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What will next week's Russian manoeuvres off Ireland look like and what's the overall strategy?

Security expert Declan Power equates the Russian exercise to a burglar testing the windows of a house.

The Russian small anti-submarine ship Aleksin fires weapons during a military parade marking Russian Navy Day last July.
The Russian small anti-submarine ship Aleksin fires weapons during a military parade marking Russian Navy Day last July.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

RUSSIAN MILITARY EXERCISES some 240km off the south-west coast of Ireland are set to get underway from next Thursday. 

The Journal first broke news of the development on Saturday morning last weekend. 

The response to the news prompted the Russian embassy to hastily convene a press conference on Monday evening, where Ambassador Yury Filatov sought to reassure the public that there was no reason for concern about the planned operation.

Speaking the following day Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the exercises, while “legally and technically” permitted were “not welcome”. 

Later in the week the Department of Transport took the step of issuing a marine notice warning all seafarers of the planned manoeuvres taking place from 3 to 8 February; a similar warning for aircraft is expected to issue in the coming days. 

Concerned Irish fishermen also met the Russian ambassador this week to express their concerns, and the diplomat has also been summoned to meet with an Oireachtas committee to discuss the planned exercises. 

The whole controversy is, of course, playing out in the broader context of a stand-off between Russia and the west over Ukraine. 

So what, precisely, is planned off the coast of Ireland next week? And what’s Russia’s broader aim? 

Security expert and author Declan Power spoke to The Journal about how the events are likely to unfold and what the military response from Nato countries and Ireland might look like.

Power, who is a former member of the Defence Forces, has said that the exercises must be viewed as part of a broader operation by Russia. 

“The Russian ambassador would be sending regular reports back to Moscow. The Russians will know what is going on in Ireland and they will have identified this area as a good place to exploit a weak wobble point.”

Power said that all of Russia’s recent operations had to be viewed in the whole and that it was clear that Putin’s overall aim was to test Europe’s resilience and sow division. 

“It is fair to say that military exercises are the physical manifestation of their overall strategy.”

Power insisted that the planned operation was not simply a test by Russia of their weaponry. He also said that he is not aware of any similar Nato exercises ever taking place so close to Ireland’s Atlantic coast. 

Western military powers will conduct surveillance of the Russian activities throughout next week’s mission, he said. 

“In terms of a military response from Ireland it will be very little. They will likely dispatch a CASA maritime patrol aircraft to shadow this fleet down the Western Coast.

“That would be really about it from the Irish side of things – but the Brits, French, and Americans will use their substantial resources.

“It will be very much a matter of surveillance and analysis as to what they are doing and there is a lot of information to be gleaned from monitoring it.”

august-2020-severodvinsk-russian-military-frigate-admiral-gorshkov-russia-arkhangelsk-region Russian military frigate Admiral Gorshkov. Russia. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Power believes that Boeing Poseidon Maritime warfare aircraft will be used to monitor the activities. 

These high tech platforms, operated by the US and Britain, have a huge bank of sensors capable of monitoring and examining the capability of weaponry. They can also be used to detect the activities of submarines. 

He also believes that Nato naval vessels will be despatched and will keep a watching brief, documenting the Russian activity from a distance using specialist equipment. 

“This is about surveillance and weapon analysis for the Western countries. 

“To a point it is an opportunity to examine the Russian capability but the Russians are not giving major secrets away – the West has been monitoring them for a long time now. 

“There is a certain amount of Russia showing their hand but not a huge amount,” he explained.

Russian Exercise Map B A Department of Transport issued exclusion zone around the proposed Russian naval testing range. Source: The Journal

As regards the actual activities in the area of water off the south coast, which has been marked as an exclusion zone, Power said there will be a number of different weapon systems tested. 

“There has been some speculation that it might be about cutting cables – that would not be necessarily possible in this case – the vessels expected to be involved are not known for that kind of work. It would require much more specialist craft.

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“What this will be is a conventional military exercise to test various military weapons systems. It is not a case of flinging ordnance – there will be guided systems. 

“They could test the Kalibr missile system which is like a cruise missile and that has a lengthy range. There are also specific anti-ship missiles.

“The test will also be more tactical minded – they are not just shooting. They will be testing the missile systems – it is about looking at accuracy and distance.

“This testing area looks like a remote spot to civilian eyes but it is in a position where they can look at positioning to fire weapons to land onto land targets in France or Britain or beyond that.”

Power equated the Russian exercise to a burglar testing the doors and windows of a house. 

sea-of-japan-july-15-2019-pictured-in-this-video-screen-grab-is-a-military-exercise-by-the-russian-navy-pacific-fleet-in-the-sea-of-japan-the-exercise-involved-firing-anti-ship-missiles-from-the A video screen grab of a military exercise by the Russian Navy Pacific Fleet in the Sea of Japan; the exercise involved firing anti-ship missiles from the destroyer Bystry and the missile boat R-24 at a distance of 60km in July, 2015. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

“At the core of this exercise it is about projection. It gets into the slightly grey area where  military and political meet, the strategic overview and how the military provides a political need to the Kremlin.”

Power was particularly critical of the actions of the Irish Fishing fleet and their representatives’ intervention this week. On Tuesday, it was announced by one fish producers association that they would peacefully disrupt the planned operation – but by the end of the week, after a meeting at the embassy, that threat appeared to recede. 

“What the Russian embassy will be doing over the coming days before the test is massaging the message,” he said. 

russian ship A Russian naval vessel photographed off the coast of Norway this week by the Norwegian military. Source: Norwegian Armed Forces/twitter

The Russian ambassador, he said: “is very sensitive to and aware of certain groupings and is aware of differing views here in Ireland – he will shape the message in light of how it will be received by those different groups”.

“In relation to bringing the fishermen in – he’s using them and he is trying to soften them up.

If Irish fishermen approach the area where the exercises take place, he said, “They will not be blown out of the water but, if they get in the way, it will be indicated to them in no uncertain terms to leave. They will probably be rammed or boarded – the Russians will not be shy about this.”

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