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‘We’ve been lucky so far’: maritime security expert warns of Russian risks in the North Sea – Follow the Money

‘We’ve been lucky so far’: maritime security expert warns of Russian risks in the North Sea – Follow the Money

The North Sea is an emerging industrial area, important for the supply of energy, data and food for the whole of Europe. It’s time to get serious about security in, on and around the North Sea, says international relations professor Christian Bueger.

Countries are fighting for control in the South China Sea. Somali pirates regularly hit the headlines when they attack boats in the Arabian Peninsula. In the Mediterranean, the coast guard and navies have their hands full in the fight against people and drug smuggling.

By comparison, the North Sea looks like a calm European inland sea. But appearances are deceiving, says Christian Bueger. He is a professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen, specializing in maritime security. The Dane investigates all aspects of maritime security: from piracy to conflicts between states and from sabotage to espionage. His conclusion: security in the North Sea is at risk.

In an interview with FTM, the professor explains what makes the situation in, on and around the North Sea so complicated and, in his view, dangerous. Bueger talks about the tactics of Russian authorities, unclear regulations and jurisdiction, and the security risk of infrastructure visible on the seabed. He argues for a different view.

When did you, as a security expert, start paying attention to the North Sea?

“For me, it was one of the outcomes of the Brexit process: that we have to start paying attention to the North Sea. Because before Brexit it was mainly a (large) European, with the Norwegians having a close partnership with the European Union. Immediately after Brexit, we had several of these incidents between French and British fishermen, basically leading to new forms of uncertainty and insecurity. That’s what originally brought me to the North Sea as a kind of security region.”

A joint investigation by Follow the Money and Belgian newspaper De Tijd he showed this week, Russian ships have been engaged in suspicious activity in the North Sea since 2014. Security services suspect that Russia uses both military and civilian vessels for espionage and sabotage of data and power cables, gas pipelines and other infrastructures on the seabed.

But the big impetus for navies, security services and experts to pay more attention to security, according to Bueger, was the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline in September 2022: before the new section of this pipeline, which would carry Russian gas to Germany, could be commissioned, both new and old parts of Nord Stream were blown up near the Danish island of Bornholm. (Investigations so far do not point to Russia as the culprit, as the media and experts first suspected, but to Ukraine. (In all likelihood, a Ukrainian crew on a sailboat planted and detonated the explosives.)

A year later, in October 2023, the Chinese container ship Newnew Polarbear destroyed a gas pipeline and some data cables with a pulling anchor – presumably. on purpose.

What are the biggest security threats to the North Sea?

“I think there would be a series of mysterious accidents that cause massive environmental damage, orchestrated primarily to demonstrate our continued vulnerability: that whatever we do, it’s not enough. So that would be, to me, the most worrying and realistic threat in the region.

It could be a shadow fleet, could be an attack on a lifeline. We witness a series of mysterious accidents. It could go on and it could be much worse. So far we’ve just been lucky.

There are a lot of bilateral agreements between states, and ultimately this is mostly energy cooperation. … It is not security cooperation: you have quite a number of environmental agreements. But it’s largely interpreted in terms of accident prevention and things like that. And not necessarily in terms of security.”

What strategies does Russia use in the North Sea and how long has it been doing so?

“Russian fishing vessels are used for intelligence operations and this is not a new thing.

In 2014, the Royal Navy of Great Britain took me out to sea. On the bridge they had a picture of a fishing boat. I asked them “why do you have this picture hanging there” and then the guy said “Ah, that’s one of the Russian spy ships”. We know what it looks like. When we see it, we report it.”

Bueger points out that this form of espionage – also known as gray area tactics – has been around for decades. During the Soviet era, Soviet ships carried a security officer from the secret services on board. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, things calmed down a bit. In the 1990s, European countries hoped for rapprochement, and exchanges took place between research vessels.

