Britain has pledged to send two specialist ships to help protect Europe's underwater infrastructure, after four large gas leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace made the commitment as the European Commission’s energy chief called for an EU-wide approach to carry out vital stress tests on the natural gas transport framework.
Last week’s leaks led to huge volumes of greenhouse gases being spewed into the Baltic Sea, in incidents widely viewed as state-sponsored sabotage by Russia.
The Kremlin denies that it was behind the attacks.
Several hundreds of kilograms of explosives are said to have been used in the assaults. These caused significant damage to the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 offshore pipelines that carry natural gas from Russia to Germany.
Speaking on the opening day of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Sunday, Mr Wallace announced that vessels would be sent to protect the infrastructure.
He said “there is no going back” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he believed wanted to push his troops west of Ukraine.
“We’ve recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe,” Mr Wallace said.
“The first role survey ship, the Seabed Warfare, will be purchased by the end of this year, fitted out here in the UK and in operation.
“But before the end of next year, the second ship will be built in the UK and we will plan to make sure it covers all our vulnerabilities.”
Kadri Simson, the EU’s commissioner for energy, on Friday signalled that the bloc’s 27 nations would be asked to come together to carry out tests which would begin “as soon as possible”.
“Given the possible serious impact of an incident on the internal market and across borders, an EU-wide approach is needed,” Ms Simson said.
Her call for a ramped up approach was echoed by the office of the European Commission’s home affairs representative Anitta Hipper.
“Given the current geopolitical situation in Europe, we need to use all available tools to make sure our critical infrastructure is secure and resilient,” the office told The National.
Analysts have warned that there are weaknesses in Europe’s preparedness to face attacks such as the recent ones on the pipelines.
A December 2020 proposal for a directive put forward by the European Commission recognised the need for better legislation to enhance the resilience of critical entities.
“The current framework on critical infrastructure protection is not sufficient to address the current challenges to critical infrastructures and the entities that operate them,” the proposal said.
It made suggestions including widening the definition of critical infrastructure from two to 11 sectors and allow critical entities that provide essential services to at least six EU countries to benefit from extra advice.
But the proposal has yet to be adopted formally by the European Parliament and the European Council.
Once adopted, EU countries will have 21 months to transfer its rules into legislation.
Increased military security
Short of being able to provide an immediate legislative or military response to the Nord Stream attacks, the EU has provided a space for informal exchanges.
Energy ministers gathered in Brussels on Friday to tackle soaring gas prices and also discussed how to better defend themselves.
“Everyone’s shocked by the sabotage of Nord Stream, so it was very fruitful that colleagues from Denmark, Sweden and Germany informed us on the way that they’re doing research to know what happened over there,” said Netherlands Energy Minister Rob Jetten.
“And we exchanged how member states can protect this crucial infrastructure as well as possible.”
Norway, which is not an EU member but is part of Nato and the Schengen area, has tightened its security around its energy infrastructure and accepted military support from Germany, France and Britain.
Some European politicians have openly blamed Russia for the attack, while Mr Putin accuses the US and its allies. His denials have fallen mostly on deaf ears among European decision makers.
“Russia saying ‘it wasn’t us’, is like saying ‘I’m not the thief,’” German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said.
The investigation into the cause of the underwater explosion, led by Sweden with Denmark and Germany, might take several weeks.
Speaking during a press briefing on Thursday, deputy chief European Commission representative Dana Spinant said that it was necessary to wait for the results of the investigation before the EU can make further announcements.
She said that the stress tests would help “establish whether the measures and means in place are sufficient or not”.
Possible other attacks
Christian Fjader, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs research institute, said that he was most concerned about submarine communication cables in the Baltic Sea.
He told The National that he expected Nato and countries like Finland and Sweden, not the EU, to work on securing such critical infrastructures and maritime traffic.
“If there are major disruptions in the Baltic Sea, that will have strategical level consequences,” he said.
“Finland is logistically an island. Over 90 per cent of exports and imports depend on maritime traffic in the Baltic Sea and 90 per cent of global internet traffic also goes through submarine communications cables.”
The exact nature of the security tests to be conducted by the EU remain vague.
“It’s a bit unclear to me what they mean by them exactly,” said Mr Fjader.
“They could be scenario exercises or more technical and focus on individual critical infrastructure and really test them against these types of attacks and others,” he said.
The Nord Stream attacks point to a state, said Mr Fjader, which represents a major security challenge for Europe.
“If somebody is willing and capable of sabotaging Nord Stream, you can’t rule out attacks against other kinds of infrastructure as well,” he said.
“It’s not just the EU or the Commission that have missed the rapid development of the threat environment.”
“We missed this somehow and we’re running behind the ball.”
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato's secretary-general, said he spoke to Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store about the situation in Ukraine, and thanked him for his country's contributions to the collective response.
“We also addressed the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline, enhanced NAT vigilance and closer co-operation on protecting critical infrastructure,” Mr Stoltenberg tweeted.