Why sabotage is a growing form of warfare in Ukraine
Recent events suggest the use of sabotage is growing as fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war continues to escalate.
On February 8, Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. journalist Seymour Hersh published an article detailing the role of the U.S. and Norway in the September 26, 2022, Nord Stream gas pipeline explosions. U.S. officials denied the findings, while Russia, which previously blamed the UK for the attack, hailed the article as proof of Western involvement.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
There remains "no conclusive evidence" indicating Russia was behind the Nord Stream attack, according to a December 2022 article by the Washington Post. At the same time, apart from Hersh's report, there is little evidence currently indicating the U.S. was responsible for the explosions. Nonetheless, the ongoing dispute has underlined the increasing role of sabotage in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Around two weeks after the Nord Stream explosion on October 8, another explosion took out much of a key bridge, which connects the Russian mainland to Crimea. While no one has taken responsibility for the attack, Russia blamed Ukraine for it. Weeks before in September, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy encouraged Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territory to "sabotage any enemy activity" and "interfere with any Russian operations."
Throughout the war, dozens of mystery fires in Russia have damaged or destroyed transportation routes, commercial and industrial centers, military and government facilities, and other infrastructure. Believed to be the work of both Ukrainian commandos and Russian dissidents, some U.S. experts also believe the U.S. and NATO states may be responsible for these "covert sabotage operations." The Ukrainian government has typically neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in most attacks.
The Russian government often blames Ukraine for these fires but has downplayed their effects. While acts of sabotage can be used by governments to garner support for their cause, they may be wary of admitting successive instances of sabotage for fear of encouraging more, as well as showing their inability to protect the population and country. Furthermore, relentless acts of sabotage demonstrate that the effects of war have come home to populations thought to be removed from the conflict.
The attacks on the Nord Stream pipeline and the bridge in Crimea likely escalated the Kremlin's resolve to respond to Western and Ukrainian sabotage efforts. While Russia's most pressing concern is undermining Ukraine and damaging its capacity to sustain its war effort, conducting sabotage operations across the West has also become a major Kremlin policy.
Even before the war, Russia had indicated its ability to disrupt global underwater communications networks through its Main Directorate of Deep-Water Research (GUGI). In recent years, Russia has taken steps to develop submarines specifically to sever undersea cables that transport the world's internet traffic. In early February 2022, Russia held military exercises in the Atlantic Ocean at a critical juncture where several submarine cables between the U.S., the UK, and France are located as a show of force.
The same month, France declared it would develop a fleet of underwater drones to protect undersea cables, while the European Defence Agency is expected to release a proposal soon for "a dedicated program for critical seabed infrastructure protection." These developments show how seriously Western governments are preparing for Russian sabotage, particularly as recent cuts to Taiwan's internet cables are believed to be the work of Chinese vessels and serve as an example of "a dry run for further aggression."
Several incidents in Europe and North America in recent months have raised suspicions over the Kremlin's involvement in these attacks, even if government agencies do not always label Russia as being responsible for them. On January 13, 2023, for example, an explosion at a gas pipeline in Lithuania near the Latvian border led to the nearby town of Valakelie being evacuated. While the pipeline's operator dismissed suggestions of sabotage, Latvia's Defense Ministry said it could not be ruled out. "Western leaders stopped short of publicly blaming Russia for the attack, but privately briefed their suspicions that Moscow was behind it," stated a Daily Mail article about the explosion.
On February 7, 2023, a fire broke out at a U.S. company drone production facility in Latvia that supplies Ukrainian forces and NATO allies, with the local police stating that there was "no indication" of it being an act of sabotage. Moldovan President Maia Sandu, meanwhile, declared on February 13, 2023, that Russia was planning a coup, including the use of sabotage, to destabilize the country.
In January 2023, Polish authorities questioned and later released three divers who claimed to be Spanish citizens off the coast of northern Poland. The divers were rescued after their boat broke down while they were apparently looking for amber deposits. But amber farming is difficult to carry out in the dark and the divers also lacked the proper "amber-hunting equipment," according to a CBS News article, raising suspicion about the explanation offered by them. Despite being caught near vital Polish energy infrastructure, the trio were let go and left Poland altogether shortly after. Speaking after the incident, Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that "amid the war in Ukraine, when the risk of sabotage by Russia increased immeasurably, it was necessary to strengthen the supervision of critical infrastructure. We are also reviewing this supervision."
Western Europe has also emerged as a major target of apparent Russian sabotage efforts. On October 8, the same day as the Crimean bridge explosion, German officials stated that sabotage caused a three-hour halt in rail traffic in the north of the country after "cables vital for the country’s rail network were intentionally cut in two places." On October 10, undersea cables providing electricity to the Danish island of Bornholm were cut. And barely a week later, internet cables in southern France were also cut, impacting connectivity "to Asia, Europe, U.S. and potentially other parts of the world."
Suspicion over these attacks and others in Europe has fallen on Unit 29155, part of Russia's military intelligence agency General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU). As mentioned in an article in the New York Times in 2020, the unit is believed to operate small groups across Europe and was responsible for a 2014 ammunition depot explosion in the Czech Republic, the 2018 poisoning of Russian dissident Sergei Skripal in the UK, and other attacks on the continent.
From 2012 to 2015, Russian-backed patriotic youth camps also emerged in California, Washington, and Oregon. Often targeting Russian and Slavic communities for recruitment, they mirrored attempts to develop militia groups in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. While it is difficult to say whether these groups are active, these initiatives demonstrate the Kremlin's intention to make them viable actors in the U.S.
A series of train derailments in the U.S., fires at food processing plants, attacks on energy facilities, and other incidents across the country since 2022 have caught the attention of international news outlets and fueled conspiracy theories over who is responsible. Considering Russia's reach in Europe, the possibility of Russian assets being responsible for some of these incidents in the U.S. cannot be ruled out entirely. On March 3, 2023, Peter Karasev, a Russian immigrant, was charged for two separate attacks on Pacific Gas and Electric transformers in San Jose, which took place on December 8, 2022, and January 5, 2023.
Russia, of course, is not the only country capable or willing to target the U.S. through sabotage. Several Iranian/Hezbollah sleeper agents in the U.S. have been caught in recent years surveilling vulnerable targets within the country to attack should they be given the greenlight. The downturn in U.S.-Iranian relations in recent years suggests that Iran too may be actively seeking to covertly harm the U.S. as payback.
Officially, the Russia-Ukraine war remains a conflict between the two states. Nonetheless, Russian and Ukrainian allies have supplied Moscow and Kyiv with significant aid. But sabotage is increasingly seen by both sides as a viable option to undermine their opponent. We should expect more sabotage incidents, not only in Ukraine and Russia but also across the Western world and beyond, as the conflict rages on.
Author Bio: John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. His book, Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West With an Economy Smaller Than Texas', was published in December 2022.
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