After Nord Stream in the Baltic Sea, submarine cables and internet targeted?

BORIS HORVAT / AFP A picture taken on March 1, 2016 shows the very high speed submarine cable “SEA-ME-WE 5” linking Singapore to France, during its installation on March 1, 2016 in La Seyne-sur-Mer, southern France. – With four optical fiber and 20.000 kilometer long (12,4274 milles), the cable connects 17 differents countries and should be commissioned for the second semester of 2016. (Photo by BORIS HORVAT / AFP)


The photo of a submarine cable during its installation between France and Singapore, March 1, 2016 (Photo by BORIS HORVAT / AFP)

WAR IN UKRAINE – Ariadne’s Sons of the Baltic. After the discovery of gas leaks on the two Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, NATO and the EU immediately pointed the finger at sabotage and turned their gaze towards Russia. Moscow denies and takes refuge behind the need for a “investigation for an act of international terrorism” but the suspicion is well in solid state him.

Worse, mistrust has taken the copper highway and the Baltic Sea appears particularly exposed. In fact, in addition to sheltering some 1,230 kilometers of Nord Stream gas pipelines, it is also the bed of a large number of submarine cables.

Concretely, these are sheaths, placed on the sand or buried, which are used to transport electricity or telecommunications. In the Baltic Sea, these cables are mainly bilateral but a few stand out. ” Among those that are important, there is the Baltic sea, which connects Sweden, Estonia, and Finland. The Baltica which is a cable between Poland, Denmark and Sweden. And there is also the C-Lion, which has a slightly different function with particular importance on data transmission in Europe “, explains for Le HuffPostCamille Morel, associate researcher at the IESD, the Institute for Strategy and Defense Studies.

Soft targets in the Baltic

In the Baltic, hitting these submarine cables is particularly easy: an anchor scraping the bottom or dragging grappling hooks can be enough to damage sheaths located in shallow waters. ” There are regular cuts on the submarine cables, this may be voluntary or involuntary and sometimes unidentified cuts”, details the specialist.

If a sabotage operation is easy, it would however have little risk of serious consequences, apart from some disturbances. Already “because when you cut a cable, unlike gas, you never really know which tap you end up cutting in terms of data transmission”, but also because private operators act quickly to « rerouter » fluxes that would be damaged and usually only take a few days to repair damaged sheaths.

If a rupture of the European Internet – which would require an operation of a completely different scale and would be the sign of a conflict of a completely different scale – is not really topical, when it comes to symbolic action, no scenario is to be completely excluded. ” We may just want to show that we are capable of disrupting things and cutting. Whether the cable is important or not, the fact of intervening on it will make people talk about the subject because it has become political again, for obvious security reasons and in a context of digitization of our societies. In the Baltic, with sabotage, we will therefore be more on an escalation maneuver, to show that we are capable of intervening, of acting, rather than a strategic military maneuver”analyzes Camille Morel.

Russia is not just any actor

And several other parameters show that this scenario cannot be ruled out. On the symbolism, first of all, the sabotage operations on Nord Stream took place when the gas pipelines were not operational even if the pipes were full. Then for years, Russia has not hidden its interest in submarine cables located on the Atlantic side and therefore in international waters.

« This would be a much more relevant area for sabotage and would impact many more networks “. In fact, it is the Atlantic zone which is home to three of the most important cables for Internet access in France. Russia also has a famous spy ship, the Yantar, which has already demonstrated its ability to stick to Western submarine cables in this area.

Finally, Moscow has for several years undertaken to build its own internet and launch local telecom giants, “ it is a country that is less and less dependent on the global internet », and on which network cuts in Europe would therefore have little impact.

Finally, in addition to sabotage, the option of intelligence and eavesdropping cannot be ruled out, ” even if for the moment it remains a projection ». “What is practiced the most is listening from stations on land. It is easier when the cable arrives on its territory. One can also imagine intelligence agreements between Russia and another state. Even if it is difficult to see which country would be an ally in these areas, we have already had this kind of configuration, especially when Edward Snowden revealed that the United States had listened to European countries thanks to Denmark », Details Camille Morel.

But here again, there are limits to the projection, once this data has been collected or listened to, it is still necessary to analyze it and transform substantial volumes into something intelligible.

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