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Russian military drills pose strategic and environmental risks to Ireland

Concerns that the drills off Cork coast could be cover for cutting subsea cables

This week Russia will start deploying 140 warships and about 10,000 sailors around the world to take part in naval exercises expected to last several weeks.

These drills will take place in the Pacific, the Mediterranean and in a small area about 130 nautical miles (200km) off the coast of Cork, firmly within Ireland's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Unsurprisingly it is the latter exercises which are causing most concern in military and political circles here.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney says he has told Russia the exercise is "not welcome", while recently retired Defence Forces chief of staff Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett called it "provocative in both its timing and nature".

There is nothing illegal about the drills. While they take place within Ireland’s EEZ, that area is also considered international waters. Russia has officially informed the Irish authorities about the plans in order to minimise the risk to air and sea traffic.

It is the context in which the drills are taking place which is causing such concern. Currently well over 100,000 troops are in position along the border of Ukraine ahead of a feared invasion, which, if it takes place, will have to start in February while the ground is still frozen. Immediately before the announcement of the naval exercise the UK sent 2,000 anti-tank weapons and 30 special forces troops to Ukraine to assist it in the event of invasion.

Foreign navies

The exact location of the drill, in an area known as the Porcupine Seabight southwest of Cork, is also causing anxiety. If the purposes of the exercises are benign it would be far easier for Russia to hold them closer to its own shores.

Military sources say it is not unheard of for foreign navies to conduct drills in the Irish EEZ. “But they usually have a good reason for it. It makes sense for the royal navy to conduct exercises in that area of the Atlantic because that’s on their doorstep. It doesn’t make practical sense for the Russians to be there,” said a Naval Service source.

If the exercises are linked to an invasion of Ukraine they may serve one of several purposes, according to military planners. One is psychological; to remind Nato of the Russian navy's freedom of movement which may make members thinking twice about launching retaliatory military action.

Another is strategic. If the situation in Ukraine deteriorates significantly one of the first priorities of Nato would likely be to box in as much of the Russian fleet as possible into their ports. It is in Russia’s interest to disperse its ships in international waters ahead of such an eventuality.

For Ireland the worst-case scenario is that Russia is positioning itself to disable the subsea infrastructure running along the southern coast and connecting Europe and North America. The drills are due to take place directly above the nexus of many of the internet cables which connect the two continents. Cutting them would immediately cripple the economies of Nato countries (and Ireland).

Cutting the cables was described by one naval source as “the perfect counterpunch” against any Nato or US military response in Ukraine. “If I wanted to invade Ukraine and hamstring my opponents, I would want to cut those cables. It would be lights out for the economy of western Europe.”

A Government source said such an action by Russia was “considered extremely unlikely”. However, it is known Russia has the ability do this. Last summer, the Yantar, a Russian surveillance ship which is capable of cutting undersea cables using autonomous submersibles, was observed operating off the Irish coast.

There are no indications the Yantar will be present for the coming drills but other Russian vessels possess the same technology. When a cable connecting mainland Norway to its Svalbard archipelago was cut two weeks ago, suspicion quickly fell on Russia.

Munitions

There is also the matter of what munitions Russia is planning to test. The area cordoned off for the test is relatively small, indicating it intends to test short-range weaponry. But some of the ships are expected to possess the ability to fire the Kalibr-M cruise missile which, with a 4,500km range, could easily hit Kyiv.

Whatever its purpose, the exercise is likely to have a detrimental impact on the environment. Many of the warheads used will likely contain depleted uranium and any submarines involved will be using sonar, which can be devastating to larger marine life, particularly whales.

The drill will also be closely monitored by Nato submarines, whose own sonar will cause further damage.

"An exercise such as this will attract a lot of military attention to the region. Therefore you are likely to see a lot of increased sonar activity," said retired captain Brian Fitzgerald. "Ireland has a very direct interest in protecting the environment and in the protection of whales and dolphins in the area if there is damage caused," he told The Irish Times.

The drills have drawn Ireland into a crisis which until last week seemed remote despite taking place on the edges of the EU. It has also, once again, demonstrated Ireland’s inability to monitor its own waters.

“Since 2018 the Naval Service has effectively collapsed. At most we can send five out of nine ships to sea,” said one senior source.

Ireland remains without a primary radar system despite plans for one being detailed in the 2015 Defence White Paper. The Navy has no ships capable of deploying helicopters and no subsurface surveillance assets.

The ships it does possess are equipped with navigation radars which only operate out to 24 nautical miles. This means Ireland’s response will likely be limited to using one of its two maritime patrol aircraft to shadow some of the Russian ships as they make their way down the west coast. It will then let Nato navies take over surveillance. There is evidence US anti-submarine Poseidon aircraft are taking up position at UK bases to do just that.

At that point, according to one military source, “all we can do is hope they tell us what’s happening”.