Europe on Alert for Infrastructure Strike

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  • Nato officials have warned of a potential escalation in Russia’s hybrid energy war targeting critical subsea infrastructure in Europe.
  • Moscow has been mapping and gathering intelligence on the region’s subsea power cables and pipelines in what is seen as a “persistent and significant” security risk.
  • With Norway now Europe's biggest piped gas supplier, coordination between the state and private actors operating Europe’s key subsea pipelines and power cables will be crucial to protect assets.

The Issue

Energy firms that operate Europe’s critical infrastructure are increasingly aware of the challenges in securing key offshore assets amid heightened concern that Russia may already be identifying targets for future attacks. Recent alleged drone attacks targeting Russia could provide the tinder for a retaliatory hybrid strike. But state and private actors acknowledge that it will be difficult to protect subsea power cables and pipelines. Investigations into last September’s attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines connecting Russia and Germany have as yet been inconclusive.

Significant Security Risk

Nato Assistant Secretary-General for Intelligence and Security David Cattler warned last week that the organization has been monitoring Russian vessels “actively mapping allied critical infrastructure both on land and on the seabed.” He told a press briefing the subsea reconnaissance is part of a program run by a branch of Russia’s defense ministry and that its focus appears to be on infrastructure in the North and Baltic seas. Cattler also flagged China as "another significant actor on the seabed" and highlighted the potential threat that terrorist groups pose to land-based infrastructure such as pipelines and LNG terminals.

More reported incidents involving Russian vessels suspected of spying near critical infrastructure have heightened concern. A joint investigation published in April by public broadcasters in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland suggested that Russia was using military and civilian vessels to map subsea infrastructure in the Baltic and North seas. Earlier in the year, Dutch intelligence agencies warned about Russia “undertaking activities that indicate espionage and preparatory acts of disruption and sabotage” against Dutch offshore gas pipelines, wind farms and internet cables.

Around 95% of global data flows are transmitted via subsea cables at speeds of about 200 terabytes per second, with 200 of these 400 cables deemed critical, according to Cattler. They carry an estimated $10 trillion worth of financial transactions daily, “so these cables really are an economic linchpin," he said. Moreover, Europe’s offshore wind push will only increase the need for more subsea power cables to shore.

Russia-aligned cyberattacks also pose a growing threat to critical infrastructure in Europe. UK Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden in April issued an unprecedented alert urging infrastructure operators to prioritize cybersecurity to defend themselves and the country. "These adversaries are ideologically motivated, rather than financially motivated," he said.

Stepping Up Protection

While national governments are chiefly responsible for protecting critical infrastructure, Nato and the EU have taken steps to tackle Russian hybrid threats. Following the mysterious Nord Stream pipeline blasts, Nato significantly increased the number of ships patrolling the North and Baltic seas. And in February it created a new cell at its Brussels headquarters to coordinate efforts between industry, military and civilian stakeholders to protect subsea infrastructure by sharing best practices, technologies and information.

The EU in March updated its maritime security strategy, stepping up naval and aerial surveillance of critical offshore energy infrastructure. That includes plans to hold an annual joint naval exercise from 2024, expand coastal patrols and surveillance of subsea and surface infrastructure.

Nato countries have also reinforced their military presence around key infrastructure. Non-EU Norway, whose piped gas exports account for nearly 25% of EU consumption, has been closely monitoring the waters around its oil and gas installations after repeated drone sightings. In March, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen flew to the North Sea Troll A platform, which produces gas from Norway’s biggest gas field, operated by state-controlled Equinor. They described the visit as a show of unity at a critical time.

Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, acknowledged that it would be difficult to protect all vulnerable offshore assets because of the sheer size. Norway has about 90 offshore installations and almost 9,000 kilometers of pipelines as well as internet and power cables. But he said, "the plan now is to exercise more, and be able to react fast, if something happens."

One source told Energy Intelligence that there had been a tightening of cybersecurity and greater awareness of the potential threat from drones, for example, but that it would be difficult to protect all infrastructure: "There's no one silver bullet."

Norway’s Deputy Energy Minister Amund Vik told Energy Intelligence last month that “in general, there is no concrete threat to Norwegian energy infrastructure.” But both the government and Norwegian operators have stepped up the level of security, he said, adding that cooperation between private actors and allied countries has been going well. Asked about the report earlier this year by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh blaming the Nord Stream sabotage on the US with help from the Norwegian navy, Vik said “it’s ridiculous.”

Closer Cooperation Crucial

Cooperation between the private sector and Nato will be essential. Indeed, Stoltenberg met this month with officials from energy and communications companies that operate critical infrastructure to discuss how to identify the threats and better protect key assets.

Disruptive actions within Russia are increasing, however, with the potential for retaliation against Western or Nato allies targeting critical infrastructure. Moscow is currently considering its response to the drone attack on the Kremlin last week, which it views as "a hostile act" organized by Ukraine with US support. "We will not respond by talking about casus belli or not, we will respond with concrete actions," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Russia has blamed Ukraine for a series of drone strikes in recent weeks also targeting oil facilities, airfields and energy infrastructure. The BBC reported five drone attacks on oil depots. Last week, drones targeted the Ilsky oil refinery in Krasnodar near the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk on two consecutive days, but caused limited damage and no casualties.

For more coverage of the Ukraine crisis, visit Ukraine Crisis: Energy Impact >

Security Risk , Military Conflict, Offshore Oil and Gas, Ukraine Crisis
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