In what will more than likely turn out to be an attempt to escalate the confrontation between NATO and Russia over the war in Ukraine, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently argued on his Telegram channel that Russia should have the right to submarine data cables.
Medvedev, whose current position is deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, demanded such rights against the backdrop of recent media reports of the mysterious sabotage of the Nord Stream submarine gas pipeline last year. He wrote:
If we assume the proven complicity of Western countries in blowing up the Nord Streams, then we no longer have any restraint – even moral – to prevent us from destroying our enemies’ ocean floor cable communications.
- Advertisement -
However, the question of who was behind the attacks on the pipelines in the Baltic Sea on September 26, 2022 remains unresolved. There are various reports, rumors and conspiracy theories circulating.
There is some agreement that the timing, location and level of sophistication of the attack indicate government involvement or support. But the speculation extends from western special forces or Ukrainian groups being behind the attack to a well-orchestrated attack Russian operation.
In the meantime, none of the official investigations have been completed, and solid evidence that could support any of the stories remains scarce. The Swedish public prosecutor is leading one of the investigations announced on June 14 that he hopes to complete the study in the autumn.
Gas is leaking from the ruptured Nord Stream 1 pipeline off the Swedish coast. Photo: Swedish Coast Guard
Vulnerable submarine cables
For all its characteristic roars, including threats regarding the Russian nuclear arsenalshould Medvedev’s cable threat be taken seriously.
- Advertisement -
As we have shown in a report to the European Parliament Last year, submarine cables formed the backbone of today’s digital economy. Almost all of our internet connections depend on it.
According to SubTelForum’s Submarine Cable Almanac, there were as of early 2023 380 cables in Europe on the ocean floor, usually the size of a garden hose. They use fiber optic technology to transmit information over great distances.
- Advertisement -
Due to the large number of cables on the seabed, this rarely causes serious disturbances. In the event of a breakdown, traffic is quickly diverted and a repair ship is sent out to repair the damage.
If Russia turned out to be serious about its threats to cut cables, repair work would be the main economic cost. Major disruptions are unlikely in most locations.
However, there are places that are more vulnerable and where the impact would be greater. They include the kind of location where several critical cables can be attacked at the same time. These sites are known as ‘chokepoints’.
For example, some important cables are emerging in the port of Marseille – and the English channel and the Red Sea have high densities of cables. island states, like Irelandare more vulnerable because they do not have terrestrial connections as a backup.
So Medvedev’s threat should be taken seriously, but not blown out of proportion.
Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev pictured in 2020. Photo: Wikimedia Commmons
What’s behind the threat?
Once considered a reasonable politician, taking over the presidency when Putin was on his “break” from 2008 to 2012 after two terms as president, Medvedev has increasingly become a Kremlin stooge.
His threat is a continuation of Russia’s strategy of disinformation – an attempt to distract Western leaders from events in Ukraine and force security policymakers to worry about their vulnerabilities at home.
This is likely also a message to two security events happening in the coming days and weeks that are meant to heighten the sense of vulnerability and uncertainty.
Ireland started with one at the end of May national consultation forum on safety – online and on four separate days at the end of June.
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Micheál Martin said the aim was to build public understanding and spark debate about the country’s foreign, security and defense policies. In particular, the focus would be on how Ireland intends to respond to the new security environment and whether it is pursuing NATO membership.
As an island with an open sea, Ireland is one of the most vulnerable places in Europe in terms of possible internet cable sabotage.
A little further down is the NATO summit will take place in early July in Vilnius, Lithuania. Submarine cable protection is one of the priority topics on the agenda, and the organization is new infrastructure protection coordination cell is expected to make recommendations on how the alliance can better protect cables and prevent sabotage.
But a military approach to protection alone is not enough. Close cooperation between the military, civil-maritime agencies, communications regulators and industry is needed. The European Maritime Security Strategy expected to be released by the European Council this summer will be an important step in that direction. The strategy includes plans for risk assessments, enhanced oversight and inter-agency exercises.
All in all, and apart from the immediate Russian threat, the protection of critical maritime infrastructureswhich also includes wind farms, power cables, hydrogen pipelines and carbon storage projects, should become a defining element in the global ocean governance agenda.