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Russian ‘ghost ships’ threaten expansion of North Sea wind farms

Nine European countries are seeking to transform the North Sea into the world's biggest green energy hub, while mysterious Russian vessels are said to be mapping the continent’s maritime infrastructure. Experts say the coalition needs a new security plan.

BERLIN (CN) — Countries surrounding the Baltic Sea had no other choice but to simply stand by and watch as Russian gas created massive white spots on the ocean surface after attacks caused the Nord Stream pipelines to leak for days last September. 

As more information comes to light about what happened in the time leading up to the pipeline sabotage, a definitive conclusion on who the perpetrator was remains unclear. 

What did become clear is that European leaders face a new reality: the continent's energy infrastructure is vulnerable. Should foreign adversaries decide to target Europe in a potential conflict, attacking its maritime infrastructure would be an easy way to cripple European society.

Amid the security threat, the European Commission aims to cut 55% of the continent's greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 before achieving complete neutrality in 2050. And expanding maritime infrastructure is key to reaching those goals. 

In April, leaders from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Luxemburg, France, Norway, Ireland and Denmark announced an agreement to transform the North Sea – which neighbors the Atlantic Ocean and is located between the European continent and the U.K. – into the largest energy production area in the world with the signing of the Ostend Declaration. 

All nine countries will focus on building offshore wind farms and energy islands in the North Sea, which are estimated to produce 300 gigawatts yearly by 2050. That should be “more than enough to cover every European household,” according to a press release from Denmark’s Energy Ministry. 

There’s no doubt that Europe's green transition creates an attractive byproduct. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Germany and its neighbors to find other energy sources, and the North Sea project will play a massive role in securing a future with less reliance on the Kremlin.

But as of now, maritime infrastructure is Europe’s soft underbelly, and the question is whether foreign powers will take advantage of that. 

The matter of security around Europe’s maritime infrastructure is not just a concern for the future. Right now, Russian vessels are said to be roaming around northern European waters gathering intelligence. 

Nordic broadcasters DR, SVT, NRK and Yle recently reported that Russian spy ships are sailing around Scandinavian waters, including the North Sea, undetected. The vessels are mapping offshore windfarms, gas pipes and electrical cables in preparation for possible sabotage should a direct conflict with NATO occur, experts and intelligence sources told Nordic media. At least 50 Russian ships within the past 10 years had suspicious route patterns, experts said

For example, a Russian Ministry of Defense vessel named Admiral Vladimirsky meant for marine research has systemically sailed and stopped near standing or emerging offshore windfarms to map the maritime infrastructure last November, a military expert told DR. Its route included stops and zigzagging among windfarms outside the U.K. coast for over a week before moving back to Russia via the Danish territory of the North Sea. 

Admiral Vladimirsky’s automatic identification system, or AIS, signal – a system used to share a ship’s location and course – has reportedly been switched off during the voyage, turning it into a so-called "ghost ship." Nordic media was able to track its whereabouts by monitoring Admiral Vladimirsky’s radio communication with Russian fleet bases on land. When reporters from DR approached the ship outside the coast of Denmark, a uniformed masked man armed with a Russian military rifle stepped out a deck, sending the Danish team fleeing.

The reports on Russian ghost ships mapping European maritime infrastructure send a critical signal for European leaders to optimize security around energy projects such as the one at the North Sea.

While the protection of critical infrastructure is usually considered a national matter, there was a mutual understanding among participants of the Ostend Declaration that international cooperation in the sea needs strengthening, according to Danish broadcaster TV2

The need to protect maritime infrastructure has dramatically increased in recent years, and yet responsibilities for protecting and regulating it need more clearance. Investments and coordination to strengthen vulnerabilities are urgently needed among allies, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly said in a draft report, taking the Nord Stream sabotage into account. 

For the North Sea project, leaders have enough time to build the necessary security components by 2030, but actually achieving it is a matter of political choice, said Christian Bueger, a professor at the University of Copenhagen researching maritime security. 

“We need a massive marine spatial plan for the entire North Sea,” Bueger said, adding that the goal is ambitious but realistic. 

Steps towards effective coordination and information-sharing among European Union countries on the North Sea are already in motion under the European Commission’s newly updated Maritime Security Strategy. But it looks more complicated for the other countries on the North Sea. Norway is not an EU member, and Brexit creates friction on collaboration between the U.K. and the EU on judicial questions involving territorial laws. 

The North Sea is one of the most congested areas in the world in terms of ship traffic, and sharing information from civil and intelligence sources is a realistic way to maintain surveillance over the massive maritime infrastructure that is yet to come, Bueger said.  

As prevention and monitoring are only half the battle, the professor also pointed to another issue that he said needs more attention – something fundamental that is overlooked among all the promises of potential security initiatives.

“When you scale wind farms and electricity systems up like that, how effective are the repair capacities in case of sudden damage?" Bueger said.

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