Putin on brink as allies take leading role in Ukraine efforts
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Numerous incidents across Europe are forming “part of a coherent cohesive unified effort [by Vladimir Putin] against the West”, experts have warned. Suspicious incidents have been flagged across Sweden, Britain, Norway, France, Germany, Poland, and beyond in the months following the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The arrest of Sergey Skvortsov and Elena Koulkova in Stockholm earlier this week has highlighted Russian activity in the West which appears to be increasing amid Western support for Ukraine.
At 6am on Tuesday, elite police officers abseiled from Black Hawk helicopters to arrest Mr Skvortsov, 59, and Ms Koulkova, 58, in their villa located in the affluent area of Varmdo near the Swedish capital.
Swedish authorities suspect the couple led a double life as espionage agents working from the Kremlin. The arrest comes just weeks after a similar incident in northern Norway.
Norweigan intelligence services arrested a Brazilian university researcher at the Arctic University in Tromsø on suspicion of being a Russian spy.
The alleged spy has connections with the Grey Zone, a group studying irregular warfare methods such as cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns.
Norwegian police also arrested several Russians, equipped with drones and cameras, who were showing unusual interest in oil and gas installations.
Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl warned: “We’re seeing the consequences of the new security situation in Norway. We can’t rule out further cases.”
Following reports of drones buzzing North Sea rigs, Norway and Denmark – as well as NATO applicants Finland and Sweden – are all increasing security and maritime patrols.
These countries have good reason to be concerned. In September, the Nord Stream pipelines were blown up and seismologists detected explosions, triggering a wave of speculation about sabotage to one of Russia’s most important energy corridors.
Sweden and Denmark have both concluded that the four leaks on Nord Streams 1 and 2 were caused by explosions.
Although Russia is widely believed to be behind the attack, Moscow has cast blame on the UK.
A series of other suspicious incidents across Europe are being investigated amid fears of Russian involvement.
France suffered from widespread internet connectivity problems when at least three fibre optic cables were cut in Marseille, slowing internet access for users in Europe, Asia and the United States.
Russian submarines have been blamed, but investigators have yet to find evidence to support this claim.
Commenting on the damage to the cables, Michel Combot, the managing director of the French Telecoms Federation, said: “These people knew what they were doing.”
Meanwhile, the SHEFA-2 undersea cable linking the Faroe Islands to mainland Scotland via the Shetland and Orkney Islands was also damaged in two separate incidents rendering most of the islands without internet connection.
Early this year, British Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin warned about an increase in Russia’s underwater activity. He said: “Russia has grown the capability to put at threat those undersea cables and potentially exploit those undersea cables.”
“Cable sabotage” also caused major disruption to the German railway network.
German Transport Minister Volker Wissing said essential cables “were deliberately and intentionally severed” in two places. “It is clear that this was a targeted and deliberate action,” he added, saying the motive was not “yet known”.
Mark Voyger, a senior fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Analysis, told Express.co.uk: “To describe what Russia is doing, you have to look beyond the tactical movement of troops on the ground. You need to look at energy, cyber, economic-financial tools, diplomatic and legal issues, political warfare, socio-cultural and various other cultural languages – it is what the eminent British scholar Mark Galeotti calls the ‘weaponisation of everything.
“Hybrid warfare has been a primary tool of Russia’s strategy of expansionism through subverting their enemies, which could be Ukraine but also includes NATO and the EU.
“Russia prefers hybrid to open warfare because of the existence of NATO, strong western alliances and US troops in Europe.
“Russia cannot launch a massive conventional or nuclear attack on the West, that is not part of their plan and they could not do it even if they wanted to. But hybrid warfare does not involve the military.
“They can subvert influence through political pressure, divide people with information warfare, corrupt institutions, penetrate the economy and put pressure on infrastructure including energy and cyber without having to deploy a single soldier.”
The Russian concept of non-conventional attacks is not new – in fact, it pre-dates the 2014 attack on Ukraine.
In 2013, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General Valery Gerasimov, made a speech to the Russian Academy of Military Sciences where he presented his new strategic vision for the future of warfare.
He spoke about what was soon referred to as the “Gerasimov doctrine of hybrid warfare” which suggested non-military methods should be partnered with military methods at a ratio of four to one – so there should be four times more non-military attacks carried out to every overt military attack.
Mr Voyger added: “After the development of this doctrine, they moved to practically implementing it. The testing grounds were Ukraine and Syria when it comes to combining military and non-military methods but when it comes to Europe they must put the emphasis on non-military because they cannot use military aspects openly.”
A prime example of this was the destruction of key infrastructure in Syria to push several million refugees to Turkey and then from there to Europe in order to put pressure on the European political system.
“These are not disparate acts like an attack on a pipeline here or a cyber attack there – these are all part of a coherent cohesive unified effort against the West,” Mr Voyger added.
John Lough, Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, agreed that Putin’s hybrid attacks on the West were part of a “deliberate policy” to dissuade countries from supporting Ukraine.
He told Express.co.uk: “Putin knows very well that European societies are under pressure at the moment. He doubtless thinks that by using his tactics, he can stoke dissatisfaction in certain European societies and make people more accommodating of the Russian line and accept that a deal has to be done with Russia over Ukraine.
“It is a very deliberate policy and is certainly having an effect, particularly the lengths [Putin] has gone to destroy the gas business in Europe they have spent the past 50 years building in a bid to create an energy crisis. This is serious stuff.”
Mr Lough added that Europe should be most concerned about Russia targeting critical infrastructure in Ukraine because it could render entire cities “entirely dysfunctional” which would result in “millions” more people having to leave the country.
NATO declared in 2016 that “hybrid actions” against one or more allies would be viewed as an attack on all under Article Five of the North Atlantic treaty.
But hybrid actions are difficult to prove and the Kremlin takes care to maintain plausible deniability to prevent a unified NATO response.
The element of plausible deniability is a key reason why the Kremlin will continue to use non-conventional hybrid attacks against NATO – an adversary that outguns Russia in traditional military terms.
Mr Voyger, who is also Director of the Masters of Science programme in Global Management at the American University of Kyiv, warned many Western countries had been “very naive” in their approach to Russia.
But the former NATO advisor said countries were now far more alert to Russia’s maneuvres and were taking steps to protect themselves.
In Scandinavia, Norway is deploying its military to protect oil and gas installations, while Finland’s border guard upped its monitoring of maritime traffic and infrastructure.
Denmark also moved to boost protections around energy sites and France is tightening security over its undersea cables due to fears of an imminent Russian attack.
This includes a €3.1million package for an “ocean floor” defence, which is currently being debated in Parliament.
Meanwhile, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has promised the UK’s first “multi-role ocean surveillance ship” will be operational in 2023 and the US is moving additional troops to the Baltic states to provide additional support.
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