Russia ‘actively mapping’ West’s critical undersea systems, Nato warns

Russian vessels near subsea communications cable off Irish coast among recent incidents that have heightened concern

Nato’s intelligence chief said that Russia is mapping critical undersea systems and warned of a significant risk that Moscow could target infrastructure in Europe and North America.

“There are heightened concerns that Russia may target undersea cables and other critical infrastructure in an effort to disrupt western life and gain leverage against those nations that are providing support to Ukraine,” David Cattler, the military alliance’s assistant secretary general for intelligence and security, told reporters.

Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) have been racing to better safeguard undersea critical infrastructure after Nord Stream pipelines blasts last fall highlighted the difficulty of monitoring facilities and identifying attackers.

At issue is protecting systems like undersea cables, which account for 95 per cent of internet communications and together carry an estimated $10 trillion (€9 billion) worth of financial transactions every day, according to Nato.


“Russia is actively mapping allied critical infrastructure both on land and on the seabed, this effort is supported by Russia’s military and civilian intelligence services,” Mr Cattler said. He warned of “a persistent and significant risk” that Russia could attack allied systems.

Russia has blamed “Anglo-Saxon” allies for blowing up the Nord Stream gas pipelines, denying western accusations that it targeted its own links. But further incidents in recent months of what appear to be Russian spy ships operating near allied systems have heightened concern.

Last month, Russian government vessels equipped with technology capable of interfering with subsea cables were identified off Ireland’s west coast.

The two Russian flagged ships, the Umka and the Bakhtemir, caused alarm among defence officials when they were spotted engaging in unusual manoeuvres off the Galway coast, in the vicinity of a newly opened subsea communications cable.

The Defence Forces deployed ships and aircraft to keep track of the vessels, which later turned south and appeared to resume their originally charted journey to the port of Malabo in Equatorial Guinea on the west coast of Africa.

However, on the night of March 30th just before leaving the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone, the ships turned around again and began sailing back up the west coast, causing further confusion about their intentions.

Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, the head of the Portuguese Navy, told state-owned broadcaster RTP in March that a Russian vessel near the Portuguese island region of Madeira was a spy ship that was following and measuring submarine cables.

A joint investigation published in April by Danish, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian public broadcasters said that Russian military and civilian ships were mapping seabed infrastructure in the Baltic and North Seas.

Russia’s “patrols into the Atlantic and throughout the Atlantic are at a high level, most of the time at a higher level than what we’ve seen in recent years,” Mr Cattler said. He added Russia appears to be targeting undersea infrastructure in the broad Atlantic, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea.

Mr Cattler pointed to Russia’s military strategy – which calls for rapid destruction of critical infrastructure in the early stages of a conflict, a tactic seen in Ukraine – as one reason for the heightened concern.

Moscow’s efforts are led in part by an underwater reconnaissance programme in the ministry of defence and are supported by military and civilian intelligence services, with considerable resources at their disposal across the digital, space, air, land and maritime domains, he said.

While China is also active in the domain, Mr Cattler said, it is more interested in buying infrastructure than testing the vulnerabilities of others. He added that threats also exist from terrorists and other groups, particularly where the cables or infrastructure meet land.

Nato recently established an undersea infrastructure co-ordination cell, led by Lieut Gen Hans-Werner Wiermann, which aims to boost the security of allied systems by sharing best practices, information and wielding technologies to secure the links.

With monitoring undersea infrastructure a particularly difficult challenge, Lieut Gen Wiermann said Nato wants to add another layer of surveillance to its systems to identify suspicious behaviour close to or above critical undersea cables, pipelines and connectors by analysing signal data that could point to tampering. – Bloomberg