Russian Spy Ship Lurks Above Key Gas Pipeline

Moscow has amplified its maritime presence in the Mediterranean Sea since it invaded Ukraine.

Sergey Fadeichev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP
Flanked by the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, left, and chief of the general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, President Putin attends a meeting with senior military officers at Moscow December 21, 2022. Sergey Fadeichev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP

It probably wasn’t a pleasure cruise: A Russian spy ship was tracked in international waters in the Adriatic Sea on Thursday as it lingered above a strategic underwater gas pipeline, in a development that could raise tensions between Moscow and the West two days before the 10-month mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The stealthy bit of navigation by the Akademik Pashin in the Strait of Otranto was first reported by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and came amid many unanswered questions regarding a series of underwater explosions at the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September.

Although the Washington Post has reported that there is no conclusive evidence that Russia was behind those attacks, the Kremlin is widely thought to have had a hand in the sabotage that caused extensive damage to the Russian-owned pipelines that were originally built to transport natural gas to Germany from Russia. While there is no indication that the Russian spy ship plying the waters between Italy and Albania was engaged in an attempt to sabotage the Trans Adriatic Pipeline some 60 feet below, that it was conducting reconnaissance cannot be ruled out.

In operation since 2020, the TAP transports natural gas to Italy from Azerbaijan across Turkey and Greece and through Albania and the Adriatic Sea. European investment in the pipeline, seen as a way to wean the Continent off Russian gas dependency and diversify its energy supply, has been estimated at about $35 billion. It is not clear what kind of maritime security is provided for the pipeline, if any. 

The 430-foot-long Russian ship, which is officially classified as a replenishment oiler and was commissioned by the Russian navy in early 2020, reportedly hovered over a strategic area of the pipeline for approximately two hours. Prior to that the vessel had trailed a line of undersea internet cables laid between Bari in Italy and the Greek coast. 

The crew on board the Akademik Pashin was not likely looking for an improved internet connection. While Moscow has publicly downplayed the impact of the multitiered economic sanctions that Europe has leveled against it since the invasion of Ukraine, the truth is Russia’s economy has  suffered badly because of them. Few in Europe doubt that Vladimir Putin, himself a master at spy craft, is above acts of retaliation — especially those that leave a light footprint. 

What is undeniable is that Moscow has amplified its maritime presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Aboard the nuclear-powered French aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle this week, President Macron said that the battleship’s naval air group has observed “unfriendly behavior” from Russia’s fleet that has led to what one of the ship’s officers described as “muscular interactions” — in other words, skirmishes. 

That French officer, who was not named, added that “the Russian ships stick close to us; it is a matter of not giving in and controlling the escalation.” The officer told Le Monde that “the number of their ships present in the Mediterranean tripled in the first months of the Ukraine war, to a dozen units from the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean.”

Most of that expansion has occurred in the central and eastern Mediterranean, which includes the Adriatic. La Repubblica also first reported that “another Russian military unit” in that sea has been “challenging” an American aircraft carrier and its escort. It provided no additional details.

As secretive as the ship’s mission may be, there are few if any Russian ships in the Mediterranean that can hope to elude monitoring by the relevant units of NATO member countries.  Another Italian newspaper, Il Messaggero, hinted that the Marina Militare, or Italian navy, has stepped up monitoring of undersea gas pipelines since the Nord Stream attacks, sometimes deploying remote-controlled submersibles to assist in those efforts.

The sighting of the Akademik Pashin on Thursday heightened tensions at Rome. Il Messaggero also reported that the vessel had departed from the Russian naval base at Tartus, in Syria, a week ago. It noted that in April 2020 the ship appeared off the coast of Cherbourg, France, at the same time that a new French nuclear submarine was engaged in drills. 

A check on the vessel’s coordinates on the Marine Traffic website on Friday showed that the Russian ship was sailing southeast from the Ionian Sea at roughly 12 knots per hour. At that clip the ship could be on a fairly swift return course to Tartus by Monday.


Mr. Grant, who has written for many major newspapers and worked in television at Paris and Tel Aviv, is now based in Athens as a staff reporter and editor of The New York Sun.

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