Invisible and Sneaky: Putin’s Hidden Hybrid War Tries to Break Europe’s Heart | Simon Tisdall

NOTAto 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 border was a potential flashpoint. The Red Banner Northern Fleet’s nuclear submarines are still based near Murmansk on the freezing Barents Sea.

The reasons to worry again about the border multiply after the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. Norwegian police recently arrested several Russians, equipped with drones and cameras, who showed an unusual interest in oil and gas installations. Some of the alleged spies entered via Storskog.

Since Russia cut off Europe’s energy supply in retaliation for Western sanctions – and after last month’s sabotage of the Nord Stream Baltic gas pipelines – Norway has become Europe’s largest gas supplier. And while the government in Oslo doesn’t blame Moscow directly, it knows that makes it a prime target for covert hybrid warfare operations.

Of particular concern is the Baltic Pipe, a gas pipeline linking Norway with Poland and other EU countries, which opened last month. The obvious concern is that he might suffer the explosive fate of Nord Stream. Also theoretically vulnerable in this new era of Russian-European hostility are the vital pipelines feeding the UK.

“We see the consequences of the new security situation in Norway,” Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl warned after the arrests. “We cannot rule out other cases.” Following reports of drones buzzing over North Sea rigs, Norway and Denmark – along with NATO aspirants Finland and Sweden – are all increasing security and maritime patrols.

Finland is even planning to fence parts of its border with Russia, fearing both an influx of spies and saboteurs and a maliciously orchestrated wave of illegal migrants like the one at the Belarus-Poland border in 2021. Putin’s mass mobilization.

A gas leak from the rupture of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in the Baltic Sea. Photo: Tt News Agency/Reuters

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

With the realization that the Russian president will stop at nothing, EU leaders wonder what he could do next to undermine support for Ukraine – and weaken their governments. Putin loses on the battlefield and despite his nuclear threats, clearly fears a frontal conflict with NATO which he knows he could lose.

Looking ahead, it’s logical – and safe – to assume that a desperate and reckless Putin will increasingly turn to hybrid attacks in Europe.

Very little is prohibited. France fears that the transatlantic Internet cables, essential for Western security and communications, are in its sights. Its 2023 budget allocates €3.1 million to the defense of the “seabed”. Another 11 million euros would have been earmarked for drones and underwater robots.

“We have critical infrastructure that is beyond our territory – cables, satellites and oil and gas pipelines. We have been strengthening their security since the start of the war,” President Emmanuel Macron recently revealed.

Britain is catching up. Ben Wallace, the Defense Secretary, has promised that the UK’s first “multipurpose ocean surveillance vessel” will be operational by 2023. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of the Defense Staff, warned in January that the breaking of communication cables would be considered an act of war.

But the UK seems unprepared. Adding to the jitters, the rupture of an undersea communications cable that isolated the Shetland Islanders last week remains unexplained. The incident highlighted the potential national dimension of hybrid warfare.

EU officials admit it is impossible to protect everything from nuclear power stations, utilities and IT systems to airports and hospitals. This vulnerability was dramatically exposed when sabotage blamed on Russia shut down parts of the German rail network this month.

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

The use of “active measures” is difficult to prove. NATO said in 2016 that “hybrid actions” against one or more allies would be considered an attack on all under Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty. But the problem is a problem of definition – what constitutes such an attack? Another problem is agreeing on who is responsible.

“Hybrid methods of warfare… have long been used to destabilize adversaries. What is new about the 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.

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

The Macron administration is besieged by far-right and far-left opponents, strikers and street protesters angry at the rising cost of living. The unpopular German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, struggles to maintain a restless coalition. Many of the problems they face stem directly from the ever-increasing impact of the February invasion.

Division, disruption, destabilization: these are the fruits of Putin’s covert Hybrid War. He loses on the ground in Ukraine. But is he winning the battle to break the will of Europe? Winter is coming – and winter will tell.

About Keith Tatum

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