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Russian ‘spy ships’ threaten to sabotage UK energy supply – The Telegraph – 19.04.23

‘Ghost’ vessels mapping wind farms and communication cables prompt Tory calls to expand Armed Forces to deal with Kremlin threat By Joe Barnes, Brussels correspondent; Gareth Corfield and Ben Riley-Smith, Political Editor.


Russian spy ships are mapping wind farms and key communication cables off the coast of Britain as part of plans to sabotage critical infrastructure.


Details of the covert “ghost ships” missions were published as Downing Street and GCHQ chiefs warned of a surge in Russia-aligned hackers aiming to “disrupt or destroy” energy facilities such as power stations.


A fleet of Russian boats, often disguised as fishing trawlers or research vessels but with armed guards, have been observed by European intelligence agencies conducting mass reconnaissance close to British coastal energy and communications networks.

Possible targets are believed to include internet cables, offshore wind farms and connectors carrying electricity and gas pipelines, an investigation found.


One ship doing underwater “research” was tracked touring wind farms off the east coast of the UK, while another is thought to have entered the Moray Firth on Nov 10 last year.


Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, told The Telegraph “the penny must drop” over Russia’s attempts to undermine British security as he called for an expansion of the Armed Forces in the wake of the revelations.


Mr Ellwood said: “We simply can no longer protect our near seas and, rightly, step forward further afield, with our current peacetime-sized Navy, Army and Air Force.”


On Wednesday night, GCHQ chiefs warned that Western nations were battling a surge in Russian hacking activity as Vladimir Putin’s cyber troops set their sights on vital infrastructure.


Oliver Dowden, the Cabinet Office minister, said Russia-aligned hackers who have been attacking Ukraine have “turned their attention to the UK”.


Criminal hacker groups in Russia have increasingly been targeting Western countries in recent months, especially Nato members supporting Ukraine. Experts say “patriotic” young Russians are carrying out cyber attacks against Western organisations and businesses.


National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) bosses have issued a formal warning to critical national infrastructure operators about the renewed threat.


Lindy Cameron, the chief executive of the NCSC, said: “If the UK is to be the safest place to live and work online, then resilience must urgently move to the top of our investment shopping list.”


GCHQ’s security arm also warned of an expansion in mercenary “hacker for hire” operations, in which highly skilled cyber companies offer their services to the highest bidder.


Details of the Russian sabotage plot in the North Sea emerged from a joint investigation by the public broadcasters of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Russia is thought to be drawing up plans in the event of a full-scale war with the West.


There has been an increased focus on the safety of North Sea infrastructure amid heightened tensions with Russia, particularly in the wake of the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline.


Last year, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, warned that Norway’s oil and gas infrastructure was “particularly vulnerable” because it had become Europe’s main supplier.


The Royal Navy is purchasing two dedicated sub-sea surveillance ships, expected to come into service this year.


Senior officials from AIVD, the Dutch equivalent of MI5 and MI6, previously warned that Russia had been caught mapping installations in the North Sea after a vessel was intercepted near a wind farm last autumn.


In February, a Russian ship without its automatic identification system, which lets the vessel be tracked, entered Belgian and Dutch waters. At the time, the Dutch intelligence services accused Moscow of “trying to map what the Dutch energy supply looks like”.


Around 50 Russian “ghost ships” are believed to be operating in the North Sea as part of the sabotage plot.


The investigation by the Scandinavian broadcasters identified the ship as the Admiral Vladimirsky, officially registered as an oceanographic research vessel, as a possible spy boat.


Footage of the ship showed a man armed with a military-grade rifle and wearing a balaclava was on board as their journalists approached it.

The vessel, which sailed for a month with its transmitter turned off, was tracked by a former UK Royal Navy expert in the vicinity of seven wind farms off the coast of the UK and the Netherlands on a single mission.


It was reported to have slowed down when it approached the infrastructure. The ship was the same one announced to have entered Belgian waters, reports citing security sources said.


It was reportedly spotted off the Scottish coast last year, when it was allegedly sighted entering Moray Firth on Nov 10.


Niels Fastrup, of the Danish broadcaster DR, said: “According to our experts and intelligence sources we’ve been talking to, the purpose of that stop was also to investigate the Seagreen wind farm in order to look for possible vulnerabilities to exploit in the event of an escalation in the current conflict situation between Russia and the Western world.”


A Danish intelligence officer told the broadcasters sabotage efforts were being planned by Russia in the event of a full-scale conflict with the West. The head of Norway’s intelligence services said the efforts were vital for Russia and controlled directly from Moscow.


A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The Government takes the security and resilience of our national infrastructure very seriously. That is why we increased Royal Navy presence patrols after the Nord Stream incident and have invested £65 million in the first of our two Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance ships.


“We continue to review all our investments and activities against the full range of threats and risks.”


Offshore Energies UK, the trade body for the offshore sector, said the safety of its installations was a matter of ongoing discussions with the Government.



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