Unseen and underhand: Putin’s hidden hybrid war is trying to break Europe’s heart

From Norwegian pipelines to French ocean floor cables, vital infrastructure is vulnerable to Russian attacks designed to destabilise Europe

Nato planners have always worried about the Storskog border crossing in Finnmark, where Arctic Norway comes face to face with the cold reality of Russia. In Soviet times, the 121-mile frontier was a potential flashpoint. The Red Banner Northern Fleet’s nuclear-armed submarines are still based at nearby Murmansk, on the freezing Barents Sea.

Reasons to worry afresh about the border are multiplying following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Norwegian police recently arrested several Russians, equipped with drones and cameras, who were showing unusual interest in oil and gas installations. Some of the suspected spies entered via Storskog.

Since Russia cut energy supplies to Europe in retaliation for western sanctions – and following last month’s sabotage of the Nord Stream Baltic pipelines – Norway has become Europe’s biggest gas supplier. And while the Oslo government is not directly accusing Moscow, it knows that makes it a prime target for covert hybrid warfare operations.

Particular concern centres on the Baltic Pipe, a gas pipeline connecting Norway to Poland and other EU countries, which was inaugurated last month. The obvious worry is that it could suffer Nord Stream’s explosive fate. Theoretically vulnerable, too, in this new era of Russia-Europe hostility, are vital pipelines supplying the UK.

“We’re seeing the consequences of the new security situation in Norway,” justice minister Emilie Enger Mehl warned after the arrests. “We can’t rule out further cases.” Following reports of drones buzzing North Sea rigs, Norway and Denmark – plus Nato applicants Finland and Sweden – are all increasing security and maritime patrols.

Finland even plans to fence parts of its border with Russia, fearing both an influx of spies and saboteurs and a maliciously orchestrated illegal migrant surge like that on the Belarus-Poland border in 2021. The Storskog route has become popular meanwhile with young Russian men dodging Putin’s mass mobilisation.

The gas leak from Nord stream 1 pipeline
A gas leak from the ruptured Nord Stream 1 pipeline in the Baltic Sea. Photograph: Tt News Agency/Reuters

Russian non-military hybrid warfare takes many forms, all with an identical aim: the execution of “active measures” to harm, confuse, frighten, enfeeble and divide target states while maintaining plausible deniability. Thus the EU and US strongly suspect Putin ordered the Nord Stream sabotage as part of his undeclared energy war on Europe. But he denies it, and they have produced no proof.

As the realisation dawns that Russia’s president will stop at nothing, EU leaders wonder what he may do next to undermine support for Ukraine – and weaken their governments. Putin is losing on the battlefield and despite his nuclear threats, plainly fears a head-on conflict with Nato he knows he could lose.

Thinking ahead, it’s logical – and prudent – to assume a desperate, heedless Putin will increasingly turn to hybrid attacks in Europe.

Very little is off-limits. France worries transatlantic internet cables, essential for western security and communications, are in his sights. Its 2023 budget allocates €3.1m for “ocean floor” defence. An additional €11m has reportedly been earmarked for drones and underwater robots.

“We have essential infrastructure which is beyond our territory – cables, satellites and oil and gas pipelines. We’ve been reinforcing their security since the start of the war,” President Emmanuel Macron recently revealed.

Britain is playing catch-up. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, has promised the UK’s first “multi-role ocean surveillance ship” will be operational in 2023. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, chief of the defence staff, warned in January that severing of communications cables would be viewed as an act of war.

But the UK looks unprepared. Adding to the jitters, the break in a subsea communications cable that left Shetland islanders isolated last week remains unexplained. The incident highlighted hybrid warfare’s potential domestic dimension.

EU officials admit safeguarding everything from nuclear power plants, utilities and computer systems to airports and hospitals is impossible. This vulnerability was dramatically exposed when sabotage blamed on Russia shut down parts of Germany’s railway network this month.

Russia’s hybrid options extend to covert use of special forces and proxy fighters, such as the “little green men” deployed in Crimea in 2014. They include deniable cyber attacks, as suffered by Estonia in August, fake news and disinformation campaigns, as during the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum, and concerted diplomatic deception.

Use of “active measures” is hard to prove. Nato declared in 2016 that “hybrid actions” against one or more allies would be viewed as an attack on all under article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty. But the problem is one of definition – what constitutes such an attack? Another problem is agreeing who is responsible.

“Hybrid methods of warfare … have long been used to destabilise adversaries. What is new about attacks seen in recent years is their speed, scale and intensity, facilitated by rapid technological change and global interconnectivity,” Nato said in June. “Counter-hybrid support teams” would provide assistance but it was primarily up to individual countries to protect themselves.

Hybrid threats are adding to the already considerable political and social strains imposed on Europe by the Ukraine conflict. EU leaders are struggling to agree a gas price cap and other energy crisis measures, while France and Germany are at odds over future defence policy vis-a-vis Russia. A key government-to-government summit this week has been postponed.

Macron’s administration is under siege from far-right and far-left opponents, strikers and street protesters angry at rising living costs. Germany’s unpopular chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is struggling to hold a fractious coalition together. Many of the problems they face stem directly from the ever-spreading impact of February’s invasion.

Division, disruption, destabilisation: these are the fruits of Putin’s hidden hybrid war. He is losing on the ground in Ukraine. But is he winning the battle to break Europe’s will? Winter is coming – and winter will tell.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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