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EU plans joint navy patrols to combat Russian spy ships

The EU is considering joint maritime patrols and naval exercises to combat Russian spy ships and protect critical marine infrastructure.

An updated maritime strategy to be published on Friday includes an action plan calling for an annual joint EU naval exercise and an increase in military and coastguard patrols with better co-ordination between member states.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, environment and oceans commissioner, said the strategy also advocated increased satellite monitoring and intelligence sharing. “There is definitely a need for further capacity and capabilities building among member states,” he said.

The commissioner said the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline showed the need for increased vigilance of European maritime activity in Europe. Western intelligence officials are divided over whether Russian agents or a group sympathetic to Ukraine were responsible for the attack on the subsea gas pipeline, which took place in Danish waters last September. Denmark, Sweden and Germany are still investigating the incident.

“After what happened with Nord Stream, [we need] increased monitoring and protecting [of] critical maritime infrastructure and ships from physical and cyber threats,” Sinkevičius told the Financial Times.

EU member states have warned of mounting evidence of Russian activity around offshore wind farms, oil and gas drilling platforms and telecommunications cables.

Dutch and Belgian intelligence services have this year detected suspicious activity around wind farms in the North Sea. In one case, the Dutch navy escorted away a Russian boat it believed was surveying energy infrastructure. Russia was “preparing operations for disturbance and sabotage”, The Hague said.

Sinkevičius warned that floating gas storage and regasification units (FSRUs) were possible targets.

The terminals, vital to Europe’s plans to ending its dependency on Russian gas by tapping the global market for seaborne LNG imports, were “a good example” of vulnerable structures that Moscow could try to damage. Several countries, including Germany and Italy, have rented offshore FSRUs.

“You cannot exclude anything,” he said. “Of course we have to be prepared. On February 24 2022 the world changed [with Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine]. What also changed was our security situation.”

Sinkevičius and Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, are behind the plan. While it emphasises co-operation with Nato, the military alliance that provides regional security, it contends that the Ukraine war has exposed the need for the EU to take its own protective measures. Finland and Sweden, the two Nordic member states close to Russia, have applied to join Nato.

Sinkevičius also said the plan included proposals to tackle “unexploded ordnance and mines at sea”. 

He wanted a task force to clean up the Black Sea after the war. Mines planted by both Ukraine and Russia had drifted towards EU member states such as Romania and Bulgaria. “[Mines] respect no borders,” he said.

The Lithuanian politician added that unexploded shells and mines on the seabed from the two world wars also needed to be mapped and if possible removed. “This is important for our renewable energy plans because we already have wind developers saying there might be issues in developing areas with unexploded munitions.”

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