Ireland ‘naive’ about Russian influence – Defence Forces ex-chief

Naval exercises off south coast a ‘classic’ example of information warfare

Retired Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett calls the Russian embassy on Orwell Road, which is believed to host a significant espionage and intelligence gathering operation, an aircraft carrier. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Irish people are naive about the extent of Russian influence in this country, the former head of the Defence Forces has said.

Retired Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a "violation of the principles of international values" and repeated calls for the EU to achieve "strategic autonomy" in the face of such threats.

Speaking about hybrid threats to Ireland from Russia, Mr Mellett said "we're very naive in Ireland in the context of the breadth and depth of Russian influence".

He called the Russian embassy on Orwell Road, which is believed to host a significant espionage and intelligence gathering operation, “an aircraft carrier”.


In 2020, the Government blocked plans by the Russians to vastly expand the embassy due to national security concerns.

“The size of the infrastructure was five times bigger than what was there. Why do they need that infrastructure for an island the size of Ireland?” Mr Mellett asked in an interview with The Irish Times.

Russia had already engaged in hybrid aggression in Ireland, he said. Hybrid threats are typically defined as the deployment of various forms of aggression, such as cyberattacks or disinformation campaigns, short of military confrontation.

The most obvious example was the announcement of Russian naval exercises off the south coast, within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), he said.

"That was an annexation of 5,000sq km, an area the size of Wexford, Wicklow and Dublin, for five days in our jurisdiction. It was unprecedented. It was provocative."

Information war

Mr Mellett said “the real hybrid part” came afterwards, when Russia announced it was moving the exercises to an area outside the EEZ because Irish fishing groups had raised concerns about threats to their livelihoods.

He said there was no doubt whatsoever that Russia’s presentation of the issue was part of its information war.

“It was the most classic hybrid ever. What they did was give the impression that it was fishermen who sorted it, not the Government. And that portrays the Government as being weak,” said Mr Mellett, who stepped down as chief of staff in September and now heads a company which advises on climate change issues.

"And that's what hybrid is all about. Russia doesn't need to get stronger. All it needs to do is make the member states of the European Union look weaker."

Russia’s aim was to undermine institutions and “make them look like they’re at sixes and sevens”, he said.

“We as citizens in democratic societies, when we fall prey to this, we’re being duped by Russian hybrid activity.”

The most recent example of Russian “information operations” in the spreading of disinformation was that the West was going to deploy chemical and biological weapons, Mr Mellett said. “It’s bananas.”

He said in the past, these lies would have gained some traction but that today society was “paying more attention to what’s fake and what’s real”.

“And that’s the critical piece. People need to really be discerning where they get their information.”

Asked where he stands on Ireland's military non-alignment, Mr Mellett said a debate on joining Nato would be premature.

“I think it’s too early for that,” he said. “I think if we actually start raising that flag, we will find that it will be polarising.”

Ireland had “extraordinary” soft power, Mr Mellett said, but it had been an “outlier” in terms of defence and security. “And we cannot be an outlier any more. In the context of what’s just happened.”

He is a supporter of increased EU co-operation on defence. Referencing a speech he gave in UCD just before the invasion, the former sailor said the EU needed to achieve "strategic autonomy", in other words, to be able to act independently in the areas of foreign policy and security in the face of hybrid threats from Russia and China and worsening climate change.

“The EU is squeezed between the US and China with a belligerent Russia adding to the complexity of an existing ring of fire,” Mr Mellett said in the speech.

Ireland already has a “huge amount of pooled sovereignty” with the EU in areas such as trade. Security was just another extension of that, he said, noting Ireland was a party to structures such as the Permanent Structured Co-operation agreement (PESCO) and that it paid millions into the European Defence Fund.

“Ireland would never have the capabilities on its own to defend itself unilaterally. In fact, none of the 27 [EU member states] would. So, therefore, the issue of pooled sovereignty is where this is going.” However, Ireland should retain the ability to opt out of initiatives.

Mr Mellett also said Ireland should have the ability under the European Defence Fund to develop its own military industry in areas such as force protection. “It’s not about an arms industry” and it was unrelated to neutrality, he said.

"It's about ability to operate. And if we're going to put people into very hostile environments, whether it be Mali, into Syria or into Afghanistan, as we have, we are obliged to give the best force protection possible."

He said he would “never apologise for looking for the best force protection for soldiers, sailors and air crew”.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times