THE Royal Navy is tracking a Russian "research" ship that has changed course off the UK coast following raised fears of sabotage on undersea cables.
The provocative diversion of the Akademik Boris Petrov comes a day after the Shetland Isles suffered a phone and internet blackout caused by severed wires on the sea floor.
The outage is thought to have been caused accidentally by a fishing trawler rather than by an act of aggression, defence sources said.
But tensions are high after the suspected Russian sabotage attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines last month.
Today it has emerged a vessel owned by the Russian government has changed course and will sail through Scottish islands in the coming days.
It left home port Kaliningrad on October 17 and was due to sail through the English Channel on the way to a scientific expedition in the South Atlantic.
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However it sailed unexpectedly slowly past critical infrastructure on Norwegian oil fields in the North Sea.
And the latest navigation data shows the crew intend to pass through the Orkney Gap, into the Minch strait in the Hebrides and through sensitive waters off the Faslane naval base.
Faslane is home to Britain's Trident nuclear submarines.
The ship is then due to skirt the northwest of Ireland where critical infrastructure for transatlantic cables is located.
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Just weeks ago Irish politicians warned Putin could try to cut the vital communications link.
"The provocative change of route is almost certainly strategic messaging to the United Kingdom and is highly likely intended to raise tensions," reports the Plenty Of Ships blog.
The Royal Navy is understood to be "monitoring and assessing" the ship's operations.
The Akademik Boris Petrov is bristling with high-tech kit for underwater surveillance and intelligence gathering.
It is reportedly a "vessel-of-interest" for Western militaries.
Norwegian media said it is a "spy ship" despite its official scientific purpose.
Oslo sent F-35 jets to monitor its voyage close to oil platforms.
“It’s registered as a research vessel but it functions as a spy ship,” Ståle Ulriksen, an instructor at Norway’s naval academy, told broadcaster NRK.
The alert comes after seven Russians were arrested on suspicion of flying drones or taking pictures near sensitive sites in Norway.
Among the detained suspects is the son of a close associate of Vladimir Putin, reports say.
Drones caused Stavanger and Bergen airports to close in recent days. Others flew near oil rigs.
PM Jonas Gahr Store said: “It is not acceptable that foreign intelligence is flying drones over Norwegian airports.”
In January a flotilla of Irish fishermen faced down Russian warships which were said to be on a "recce mission" off Cork.
Months earlier another Russian spy ship, the Yantar, was spotted zig-zagging over undersea cables near Donegal.
It was seen as an attempt to menace the West.
The Yantar – said to have two mini-subs for covert missions – is operated by Russia's Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research (Gugi).
The secretive branch of the military answers directly to Putin and is tasked with black ops and sabotage missions.
Putin’s mysterious cable cutting submarines
RUSSIA is believed to have six submarines dedicated to the cable cutting mission – with the Losharik the most modern and capable.
Only a handful of grainy photographs exist of the vessel and everything known about it comes from educated guesswork.
A fire on board Losharik in 2019 resulted in the deaths of 14 submariners, reportedly including some of the most experienced decorated in the Russian navy.
The Kremlin has never explained what the submarine was doing just 60 miles off the coast of Norway in the first place.
According to submarine expert H.I Sutton, who writes the Covert Shores blog, the submarine is constructed from seven spherical titanium hulls strung together which gives it extraordinary strength.
The vessel is named after a Russian cartoon horse, which is made up of lots of many spheres joined together.
It can operate at up to depths of 3300ft, far greater than conventional submarines and have special attachments allowing them to rest at the bottom of the sea.
The submarines are deployed from the giant Belgorod, itself designed for special operations, and currently the longest submarine currently serving in the world’s navies.
There have been concerns for years Russia could target undersea cables.
An attack could cut off most data traffic between Europe and the US and send financial markets into turmoil.
Russia is known to have a number of specialist submarines dedicated to the task.
The Losharik deep ocean subs are slung beneath a "mothership" and have robotic arms to tamper with cables at the bottom of the ocean.
It is feared Gugi could try to "tap" the cables – intercepting secret communications – or sever them to deliver a catastrophic blow.
Undersea cables crisscrossing the seafloor carry 97 per cent of internet traffic with $10trillion worth of daily financial transactions dependent on them.
The US also relies on them to communicate with Nato allies.
Defence expert Rob Clark from the Henry Jackson Society previously told The Sun “the threat is very real” from the secretive Russian subs.
He said: “Their aim is to retain the credible capability either to disrupt or destroy the cables that the UK’s economy and its entire communications rely on.
“Even slightly damaged that can cause untold chaos and disruption to the UK.”
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Meanwhile Fianna Fail MEP Billy Kelleher warned last month: “Russia is a rogue, terrorist state and we have to treat it as such.
“What if they target those communications cables? The effect it could have on Internet connections and stock markets could be catastrophic. It could cripple the world economy.”
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