Russian disruption in Europe points to patterns of future aggression

The case of Britons allegedly working for Russian intelligence is just one example of how Moscow is actively disrupting normal life in Europe and the Baltic region.

Expert comment Published 1 May 2024 4 minute READ

A British man has been charged over an arson plot targeting a Ukrainian business after allegedly being recruited to act for the mercenary Wagner Group.

The suspect will face trial under the UK’s new National Security Act, in the first case brought under new legislation to crack down on foreign agents. Four other men have also been charged in connection with the arson plot. 

But the case should not be seen as an isolated incident. A much broader, and more serious Russian campaign of sabotage is spanning the whole of Europe. More disturbingly, the patterns of behaviour match predictions of what Russia would attempt to do in advance of an open conflict with NATO.

It seems there are few parts of Europe that are not targets. Earlier in April, Germany arrested two individuals on suspicion of planning attacks on behalf of Russia, with a range of targets including US military bases. In Lithuania, Moscow has used organized criminal networks to arrange physical attacks on Russian opposition figures.

Swedish security police are investigating possible sabotage behind repeated railway derailments in the far north of the country, and the Estonian security services have logged intensified Russian efforts to recruit local citizens to attack their own government.

Recruiting proxies to carry out sabotage is just one of the ways in which Russia is already attacking Europe beyond Ukraine.

Poland has been a particular target. Key logistics points there for delivering supplies to Ukraine are of obvious interest for Russia. 

Arrests by the Polish authorities include a man who was reconnoitring security arrangements at the important Rzeszow airport, apparently with the intent to aid an attempt at assassinating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was due to transit through there. 

Poland has also disrupted at least one network of agents set up for reconnaissance and sabotage of the country’s rail network.

Signal interference in the air and at sea 

Recruiting proxies to carry out sabotage is just one of the ways in which Russia is already attacking Europe beyond Ukraine. 

Similar patterns are apparent in Russian electronic warfare disrupting flights around the Baltic Sea region. It is a problem that dates back years, covers an expanding area of Europe and is becoming increasingly serious.

In March Russia was reported to have jammed satellite signals affecting an aircraft carrying the UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps back from Poland, while similar signal interference was widely reported to be a problem for several British holiday flights in April. 

Aircraft in the region have long run the risk of such interference but the scale of potential disruption is becoming a major problem. 

It is now considered normal for a number of navigation systems to be unavailable over the Baltic and Black Seas. 

In northern Norway too, Russian jamming of GPS is not only disrupting air traffic on a daily basis, but is hampering the work of police and emergency services. 

This does not mean that flying in Europe is unsafe. Airliners are still able to use a number of fallback systems – but it does mean that some of the built-in redundancy of systems to ensure safe navigation and collision avoidance are no longer available. 

Another issue arises for airports reliant on GPS-based services, in that landing becomes impossible and flights must divert or even return to their starting point.

Moscow’s ‘ghost fleet’ of vessels with mystery owners…has been particularly busy at sanctions evasion and espionage around the Baltic island of Gotland.

Airlines are understandably cautious about drawing attention to an issue that some passengers might see as compromising their safety, which has contributed to the problem being under-reported. However, economic costs and levels of disruption are high and increasing.

Flights between Finland and Estonia have been repeatedly abandoned and are now suspended, as of late April. The growing impact of flight cancellations and aborted landings is a cost directly attributable to Russian action. But Western inaction means there are no consequences for Moscow.

At sea too, Russia is hard at its disruptive work. Moscow’s ‘ghost fleet’ of vessels with mystery owners, suspect insurance and registrations in places like Eswatini (a landlocked country that is not traditionally seafaring) has been particularly busy at sanctions evasion and espionage around the Baltic island of Gotland, long recognised as a key target because of its importance for controlling sea and air traffic in the region.

Hostile action from Russia is becoming gradually normalized because nobody is willing or able to deal with it. 

Vessels in the region reported in late April a wave of GPS outages, indicating that disruptive electronic warfare from Russia has stepped up a gear and is now affecting surface sea traffic. 

Again, what appears to be a localized problem has immediate wider impacts in terms of disruption and higher shipping costs and insurance rates, as well as the long-term implications of what Russia may be preparing to do.

If nothing is done in response, the logical next step is for Moscow to attempt to block GPS for road traffic. With millions of navigation systems dependent on GPS location services, that could sow chaos on land across the Baltic region.

West should be ready for ever bolder aggression 

All these examples demonstrate how hostile action from Russia is becoming gradually normalized because nobody is willing or able to deal with it. Russia pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, or at least accepted, by doing something that should be outrageous – and then intensifies it when there is no response from the West.

But more may be in the pipeline. In 2020, colleagues and I wrote a study for the Swedish Defence Research Agency on what military planners call A2AD, or anti-access/area denial – in other words, how in the event of war, Russia could try to keep NATO forces from moving to where they were needed. 

My chapter looked at the number of ways in which Russia could immobilize Europe even before a conflict, without firing a shot. What is alarming now is that so many of the methods described – including GPS jamming, sabotage, local proxies and much more – are already in play across Europe and in the UK. 

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Russia has sharply stepped up its campaign against the West, and this is a danger sign for what may come next. Russia’s methods have evolved. The murderous gangs that roamed Europe in the previous decade, whose targets included Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, were made up of Russian military and intelligence officers. 

Now, the pattern of attacks, including the recent arson attack in the UK, shows that Russia is recruiting freelancers to act on their behalf. 

That could be because its own people are too easily identified, or too busy behind the lines in Ukraine. 

But the pattern shows what has long been known: that Russia can always find unscrupulous individuals to attack their own countries on Moscow’s behalf.

The UK’s new National Security Act has come into force none too soon, since previously a wide range of hostile actions against the UK on behalf of foreign powers were perfectly legal. 

Russia’s increasingly bold aggression across Europe and the UK shows that we are all under attack. While it is encouraging to see the new Act already in use, the West should be prepared for plenty more shocking cases to be heard, as Russia’s campaign continues.

A version of this article first appeared in The Independent.