Fears about Russian threat to Norway’s energy infrastructure

STAVANGER, Norway (AP) – Norwegian oil and gas workers usually see nothing more menacing than North Sea waves smashing against the steel legs of their offshore platforms. But lately, they’ve noticed a more disturbing sight: unidentified drones buzzing in the sky overhead.

With Norway replacing Russia As Europe’s most important source of natural gas, military experts suspect that the unmanned aircraft are a work of Moscow. They name espionage, sabotage and intimidation as possible motives for the drone flights.

The Norwegian government has dispatched warships, coastguard vessels and warplanes to patrol around offshore installations. The Norwegian National Guard deployed soldiers near refineries on land, which were also buzzed by drones.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store has invited the navies of NATO allies Britain, France and Germany to help tackle what could be more than a Norwegian problem.

The country’s 5.4 million people use very little of the offshore oil that generates huge revenues for Norway. Instead, it powers much of Europe. Natural gas is another commodity 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 valuable target in Europe.”

Airport closures and evacuations from an oil refinery and a gas terminal caused major disruption last week due to drone sightings. But as winter approaches in Europe, there are concerns that the drones could pose a greater threat to the 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles) of gas pipelines that run from Norway’s sea platforms to terminals in the UK and mainland Europe.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine in late February, European Union countries have been scrambling to replace their Russian gas imports with supplies from Norway. The suspicion of sabotage of the Nord Stream I and II pipelines in the Baltic Sea last month came a day before Norway opened a new Baltic Sea pipeline to Poland.

Amund Revheim, who heads Norway’s South West Police North Sea and Environment Group, said his team interviewed more than 70 offshore workers who spotted drones near their facilities.

“The working thesis is that they’re being piloted by nearby ships or submarines,” Revheim said.

Winged drones have a longer range, but investigators believed the sighting of a winged model helicopter near the Sleipner platform, located in a North Sea gas field 250 kilometers (150 miles) from shore, was credible.

The Norwegian police have worked closely with military investigators who analyze maritime traffic. Some platform operators have reported seeing research vessels flying the Russian flag in close proximity. Revheim said no pattern of legal sea traffic had been identified and he was concerned about causing workers unnecessary, disruptive worries.

But Ulriksen of the Naval Academy said the distinction between Russian civilian and military ships is narrow and the reported research vessels could well be labeled “spy ships”.

The arrest of at least seven Russian nationals Caught carrying or illegally flying drones over Norwegian territory, tensions have risen. On Wednesday, the same day a drone spotted planes lying on the ground in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, the Norwegian Police Security Service took over the case from local officials.

“We took on the investigation because it is our job to investigate espionage and enforce sanctions rules against Russia,” Martin Bernsen, an official with the service, known by the Norwegian acronym PST. He said the “sabotage or possible mapping” of energy infrastructure is an ongoing problem.

Prime Minister Støre warned that Norway would take action against foreign secret services. “It is unacceptable for foreign intelligence agencies to fly drones through Norwegian airports. Russians are not allowed to fly drones in Norway,” he said.

The Russian embassy in Oslo hit back on Thursday, claiming that Norway is experiencing a form of “psychosis” that causes “paranoia.”

A Naval Academy researcher thinks that’s likely part of the plan.

“Some of the drones were being flown with their lights on,” he said. “You should be watched. I think it’s an attempt to intimidate Norway and the West.”

The general concern is that they are part of a hybrid strategy to both intimidate and gather intelligence about vital infrastructure that could later be sabotaged in a possible attack on the West.

“I don’t think we’re headed for a conventional war with Russia,” Ulriksen said. “But a hybrid war… I think we’re already in it.”

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