Tom MacSweeney: Russian ‘drills’ more than form of provocation at Europe’s back door

Tom MacSweeney: Russian ‘drills’ more than form of provocation at Europe’s back door

This handout photo released on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian navy ships are seen during navy drills in the Black Sea. Russia has insisted that it has the right to close areas of the Black Sea for foreign naval ships and rejected Ukrainian and Western criticism of the move. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

THE maritime sector became main news this week, focused 240km off the South West Coast where the Russian Navy is expected to launch missile tests.

The ‘Law of the Sea,’ got a lot of mention. It is not a subject easy to understand.

There are ‘territorial waters’ as well as ‘EEZ zones’. There are ‘baselines’ and ‘contiguous zones.’ Marine protected areas are on the way, to which can be added ‘maritime zones of special interest.’

The ‘Law of the Sea’ is composed of customs, treaties and international agreements through which governments agreed on use of the seas and peaceful relations. That was reached in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also called UNCLOS and known too as the Law of the Sea Treaty. This created an international legal framework for marine and maritime activities. 167 countries and the European Union are parties. Others have signed, but not ratified it. However, its terms have not been totally honoured by all countries.

Last year there were reports, particularly in April, of submarines being seen “in Irish waters”. Commenting, the Defence Forces said: “Territorial Waters are 12 nautical miles from the coast of Ireland. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, there is no restriction on warships operating on the high seas.”


Foreign and Defence Minister Simon Coveney is right to say that the Russian exercises are not welcome. While there is a view that they are “a form of provocation at the backdoor to Europe” as a defence force source told me, there is another reason. That is the damage they will most likely do to marine life in the area and what could arrive on our county shores as a result of the Russians conducting their naval exercises inside the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

“Nothing like this has been done before inside the Irish EEZ,” I was told by a marine scientist this week “and it is a danger to what, in the public perception, is largely a silent place — the underwater area — though it really isn’t. Human progress, the needs of the world have changed that.”

Last year an international study examined 10,000 scientific papers on the subject of marine sound and its impact on wildlife. It showed evidence that “anthropogenic” (human-caused) noise negatively impacts marine life and underwater ecosystems.

“Sound is the sensory cue that travels farthest through the ocean and is used by marine animals, from invertebrates to great whales, to interpret and explore the marine environment around them. This makes the ocean soundscape one of the most important, and under-appreciated, aspects of the marine sphere.” the report said.

Construction of wind farms, seismic surveys, oil and gas drilling, shipping, fishing, even sonar-based navigation, have made an impact causing as much concern as plastic and other kinds of pollution of the oceans, driving marine animals away from breeding and feeding grounds and causing mortalities.


The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group has been investigating dead whales and dolphins being washed-up on coastlines around the country, including Cork, apparently dying from unestablished causes and suspecting, the effects of underwater noise pollution as a possible cause.

That international report on underwater noise did not get a lot of public attention.

Marine animals depend on their hearing to navigate, communicate and catch prey.

Sound levels in the oceans are rising constantly and can be carried long distances underwater.

“Human-produced noise is resulting in loss of cohesion for marine life, missed opportunities for feeding, or failure to avoid a predator. It’s getting so loud down there that fish can’t even hear themselves think,” the report commented.

From that point of view, what the Russian Navy intends doing off the South/West coast could have a major impact on marine life.

“The results could arrive on the South/West coast, days, weeks later,” I was told.

Some journalists do not refer to distances at sea correctly. This is properly measured in nautical miles, not land-based kilometres. A nautical mile is a unit of length used in marine navigation. The international nautical mile is defined as 1,852 metres — 6,076 ft. The unit of speed at sea is the knot, one nautical mile per hour. The distance from the Irish shoreline to the Russian exercise area has been reported at between 240/250 kilometres, which would be 130/135 nautical miles, equating to about 170 old road Irish miles. Not far off the distance Cork to Dublin.


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