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Cold War Thriller in the Ionian: Russian Fishing Vessel 'Modified' for Spying in the Area - US Navy P-8A in the Air (maps)

A Russian fishing vessel named ESTER (MMSI: 273397450), which departed from Istanbul, has been sailing westbound in the Ionian Sea since yesterday. At the same time, a US Navy Boeing P-8A, which took off from NAS Sigonella, flew into the area. Are these two things connected? Initially, one could say no. However, things are not always as they seem, Itamilradar points out.

According to a joint investigation by public broadcasters in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, released in April, Russia is allegedly running a program to spy on NATO assets and key infrastructure using fishing boats. The report cited suspicious activities carried out in the North Sea by a number of Russian crews/fishing vessels.

During an inspection carried out in a Danish port, "equipment capable of sending and receiving military messages" was found on one of these units, indicating that Russia may be using the fishing vessels to support its military activities.

The same equipment is said to be present in the ESTER. It is very likely, therefore, that the ship is closely monitored by NATO means, and the extended mission of the American Poseidon is not entirely unrelated to these activities.

The investigation claims that Russia has a fleet of vessels disguised as fishing trawlers and research vessels, equipped with underwater surveillance tools to map sabotage targets. The first of a series of reports on this investigation was broadcast across Scandinavia by DR, NRK, SVT and Yle. A review conducted by the broadcasters claims that over the past 10 years, at least 50 Russian ships have been secretly collecting information in NATO waters.

The Taurus, a trawler owned by Norebo, was among the vessels linked by news agencies to the alleged surveillance program. The vessel, which operated in the Barents Sea and Norway and docked at various ports in northern Norway, recently attracted suspicion from Norwegian authorities for a close encounter with a NATO submarine, the report said.

Norebo, controlled by Russian billionaire Vitaly Orlov, is the largest holder of fishing quotas in Russia and a major supplier to global markets, including the UK and Europe. Norebo took over Taurus in November 2021 when it acquired the assets of Murmansk-based FEST Group.

Although banned from EU and UK ports, Russian fishing vessels still have access to some Norwegian ports. In early December last year, the 64-meter-long Taurus docked in Tromso, northern Norway, according to NRK.

The Taurus had repeatedly delayed a scheduled departure, a local service told the Norwegian TV station. However, as the USS South Dakota submarine was towed into the Norwegian port, the Russian vessel suddenly left the port and sailed into the submarine's path, according to the report. In addition, the investigation claims that the Taurus made "unusual" movements that coincided with the appearance of US submarines and a NATO exercise.

NRK contacted the Russian ambassador to Norway, Tezmuraz Rmiszivili, who denied that the Taurus was involved in monitoring any NATO assets and called the claims part of a wave of "Russophobia". A Norebo spokesperson told IntraFish that he had nothing to add to the denial given to the NRK report.

Other ships were also linked to the alleged surveillance program in the report. In November 2022, police in Kirkenes, Norway, found two ships -- the Ester (as in the case of the Ionian) and the Lira -- with identical, dated radio sets locked below decks.

Russian fishing boats had sailed directly from the Faroe Islands to the port bordering Russia's Kola Peninsula to the north, according to the Scandinavian TV station investigation. The Kola Peninsula is the center of Russia's military establishment in the western Arctic and home to Russia's powerful Northern Fleet, the largest of the four Russian naval fleets.

A retired British Naval Intelligence officer looked at images of the radio for the broadcasters and recognized that it was being used to send and receive calls and Morse codes, according to NRK.

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