The stakes are raised as Russia threatens Norway’s oil facilities
SEAN M. MALONEYJanuary212008
A COLD WAR IN COLD WATERS
The stakes are raised as Russia threatens Norway’s oil facilities
SEAN M. MALONEY
It isn’t a mini-sub at the North Pole. It isn’t a clutch of Tu-95 Bear bombers skirting the NORAD air defence system. This time it’s the 66,600-tonne Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its 40 aircraft, escorted by two anti-submarine destroyers, a cruiser, and at least one nuclear attack submarine. And the target is Norway, one of Canada’s NATO allies.
In mid-December, the Kuznetsov task group, operating in international waters, moved along the Norwegian coast, past the picturesque fjords on its way south to conduct what Russian spokesmen claimed are to be goodwill Mediterranean port visits and exercises, some including live missile launches. The announcement of this operation is in itself important, since Russian forces have operated in the Mediterranean in this fashion only once since the end of the Cold War—during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign when they were prepared to support Serbian air defence forces by providing early warning of NATO air operations launched from Italy. Now, with the building tension in Kosovo on whether to declare independence from Serbia, the deployment of the Kuznetsov is cause for concern.
But on Dec. 11, the Kuznetsov and her escorts suddenly stopped their advance—not somewhere remote in the high Arctic, but off
the Norwegian port of Bergen, in the southern part of the country near the North Sea. The ships moved into the centre of the vast Gullfaks oil field, the home of over 40 large oil platforms, including the gargantuan Troll facility, and conducted provocative air operations. The Kuznetsov launched its Su-33 Flanker-D supersonic fighters, while a Tu-95 Bear bomber, presumably acting as the “enemy,” approached and tried to get into missile range before it was “intercepted” and turned for its home base near Murmansk. The huge ship, meanwhile, even passed within a few kilometres of the Troll platform, which extracts
RUSSIA MAY SOON BE IN A POSITION TO COERCE EUROPE BY INTERFERING WITH OIL SUPPLIES
a significant percentage of Gullfaks field oil.
The danger associated with this activity in a crowded oil field cannot be underestimated. The accidental crash of a jet into an oil rig would be catastrophic, not only for the crew of the rig but for the environment, as oil would hemorrhage for days. In addition, each oil platform is serviced by a fleet of helicopters. Crews must be rotated, supplies must be brought in. When one Norwegian helicopter attempted a run, an Su-33 flew directly under it and accelerated, dangerously throwing the machine about in its jet wash. Russian Ka-27 Helix helicopters reportedly shadowed and harassed other helicopter resupply runs while the destroyers and the cruiser blocked surface shipping trying to approach the platforms. The Norwegian government suspended all of its air and surface movements to the Gullfaks field. In effect, the crews of nearly 40 oil rigs were held hostage for four days.
Norway underplayed the events. In Ottawa, Norwegian Embassy spokesman Joe Sletbak noted there was advance notice of an exercise, and that the actions of the Kuznetsov took place in international waters. Norwegian coast guard vessels, not naval ships, monitored the task group to avoid an incident. Other NATO allies are concerned that undue publicity would bolster President Vladimir Putin’s domestic prestige, and are deliberately downplaying the implications.
There may be, as is often the case when dealing with the Russians, more to the events than meets the eye. Norway experienced its second-worst oil spill ever on Dec. 11 at the Statfjord oil field—which the Kuznetsov passed on its way to Gullfaks. The official response is that the cause of the spill is unknown and under investigation. Still, in all probability, that accident wasn’t a coincidence. Shutting down both the Gullfaks and Statfjord fields simultaneously, even for a short time, has substantial economic implications for Norway.
Why such tactics from the Russians? The answer may lie farther north in the Barents Sea, where Russia is sitting on the Shtokman field—“the world’s largest offshore gas reserve,” according to Bruce Jones, a senior policy adviser with the British Defence Ministry. In September, Putin an-
nounced a $ 20-billion investment by Russian energy giant Gazprom in Shtokman, with Norway’s StatoilHydro company as a minority shareholder. But Statoil, which owns the Troll platform and most of the Gullfaks facilities harassed by the Kuznetsov, also has its own adjoining Barents Sea field, where, notes Jones, “there is a large, undeveloped, overlapping disputed area of roughly 15 per cent” of the combined area of both fields.
Could the recent provocation have been a shot across Norway’s bow to resolve that dispute in Russia’s favour, now that Norway has signed onto Shtokman? Russia has taken action in the past to coerce foreign oil companies, including Shell and Mitsubishi, into “modifying” deals as part of a campaign to re-nationalize energy holdings. Now it appears that the Russian navy is being used to further exert Russian pressure. If a stand is not made
somewhere, Russia will be in a position in the near future to coerce Europe by interdicting its energy supplies. Moscow has already attempted this before, in the winter of2004, when it threatened to shut off its natural gas pipeline to Poland. The timing of the Kuznetsov events is also not coincidental: it is again winter, when energy use is at its peak.
The deployment of the Kuznetsov isn’t mere “muscle-flexing,” as uninformed critics lazily label any Russian military activity since the end of the Cold War. It is part of a carefully calculated strategy of peripheral destabilization and the incremental return of Russian global power—at Europe’s expense. The Russian chess masters are now far beyond throwing away pawns during the opening moves in a game the West is so far refusing to play. As one experienced Russia analyst notes, “They’ve now moved a rook. Start to worry about what the endgame is going to look like.” M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.