Where: Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Netherlands
Who’s involved: Government of the Netherlands, Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service, Dutch Intelligence and Security Service, Dutch Coastguard, Dutch Navy, Government of Russia, Russian Navy
On 20/02/2023 the Dutch military intelligence service (MIVD) and Dutch intelligence and security service (AIVD) stated that Russia has tried to gain information on critical infrastructure in the North Sea with the goal to sabotage. A Russian ship that tried to collect data on an offshore windmill park in the Dutch part of the North Sea was detected in previous months. The Dutch marine and coastguard adequately took care of the incident by escorting the ship out of the North Sea.
On 09/09/2021 the former Minister of Defence of the Netherlands Ank Bijleveld already stated that the presence of Russian submarines in the North Sea is a cause for concern because of the risk of data theft and sabotage.
On 08/11/2021 The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) published a report on the value of and threats to (economic) activities in the North Sea. The report analyzes in great depth the potential risks of hybrid threats by external state actors, such as gathering intelligence through espionage and by acts of sabotage or by cyber attacks. Importantly, the report concludes that the current security of the North Sea activities is insufficient and should be improved, as the increase of (economic) activities will lead to an increase in security risks. The report suggests establishing a ‘North Sea Authority’, and that “the division of maritime security responsibilities and mandates between the various public, private and public-private stakeholders must be fundamentally revisited”.
On 11/11/2021 Dutch politician Derk Boswijk submitted a motion on the development of a strategy to protect the critical infrastructure in the North Sea. This motion was accepted and eventually led to a first plan to improve the protection of the undersea infrastructure. However, the plan lacks concrete measures for improvement.
In short, even though the potential threats to the activities in the North Sea have been known for a while, concrete measures to improve the security of the vital undersea infrastructure have not been taken and the current protection of the Dutch exclusive economic zone remains insufficient.
Activities in the North Sea are vital to the Dutch economy. Cables and pipelines that lie on the seafloor are crucial for energy supply and telecommunication. Hence, protecting these activities is a national responsibility.
The amount of critical underwater infrastructure in the North Sea will increase over the next decades: due to the energy transition, wind power production capacity will increase greatly and since the Netherlands is a digital node for Europe, data telecommunications are also expected to increase. This means the amount of critical underwater infrastructure in the North Sea will grow. It is expected that one-fifth to onehalf of the Dutch North Sea floor will be covered with telecom and electricity cables by 2050. This increase in underwater infrastructure in combination with the risks of espionage, sabotage and cyber attacks makes the security of the North Sea more pressing than ever.
The incident on the Dutch part of the North Sea follows sabotage events in Norway. In November 2021 4.3 kilometers of high-tech communication cables disappeared from a seabed in Norway. Pieces of those cables were later found more than 11 kilometers away from the original location, which ruled out a natural cause. On 07/01/2022 undersea cables that connected Norway with an Arctic satellite station were damaged. It turned out that the cables were cut, which points to sabotage.
On 26/09/2022 the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines from Russia to Western Europe were sabotaged by the use of explosives. It is suspected that Russia is responsible for this act of sabotage, but there were also allegations made towards the U.S. However, there is no concrete evidence so far in either direction. Even though investigations are still running and both countries deny any involvement, the sabotage of cables in Norway and of the Nord Stream pipelines demonstrate the vulnerability of undersea infrastructure.
Compared to other European countries surrounding the North Sea, the Netherlands is falling behind with respect to the security of undersea infrastructure: The United Kingdom is building two special, multi-role, underwater surveillance ships. France published a ‘Seabed Warfare Strategy’ in February 2022, which aims at broadening the capabilities of anticipation and action of the French Navy up to 6,000 m depth. Belgium has a ‘minister of Justice and the North Sea’: Vincent van Quickenborne. According to Van Quickenborne, Belgium witnessed suspicious movements close to their windmills and telecom and gas pipelines in November 2022. In response to these threats, Belgium invested in software to better locate ‘spy-ships’ and adopted a law to “better protect critical infrastructure”, according to Van Quickenborne.
The opportunity window for espionage, sabotage and cyber attacks of the critical underwater infrastructure will stay open as long as the Dutch government does not take action to level up the security of the Dutch exclusive economic zone.. Because of this opportunity window and the continuing hostilities between the West and Russia, it’s expected that the number of incidents containing espionage, sabotage and cyber attacks of the underwater infrastructure by Russia will expand in the future. The risk of such acts is smaller in the case of China. The country has major economic interests in the North Sea and espionage, sabotage or cyberattacks on the underwater infrastructure would thus not be beneficial for Beijing.
Even though the urgence to level up the protection of the Dutch exclusive economic zone has become evident for the Dutch government, it is unclear which authorities should be responsible for the protection. The government plans to expand the tasks of the Dutch coastguard with respect to the protection of the exclusive economic zone. However, it is the question whether the ships of the coastguards are being employable enough to perform such tasks. Besides, it seems impossible to secure every single meter of underwater infrastructure all the time because of the enormous length of the total number of cables in the Dutch exclusive economic zone. The Dutch government thus faces a major challenge with respect to the protection of the underwater infrastructure. However, efforts to protect the North Sea by other countries in the region, such as France, Belgium and the UK, might serve as an example for future steps that can be taken. Other steps can be the establishment of a ‘North Sea Authority’, as proposed by the HCSS.
The aim of sabotaging Dutch undersea infrastructure is part of Russia’s broader non-military hybrid warfare against the West, aiming to divide, disrupt and destabilize Europe. Russia engages in this campaign to strengthen its own geopolitical position in the world. Hybrid warfare is a more accessible way to increase its position than through military campaigns, and therefore it is likely that Russia will continue or even increase its hybrid warfare against the West.
For more in-depth Sitreps, analyses, or bespoke advice on the aviation security and safety concerns regarding this region, or other areas across the globe, please contact Dyami at +31 30 207 2120 or through our webpage.
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