News of unidentified drones buzzing in the skies over the North Sea in recent days has raised fears in Oslo that the Kremlin is targeting its offshore facilities in a bid to intimidate competitors.
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 the offshore installations. The Norwegian National Guard stationed soldiers around onshore refineries which were also buzzed by drones.
Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has invited the navies of NATO allies – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – 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.”
Russian research vessels or “spy ships”?
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 of gas pipelines that connect Norwegian offshore platforms to terminals in the UK and Europe. continental.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine in late February, European Union countries have rushed to replace their imports of Russian gas 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.
Winged drones have a longer range, but investigators have found a helicopter-like bladed model sighting near the Sleipner platform, located in a North Sea gas field 250 kilometers from the shore, to be credible. 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 had been established from legal shipping traffic and he feared causing unnecessary and disruptive worry to workers.
But the naval academy’s Ulriksen said the distinction between Russian civilian and military vessels is narrow and the reported research vessels could rightly be described as “spy ships”.
Russia hits back, calling Oslo concerns ‘paranoia’
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 apply the sanction 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’re supposed to be watched. I think it’s an attempt to intimidate Norway and the West.”
The larger concern is that they are part of a hybrid strategy aimed at 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.”