Russian naval exercises off Irish coast: Republic is depending on Royal Navy and RAF for defence against Russia, say experts

Military experts have highlighted that the Republic of Ireland is almost totally dependent on the RAF and Royal Navy to defend it from the threat of pending Russian military exercises off its coast.

By Philip Bradfield
Tuesday, 25th January 2022, 7:47 pm
Updated Wednesday, 26th January 2022, 11:05 pm

The Russian artillery drills, at the start of February, will take place in international waters but within Irish-controlled airspace and the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 150 miles off the Co Cork coast.

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, has admitted that “we don’t have the power to prevent this happening” which analysts have noted exposes once again that The Republic is Europe’s weakest link in defence terms.

A neutral country and non-NATO member, with a defence spend among the very lowest in the EU, its ability to monitor foreign military activity or launch deterrent actions, is extremely limited.

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The Royal Navy's HMS Somerset (foreground) shadowing a Russian naval task group as it travelled through the English Channel and along the east coast of the UK in 2016.

Co Tyrone man Philip Ingram is a former Colonel in British military intelligence who spent seven years at NATO headquarters in intelligence and military planning. Most of his career was spent preparing for defence against “a Russian style or former soviet style enemy”.

He says the Russian naval test off Irish waters - combined with other Russian exercises around the globe at the same time - are designed to spread western military intelligence resources as thinly as possible while Russia focuses on its objectives in the Ukraine.

“They are doing it to expose an unprotected flank of NATO, through [the Republic of] Ireland as Russia knows Ireland does not have the ability to defend itself. It is making a very clear statement.”

The exercise is located over the site of many of the EU’s transatlantic communication cables, which Russia knows how to tap for information, he adds.

”Russia is reasserting its position and the timing is to split the UK, US and NATO surveillance abilities as it is doing so many similar exercises around the globe at the same time.”

He is certain it is all linked to what Russia is trying to achieve in Ukraine.

“The Republic of Ireland’s military capabilities are completely useless in this environment. They do not have the ability from an intelligence view to monitor Russian movement around the Irish coast. Russian missile submarines spend a lot of time off the west coast of Ireland and the Republic does not have the ability to see, stop or disrupt this.

“That is why when it comes to the protection of Irish air space they rely on the RAF to do so. There is an agreement in place between the Republic of Ireland and the UK for the RAF to provide that air cover.

“There are similar arrangements in place with the Royal Navy. The Republic of Ireland does not pay for this protection but it is also protecting the UK’s flank, he notes.

“This is where Northern Ireland is critical to the defence of the UK, from a geographic position, in being able to give it a foothold and extra reach out into the Atlantic.”

The strategic position of NI for the defence of the UK is something that will “always be a consideration” to the UK government should there be a border poll, he adds.

He believes Russia will invade Ukraine. “I personally think yes, they will.”

The motivation is that Ukraine has been moving closer ideologically to the EU and Russia is afraid of it becoming part of NATO.

Russia is exploiting the Republic of Ireland, he says, because it cannot monitor its own waters or airspace and has weak immigration controls, so it presents a weak flank of NATO.

“The Republic presents a focal point for Russian or other malign actors to either get into the EU or penetrate into the UK and wider NATO by getting intelligence agents into Ireland and therefore into the EU.”

Weak passport controls allow Russian agents to enter the UK via the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, he says. Agents will also move from the Republic into France and the rest of the EU, especially on a false passport.

“For many years intelligence agents around the world saw an Irish passport as the ‘go to’ second passport that intelligence agents had.

People from so many parts of the world now hold Irish passports legitimately, he says, so it is a good cover.

“It was always seen as a relatively easy place to get a legitimate passport from.”

But Russian agents inside NI are also “100%” also an issue right now, he says.

“They will be interested in any defence industries, military bases, shipyards. They will also be looking at anything they can do to disrupt normal government activity both north and south.”

One example of this could be through dis-and-misinformation - for example stimulating support for a border poll, or support for loyalist or republican terrorist organisations, he says.

“If they feel that it undermines Westminster or Dublin or the EU’s focus away from Russian activities, Russia will put its knife in that crack and wiggle it away as much as possible.”

Russian agents will also be likely to try and exacerbate any social grievances which might result in street protests, “at the very least through social media” he adds.

Russian agents in NI are likely to speak without any accent and hold non-Russian passports. Traditionally their cover story is working as junior embassy staff, business executives or journalists.

Their preferred agents to recruit may have roles such as engineers or computer experts in sensitive businesses or industries. 

Russian intelligence officers will “100%” have people inside NI political parties and may fund political activities from front companies, he adds. The agents these officers run will also be locals who they recruit inside defence manufacturers in NI, for example.

Russia had close links with Libya when it was supplying shiploads of mainly Soviet weaponry to the IRA, he notes.

“They will be interested in exacerbating political conflict. That will be a definite aim of Russian intelligence services because it splits political thinking in Westminster and fixes it onto something else, which then can’t be spent on supporting NATO, the EU or looking at the Russian threat.”

They will be aiming to do this from both sides of the political spectrum at the same time in NI, he says, as well as in the south.

As to spotting agents, he advises, “If you have a gut feeling something is wrong there could well be something wrong. So MI5 have got a hotline number if people are concerned about anything.”

There are more Russian intelligence officers in the UK now than during the height of the Cold War, he says, which would have been “several hundred” at that time.

All Mr Ingram’s claims appeared to be strongly echoed in the annual address by the MI5 Director General last year, though from a UK-wide perspective.

UUP MLA and former Royal Navy submarine commander Steve Aiken says the exercise off the coast of Cork is the Russians “making very clear to NATO but more importantly to the EU that they can significantly disrupt business and trade the economies of Europe”.

The giveaway, he says, is that they are exercising above a number of key transatlantic communication cables.

”They are demonstrating their capability, bearing in mind that NATO are sending their standing forces into the Black Sea at the moment; That would be seen by the Russians as a direct provocation to their intentions in the Ukraine.

“But by carrying out exercises in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Arctic at the same time, the Russians are demonstrating their capability to be able to inflict as much damage to Europe as NATO could do to Russia.”

The Republic of Ireland has acknowledged that it “can’t do anything” about the Russian exercises off its coast, he says.

“This is particularly true as the Irish have no maritime or air capability whatsoever [in proportion to this threat]. I think the Russians are just demonstrating they can operate with impunity. 

“I would say it would be extraordinarily embarrassing when Simon Coveney calls in the Russian ambassador to complain about something - but what is he going to do about it? He has no air capability and no maritime capability.”

In the event of a threat to the Irish Republic from something such as a hijacked aircraft, he says, “they would have to call up the RAF to come and deal with it. They have no capability at all.”

The Republic of Ireland only has radar around its airports but has no means to detect hostile aircraft around its coast or anywhere else, he says.

“They are quite unique in European terms in their limited military capability, aside from Malta. Every other EU country invests quite considerably in its defence capabilities.”

The defence question should be a significant consideration for anyone voting in a border poll, he says.

“Of course. To me that has always been the case.”

The UK’s presence in Northern Ireland is critical in its defence plans, he says.

“One of the reasons the UK has managed to maintain its security is because it always controlled the sea lanes and airspace around and over Ireland.” 

As to whether Russia will invade Ukraine, he suggests: “We are in a stage where anything could happen.”

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