Russia may have already placed mines on Europe's critical underwater infrastructure, NATO representatives fear.

Intelligence chief warned yesterday that Vladimir Putin may sabotage them to punish Western nations for supporting Ukraine.

The alliance is seeking to boost efforts to protect undersea pipes and cables following attacks on the Nord Stream pipeline last September, which saw three of the four main lines which transports gas from Russia to Germany damaged.

Threats to undersea cables and pipelines have become a focus of public attention since the as-yet unexplained explosions crippled the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea.

The Daily Mail says the alliance is so concerned by the threat of energy disruption it set up the Critical Undersea Infrastructure Co-ordination Cell in February, which seeks to monitor Russian espionage under the command of Lieutenant General Hans-Werner Wiermann, a retired German military officer.

Tensions rose further yesterday after Russia accused Ukraine of a botched assassination attempt by drones on Putin - which Ukraine has strongly denied.

Hightened concerns

NATO intelligence chief David Cattler said: “There are heightened concerns that Russia may target undersea cables and other critical infrastructure in an effort to disrupt Western life, to gain leverage against those nations that are providing security to Ukraine.

“The Russians are more active than we have seen them in years in this domain.

“Russia is actively mapping allied critical infrastructure both on land and on the seabed.”

Mr Cattler said NATO vessels are patrolling more throughout the Atlantic than in recent years and have also stepped up activities in the North and Baltic seas.

“Altogether, they carry an estimated $10trillion (£8trillion) worth of financial transactions every day, so these cables really are an economic linchpin.”

He warned NATO's adversaries were realising the huge strategic advantage of being able to threaten the security of Western internet, energy and financial systems.

Strong suspicions

“There are strong suspicions that cables or pipelines have been mined. Companies have their own highly-classified information. We have a lot of suspicions,' a NATO official said.

“Somewhere in Moscow there are people sitting and thinking of the best ways they can to blow up our pipelines or cut our cables.

“Our job is to make that a costly and futile endeavour. At least, to make it undeniable, lessening the appeal because it is then an act of war.”

Underwater pipelines could be particularly threatened due to the economic and social impacts disruption to power supply may have, as well as the fact it is far more difficult to investigate any attack.

Although there are signs pointing towards Russia as behind last year's attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines, no cause of the damage has been officially established.

It was recently reported that a convoy of six Russian vessels was spotted near to the pipeline just days before the damage appeared.

Extent of damage

It is thought hundreds of kilograms of explosives and equipment would have been required to pull off the scale of the destruction.

As concerns grow over the security of cables, Western countries are setting out to turn the North Sea into a green power engine, planning a spate of new wind farms linked to the mainland by cables.

NATO allies are closely monitoring Russian vessels equipped with sensors that can collect electronic or acoustic information from the seabed, and the spy ships can be identified by their antennae or unusual activity near critical areas.

  • A UK defence minister said last week that the country will maintain “vigilance” in the North Sea in response to Russian spy ships operating near offshore energy infrastructure.

Baroness Goldie added that the activities of vessels suspected of gathering intelligence will be watched closely.

A recent joint investigation by European broadcasters claimed a Russian ship called the Admiral Vladimirsky was part of an operation to map undersea infrastructure for possible sabotage. According to the report, the ship had sailed around the Baltic Sea and the North Sea for a month.

Britain's response to any threat includes a P8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft from RAF Lossiemouth, as well as a specialised undersea protection surface vessel.

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