Wang, a retired rear admiral of the Royal Danish Navy and the managing director of the export organization Naval Team Denmark. “Russia has the ability to engage in violence and pinprick operations, making our lives miserable, without going to war. It’s good we haven’t found a smoking gun pointing to Russia for [the sabotage of] Nord Stream,” Wang added, referring to the still-unexplained sabotage of two massive natural gas pipes just off the Danish coast last September.
The documentary series—titled Skyggekrigen, or “The Shadow War”—also alleges that the Admiral Vladimirsky and other Russian vessels spent time, with their transponders off, snooping around waters off the Netherlands and the U.K., including in areas near current and future wind farms. Danish waters are not as heavily loaded as the connection between the Netherlands and the U.K., but the Danish cables are important for European connection, a source in the sea cable industry said—certainly important enough to be of serious Russian interest.
“Denmark is a front-line state in the hybrid war,” said André Ken Jakobsson, a specialist in hybrid warfare at the University of Southern Denmark’s Center for War Studies.
The idea is, in short, that Russia would be able to cause power or communications breakdowns by strategically cutting cables; something just like that happened to a seabed research cable off northern Norway, and no one knows who did it. In times of actual conflict, experts fear, Russia would know exactly where to strike to blackout crucial parts of Europe.