Russian naval drill to still take place over vital cables, experts believe

Coveney threatened with legal action over failure to intervene to protect marine life

Russia is to move the location of its planned naval exercises off the Irish coast to an area which is still above vital subsea communications cables, military experts believe.

Officials expect the exercises will now move to an area slightly further to the west, just outside of Ireland's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but still above the cables connecting Europe to north America.

"The intention is not to cut the cables, but to send a message that they can cut them anytime they want. The audience for that message is Nato, not Ireland", an Irish military source said on Sunday. "The announcement by the [Russian] ambassador hasn't changed that."

On Saturday, Ambassador Yuriy Filatov announced the planned five days of live-fire drills would now take place outside the Irish EEZ. He said this was a "gesture of goodwill" in response to requests from the Government and Irish South and West Fish Producers' Organisation.

The embassy did not respond to requests on Sunday for information on the new location.

The Russian flotilla expected to take part in the drills is believed to be about to enter the North Sea, having sailed down the coast of Norway. Once there, it is likely to be monitored by RAF aircraft.

‘Message to Europeans’

"The new location almost certainly remains in the vicinity of cables," said retired Capt Brian Fitzgerald, who stepped down as the Naval Service's second-in-command last year.

He said the Russian navy would likely want to locate the exercises at a spot which is outside the Irish EEZ but still near the European continental shelf. Otherwise, the cables would be much more difficult to reach.

Another source with knowledge of western military thinking on Russian naval activity said Russia “will be shadowing the cables, going further west. The exercises will be over the cables – that is for sure. They are sending a message to the Europeans: we know where the cables are.”

On Sunday, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney commended fishermen who campaigned for the relocation of the Russian naval drills.

"I think they had a very effective campaign over the last few days. I think their campaign was very effective and very persuasive this week. I think it's a good example of a fishing organisation and the Government working in tandem together," he told RTÉ Radio One's This Week.

Fishermen and Minister

"We're on the same side here. Last night I got a call from someone in Castletownbere saying: 'We put the ball in the air and you managed to put it in the net.' It's good to work in partnership on something like this."

He added that the preference would be for the drills to be cancelled altogether, but said, “We don’t control all of the levers there, in fact we don’t control very many of them at all.”

The EU's commissioner for environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, also commended the fishermen.

“Irish fishermen got their diplomatic game on! They managed to stop Russian military exercises that would undermine their activities & marine life. Real custodians of the sea on duty!” he said in a tweet.

Separately, it has emerged that Mr Coveney received a warning on Saturday from an environmental group threatening legal action if the Government did not intervene in the matter.

An Claiomh Glas and environmental campaigner Attracta Uí Bhroin told the Minister he had an obligation, under Irish and European law, to protect marine life from the impact of the drills if they took place in the Irish EEZ. *

It also said it was prepared to take immediate legal action to compel the Minister to assess the impact of the exercises and intervene if they were going to cause damage.

* This article was amended on January 31st, 2022