This changed around 2014, around the same time as Russia’s annexation of Crimea. During the same period, Western countries became more active in the Arctic. Due to climate change, the Arctic becomes navigable in the summer, which greatly reduces the travel time between China and Europe. Also, new gas fields are being developed in northern Russia. Therefore, Russia is trying to strengthen its grip on the area and keep other powers out.

Since then, there has been a significant increase in gray area tactics by civilian vessels. This is now the official policy in Russia, says Bueger. It is described in black and white in the new maritime doctrine developed in 2022. Civilian vessels such as fishing boats, container ships and oil tankers must cooperate in military missions.

“One of the explanations is also that the Russian Navy is simply overloaded. So they try to find alternative means of exerting influence.

The point of doing this isn’t really to find out anything. It’s more about removing the threat or demonstrating vulnerability: “Hey, we can surf along the cables and cut anytime.” There’s basically nothing you can do. It’s just keeping us busy, worrying about the threat. And that works really, really well.”

All those cables and pipes are easy to find, they are simply located on all kinds of maps. Is it wise?

“This is what we call the paradox of visibility: if you want to protect infrastructure from accidents, then you have to put it on the (nautical) chart as accurately as possible, but at the same time, if you want to protect it from being deliberately targeted, then you should hide it. You can’t get out of it.”

What can North Sea countries do when a ship exhibits suspicious behavior in their exclusive economic zones, an area 12 to 200 nautical miles from shore?

“Exclusive economic zones are a complicated legal construct and many countries have not fully clarified what their legislation is. So, for example, I learned from the German Federal Police that patrols the exclusive economic zone that there is no crime in German law for the exclusive economic zone. So basically, if you find a Russian ship messing with a pipeline or cable, the only thing the feds can do is say “hello, can you please stop that?” and they have no power to arrest.”

How can security be improved in the North Sea?

“Europe does not have a secure information sharing network that would involve military actors. And because of this… the Belgians launched a new initiative a few weeks ago and negotiated a memorandum of understanding for the North Sea, which primarily focuses on the exchange of information between the countries of the North Sea, excluding France. So the Belgians are planning to set up a whole new information sharing network that’s secure and reliable, and they’re also looking at how industry can actually power that network.

“If you find a Russian ship tempering with a pipeline, the only thing the German Federal Police can do is say ‘hello, can you please stop this?’”

When it comes to (the role of) companies, I think we can see different patterns: the Norwegian position is mostly that a lot of protection should be handled by industry, because it’s cheaper and they have the technical know-how. In the UK, we see that the idea is more that it should be a government task. Of course the UK has this sophisticated maritime security infrastructure – but it’s not really clear who should be responsible for managing that.”

Does stricter action make sense?

“There is some reluctance. For example, many experts asked the Danes to inspect Russian ships and check for insurance certificates and so on. Denmark is afraid to do that. You don’t know what kind of repercussions that could have elsewhere in terms of infrastructure threats.

Can EU common policy help? For example, a common navy? And what is NATO’s role in all this?

“NATO has been very, very, very active – especially since the Nord Stream incident it has put a new focus on the region; their first reaction was to send military ships, including the Italian navy, to the region.

The European Union is a complex entity. And here we have on the one hand all the critical infrastructure work in general, but its implementation is largely in the hands of nation states and member states.

I have long argued that the solution lies in these regional sea levels: the Mediterranean is a radically different context and is in the North Sea. The North Sea is an interesting template because it’s much simpler: you’re only dealing with Norway and Great Britain – both NATO states. And of course in the Mediterranean, everything is much more complex, because of the North African countries, but then also Israel, Greece, Turkey and all these tensions in that particular space.

It would be good to harmonize the law at the regional level so that we have clear interpretations of what is allowed and what can be criminalized in the specific exclusive economic zone.

And then, if the next Russian research vessel comes through, you at least have some legal grounds to say to the Russian Navy, “hey, what you’re doing here doesn’t fit our interpretation of freedom of scientific exploration.” So the clarification of the legal space is one of the things that is completely missing.”