In mid-February, the Irish police intercepted Russian intelligence agents snooping around in Irish waters, mapping the location of submarine Internet cables that connect Europe and America. A few days later, Russian vessels were spotted in the same area, which stirred speculations about a possible upcoming attack on this critical infrastructure. Russia has faced similar charges before; alarming news about their espionage activities and potential sabotage of communication networks surfaced in 2019 and 2017.
Nonetheless, is it possible to disable underwater internet cables? And if yes, does the Russian Federation have the motivation and ability to do so?
The world is currently interconnected through 464 submarine cables. Since the 1960s, it has become common practice to bury them under the seafloor to prevent damage from fishing gear, marine animals, or earthquakes. However, this infrastructure still gets damaged, either by the aforementioned accidents or by targeted human activity. Therefore, it is possible to render these cables inoperable.
With the increasing size and capabilities of the Russian naval forces, the country does have the capacity to sabotage submarine cables. Although to cripple transatlantic communication, they would have to cut the majority of all cables at the same time. Not just those between Europe and America, but worldwide, as the flow of data gets redirected through other connections in case of a malfunction. Hence, while the attack on transatlantic cables would slow communications down, it would not disrupt them completely.
Hypothetically, even if Russia succeeded in this attack on a global scale, they would not emerge as winners; the economic, financial and security problems that would arise would significantly affect them, too. Thus, despite Russia’s ability to (partially) undermine the functionality of submarine cables, such efforts are not in the country’s best interests.
Nevertheless, worrying about the security of these networks is not completely out of place. They can be threatened not by physical destruction, but espionage – by bugging the cables to gain access to sensitive information. This tactic had been used by the USA against the Soviets during the Cold War on the predecessors of contemporary internet cables, and currently makes more sense for Russia than the destruction of the infrastructure. So far, nothing indicates that Russia has succeeded in this, but if the international community wants to better protect our internet, it should shift its focus towards this eventuality.
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
Responsible editor Matúš Jevčák.
Author: Katarína Kondrótová
The text has not undergone language revision.