There is no doubt Russia has “the intent and the ability” to target the West’s underwater energy and communication lines, Britain's Defence Secretary said, as he launched a security partnership with Norway.
The UK signed a security partnership with Norway to counter undersea threats and protect critical energy infrastructure in the wake of last year’s attack on the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
The two nations will increase co-operation to improve their ability to detect submarines, counter mine threats and generally enhance North Atlantic security.
A statement of intent was signed by Ben Wallace and his Norwegian counterpart Bjorn Arild Gram during a visit to the Maritime Operations Centre at the UK's Northwood military base on Thursday.
The UK and Norway have already jointly increased security patrols in the region where the unexplained Nord Stream pipeline explosions occurred. The blasts are being investigated but are believed to have been intentional.
Building on this, the new agreement will bolster the development of capabilities to protect shared interests in the North Sea while streamlining the process for other allies to join their activity, according to the Ministry of Defence.
“Co-operating through the [Joint Expeditionary Force] and the Northern Group with our long-standing defence partner and Nato ally Norway, we are heightening our joint capabilities to protect western critical national infrastructure on the seabed,” Mr Wallace said.
“The attack on the Nord Stream pipeline has determined even closer collaboration across our collective assets to detect and defend against subsea threats and ensure continued North Atlantic security.”
Four leaks were discovered last September on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines that run from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea.
Underwater footage shows Nord Stream pipeline damage – video
The pipelines were not operational at the time because of disputes between Russia and the EU over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, but they were filled with natural gas.
“It is important that democracies like the UK and Norway stand together when the rules-based international order is under pressure,” Mr Gram said.
“The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines last year is a concrete reminder of what is at stake here.
“By working together, we can improve our ability to detect submarines, to counter mine threats and to protect critical infrastructure on the seabed.”
While the Ministry of Defence did not name Russia in its release about the agreement, Mr Wallace left little doubt as to where the threat is emanating from.
“What we know is the Russians have a work programme, they have a specific naval programme designed to both look at and potentially sabotage or attack critical national infrastructure belonging to its adversaries,” he told the press conference.
“It has a number of submarines and other pieces of equipment and spy ships and everything else specifically designed for that purpose.
“So whether we are talking about Nord Stream, whether we are talking about our own infrastructure, that is an area that is vulnerable and needs to be protected.”
“What we can say without doubt is Russia has the intent and the capability to target the West’s critical national infrastructure. We have to have the intent and the capability to defend it,” he added.
Asked whether he was aware of any underwater cables already being sabotaged, the cabinet minister said any speculation on the UK’s levels of knowledge on Russian activities would only help the Kremlin.
Mr Gram noted the difficulty of guaranteeing that no infrastructure has been undermined as “we have almost 9,000 kilometres of gas pipelines on the bottom of the sea”.
Neither Mr Wallace nor his Norwegian counterpart would comment on whether Russia was linked to the Nord Stream pipeline explosions, which are still under investigation.
From July, the Royal Navy’s new multi-role ocean surveillance vessel RFA Proteus will go to sea to help protect critical infrastructure, Mr Wallace said.
“I fully expect a large part of the area that it will patrol will be Norway and the United Kingdom, the area where our gas pipelines are, where our wind farms are, where our electronic cables and optic cables are,” he said.