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Is That Whale A Russian Spy? The Beluga Won’t Tell

Moscow’s reputation for subterfuge surfaces in waters off Norway. Everything about the oversize outsider who surfaced near Norway’s Russian border seemed to confirm he was a Kremlin spy. His demeanor was excessively friendly. The gear he was sporting when detained said, “Equipment—St. Petersburg.” Adding to suspicions, the Kremlin stayed mum. Is That Whale A

Is That Whale A Russian Spy? The Beluga Won’t Tell

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Norwegian scientists were convinced: The beluga whale stalking boats off the Arctic coast was an operative from the Russian base in Murmansk that trains sea mammals for military missions.

“If this comes from Russia—and there is great reason to believe it—then it is not Russian scientists, but rather the navy that has done this,” Martin Biuw from the Institute of Marine Research in Norway told the country’s national broadcaster.

The harness that the whale was wearing, scientists speculated, could carry a camera or a weapon. The white, SUV-sized mammal was named “Hvaldimir” in an online poll, combining the Norwegian word for whale and the first name of Russia’s president.

Morten Vikeby, a former Norwegian consul in Murmansk, offered a different theory to fishing publication Fiskeribladet: The whale could have escaped from a therapeutic center for underprivileged children who used to pet it and watch it perform tricks.

Wherever the truth lies, behind the spy-whale fever that has gripped Norway is the question of whether Russia is the West’s most cunning adversary or just the one that is best at pushing its buttons.

With an economy the size of Spain’s and a stretched military, Russia has relied on cheap but high-profile operations that can yield outsize results. They often involve deception aimed at projecting power far greater than the Kremlin actually wields.

The Russian military, when announcing exercises, sometimes adds field kitchens to tallies of vehicles to boost numbers. The army hired far more railcars than it needed for war games in 2017 that made some in the Baltic countries nervous that an invasion was imminent. Russia uses inflatable tank replicas to feign larger formations.

Western analysis—and in some cases, imagination—has at times helped to inflate Russia’s reputation. The Cold War and its aftermath brought decades of trying to divine the workings of the Kremlin and assess the power and strategies of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel.

For the Kremlin, “it’s very important to create an exaggerated sense of Russia’s capacities and the risk of conflict,” said Mark Galeotti, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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“If you are already pegged as the schoolyard bully, you want to be the most formidable bully around so no one is going to challenge you, and everyone meekly hands over their lunch money,” he said.

Russia could have sought to soften its image by dismissing the whale story, said Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at London-based think tank Chatham House. “By ignoring it, Russia shows it is content to be seen as a state that will take any measures to covertly attack other states, including harnessing innocent sea mammals,” he said.

Russia doesn’t judge an operation’s success by its elegance or stealth, said Mr. Giles. A mission near London in 2018 that U.K. officials said was carried out by Russian military-intelligence officers to murder a former colleague, Sergei Skripal, ostensibly failed. Mr. Skripal survived and the alleged culprits were caught on security cameras and identified.

Instead of hushing-up the incident, Russia flaunted its derring-do by putting the men on state TV. As if to thumb a nose at Britain, they identified themselves as innocent traveling salesmen of sports supplements.

The Skripal affair illustrates the darker side of alleged Russian influence on Western soil—denied by Moscow—from targeted killings to money laundering. But the West tends to fixate on “shiny objects” from Russia, Mr. Giles said, such as social media posts and English-language propaganda channel RT.

And spy-whales. The military training of sea mammals is the kind of program that feeds images of the Russians as comic-book masterminds harnessing the superpowers of animals in pursuit of global influence. State media has drip-fed details of the program in recent years, including a report by the Russian army’s TV channel in 2017 that touted successes in Murmansk training seals, sea lions and beluga whales as “underwater special forces.”

The Kremlin, like the U.S., has for decades sought to use the sonar of sea mammals to spot mines, enemy divers and lost equipment.

Irina Novozhilova, an animal-rights activist who has petitioned the Russian Defense Ministry to end its use of sea mammals, says the military usefulness of dolphins and whales is also exaggerated.

“It doesn’t matter what you strap on a dolphin,” she said, “it’ll never be James Bond.”

Should the U.S. and Russia be using sea mammals for military purposes? Join the conversation below.


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