Russia uses civilian vessels to gather intelligence on Scandinavian countries' military activities and critical infrastructure in the North Sea, according to an investigation conducted by the special services and public broadcasters of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
An entire fleet of Russian ships disguised as fishing trawlers and research vessels is reportedly studying and mapping the location of oil and gas pipelines, telecommunications cables, power plants and other facilities.
Investigators came to the conclusion that the ships not only collect intelligence data, but also explore the bottom of the North Sea with the help of special equipment to find out how the infrastructure of the Scandinavian countries is connected.
"In recent months, Russian actors have been trying to figure out how the energy system works in the North Sea. We see this for the first time," said the head of military intelligence of the Netherlands, Major General Jan Swillens.
The head of Norwegian intelligence, Nils Andreas Stensønes, said that the program is under special control from Moscow.
Western intelligence agencies believe that Russia's main goal is to obtain information that will paralyze the energy supply of Northwestern Europe through sabotage and cause chaos. "This is what 'research' ships are doing, in preparation for a big war with NATO," said one expert.
In particular, the ship of the Russian Navy Admiral Vladimirsky, which is allegedly engaged in marine research, was seen near offshore wind farms and other critical infrastructure in Belgium and the Netherlands. Last November, the vessel bypassed Kattegat, the inland area between Denmark, Sweden and Norway, without reporting its location. At the same time, it sent radio signals to a naval base in Russia, after which it was detected.
Investigators who tried to approach the "peaceful oceanographic" vessel in a small boat said that they were greeted by a masked man who came out to the deck with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
The authors of the report note that saboteur vessels in Scandinavian waters turn off their transmitters so that they cannot be tracked, but the special services managed to intercept and analyze some messages.
Investigators emphasize that reconnaissance of secret facilities is not unusual, and Western countries are likely to conduct similar activities against Russia. However, the collection of data and the preparation of actual sabotage are not the same thing.
Experts from the Nordic countries warned that the critical infrastructure of the region is becoming increasingly vulnerable, and attacks on it can have serious consequences, including for the health system, the financial sector, energy, and communications.
Press Secretary of the Russian president Dmitry Peskov has already commented on the investigation, accusing the Western media of "groundlessly blaming Russia for everything."
"These media outlets made a mistake in their investigation," he said and suggested paying closer attention to "the terrorist act at Nord Stream."