Vladimir Putin’s use of “ghost ships” has been flagged as posing a significant risk to EU and NATO nations operating in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the North Atlantic. A Finnish defence analyst has warned that Russia’s latest hybrid tactic means Western naval crews must be prepared to confront covert Spetsnaz in hostile maritime conditions, increasing the likelihood of an escalation in the current standoff between Russia and the West.
“Ghost ships” operate similarly to how Russia’s military aircraft have flown without transponders in Northern Europe, these ships disguise themselves as civilian repair, salvage, or research vessels, but may possess the technology to damage Western infrastructure, including undersea telecommunications cables.
Eoin McNamara, Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told the Express: “Like with these commercial vessels, states in Northern Europe including the Nordic states, the Baltic states, the UK and Ireland have long had to worry about Russian military aircraft ‘flying dark’ without their transponders on unseen by civilian air traffic control.
“These could only be detected by military-grade primary radar.”
He added: “This is a low-risk and low-cost way for Russia to sow insecurity and intimidate EU and NATO states for actions taken against Moscow.”
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According to intercepted radio communications from the Russian navy, “ghost ships” have been operating in the region for several months by turning off their transmitters to avoid revealing their location.
One of these vessels, the naval vessel “Admiral Vladimirsky,” was allegedly being used for intelligence purposes.
While sailing in the Kattegat Strait between Denmark and Sweden, it did not share its location but sent continuous radio messages to a Russian naval base.
Journalists from Denmark’s DR used the intercepted messages to locate the ship, but when they approached it, they were met by uniformed men wearing bulletproof vests and carrying Russian military rifles.
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Mr McNamara told the Express: “The investigative reports of Nordic broadcasters now reveal similar Russian behaviour at sea, except with vessels masquerading as civilian repair, salvage or research vessels, the cost and sophistication of this tactic for Moscow to induce insecurity is maybe even lower than with its military aircraft.
“Russia still gains plausible deniability because it can always say that these are commercial vessels with commercial crews, even if these ships possess the technology to damage Western infrastructure, most prominently undersea telecommunications cables, and their crew can comprise some Russian Special Operation Forces ‘Spetsnaz’ without formal military insignia to identify them as such.
“This has become much clearer as a risk that EU and NATO nations operating in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the North Atlantic must grapple with, Western naval personnel must be ready to identify and confront covert Spetsnaz in hostile maritime conditions, possibly on wildly wet and windy nights out at sea.
“These circumstances increase possibilities for an escalation in the current standoff between Russia and the West.”
According to intelligence sources and experts, the mission of the ‘Admiral Vladimirsky’ was likely to prepare for sabotage, which could potentially allow Russia to disrupt the power supply in North-West Europe.
Naval analyst HI Sutton, who works independently, suggested that the ship may have laid a cluster of cables that could trigger a chain reaction and knock out entire wind farms in the region.
In the past decade, 50 Russian ships have been observed by four Norwegian media outlets in a suspicious manner, crossing Nordic submarine cables before they were unexpectedly severed and showing up systematically at joint NATO exercises.
Sources suggested that the ships may have been laying sea mines and mapping out pipelines, communication cables, and other potential targets for sabotage.
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