STAVANGER, Norway — Norwegian oil and gas workers normally see nothing more threatening than the waves of the North Sea crashing against the steel legs of their offshore platforms. But lately, they’ve noticed a more disturbing sight: unidentified drones buzzing in the sky above their heads.
As Norway replaces Russia as the main source of natural gas in Europe, military experts suspect the unmanned planes are the work of Moscow. They list espionage, sabotage and intimidation as possible motives for drone flights.
The Norwegian government has sent warships, coastguards and fighter jets to patrol around offshore installations. The Norwegian National Guard stationed soldiers around onshore refineries which were also buzzed by drones.
Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has invited navies from NATO allies Britain, France and Germany to help solve what could be more than a Norwegian problem.
A precious little part of the offshore oil that provides Norway with huge revenues is used by the country’s 5.4 million people. Instead, it powers much of Europe. Natural gas is another product of continental importance.
“The value of Norwegian gas to Europe has never been higher,” said Ståle Ulriksen, a researcher at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy. “As a strategic target for sabotage, Norwegian gas pipelines are probably the most profitable target in Europe.”
Airport closures and evacuations of an oil refinery and gas terminal last week due to drone sightings have caused huge disruption. But as winter approaches in Europe, there are fears the drones could portend a greater threat to the 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles) of gas pipelines that connect Norwegian shipping platforms to terminals in Britain. and in continental Europe.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine In late February, European Union countries rushed to replace their Russian gas imports with shipments from Norway. The alleged sabotage of the Nordstream I and II pipelines in the Baltic Sea last month happened a day before Norway opened a new pipeline from the Baltic to Poland.
Amund Revheim, who heads the North Sea and Environment Group at the Norwegian South West Police, said his team had interviewed more than 70 offshore workers who had spotted drones near their facilities.
“The working thesis is that they are controlled from nearby ships or submarines,” Revheim said.
The winged drones have a longer range, but investigators have found the sighting of a helicopter-like bladed model near the Sleipner platform, located in a North Sea gas field 250 kilometers (150 miles) from the coast.
The Norwegian police have worked closely with military investigators who analyze maritime traffic. Some rig operators have reported seeing Russian-flagged research vessels nearby. Revheim said no model has been established from legal shipping traffic and it fears causing unnecessary and disruptive concern for workers.
But Ulriksen, of the naval academy, said the distinction between Russian civilian and military vessels is narrow and the reported research vessels could rightly be described as “spy ships”.
The arrest of at least seven Russian nationals caught illegally carrying or flying drones over Norwegian territory has raised tensions. On Wednesday, the same day a drone sighted planes on the ground in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, the Norwegian police security service took the matter over to local officers.
“We have taken over the investigation because it is our job to investigate espionage and to enforce sanctions rules against Russia,” said Martin Bernsen, an official with the service known by the Norwegian acronym PST. . He said the “possible sabotage or mapping” of energy infrastructure was an ongoing concern.
Støre, the prime minister, warned that Norway would take action against foreign intelligence agencies. “It is not acceptable for foreign intelligence services to fly drones over Norwegian airports. Russians are not allowed to fly drones in Norway,” he said.
The Russian embassy in Oslo hit back on Thursday, saying Norway was suffering from a form of “psychosis” causing “paranoia”.
A naval academy researcher thinks this is probably part of the plan.
“Several drones flew with their lights on,” he said. “They are meant to be observed. I think this is an attempt to intimidate Norway and the West.
The wider concern is that they are part of a hybrid strategy aimed at both intimidating and gathering information on vital infrastructure, which could later be the target of sabotage in a potential attack on the West. .
“I don’t believe we’re headed for a conventional war with Russia,” Ulriksen said. “But hybrid warfare…I think we’re already there.”
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