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Northern Europe’s new naval priority: Submarine sabotage – POLITICO

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HANKO, Finland — Finnish and British troops undertaking a routine naval training exercise on a recent winter morning will soon have a new priority: protecting undersea infrastructure.

Just east of the idling British support ship Mounts Bay — the base of the joint exercise, called Freezing Winds 23 — runs the Balticconnector pipeline, carrying gas between Estonia and Finland, which was ripped open in October. The likely culprit: the trailing anchor of a Chinese-flagged, Russia-bound commercial ship.

It’s still undetermined as to whether the pipeline’s raking was deliberate, but by early December, Western military planners had decided they didn’t intend to wait for an answer before responding.

Ten countries known collectively as the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) — the United Kingdom, the five Nordic countries, the three Baltics and the Netherlands — said they would deploy a string of ships, including the U.K.’s Mounts Bay, “as a military contribution to the protection of critical undersea infrastructure.”

The move was the latest sign of how Western nations are beefing up their defenses against so-called hybrid or gray-zone warfare as the war in Ukraine continues. Such gray-zone action falls short of a formal declaration of war but can include infrastructure sabotage, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns.

On the bridge of the Mounts Bay, Finnish naval planner Captain Mikko Laakkonen said like-minded nations should pool their resources to deter adversaries from disrupting the thousands of kilometers of gas pipelines and communications cables crisscrossing the Baltic Sea.

“We need to work together,” Laakkonen said.“This is not a one-nation exercise.”

A new vulnerability

The Balticconector incident was the latest in a series of underwater pipeline and cable breaches, most prominently the Nord Stream bombing.

Neither Finnish nor Estonian authorities investigating the Balticconector breach have produced evidence to show the suspect ship — the Newnew Polar Bear — was engaged in a hybrid attack on behalf of either China or Russia. (The governments of both countries deny involvement.)

However, experts said it was still important to react because the incident had exposed a vulnerability.

“We must see this as a test, because it showed how it is technically possible to demolish a piece of underwater infrastructure, one which is critical and quite heavy,” said Jukka Savolainen, a specialist at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats research hub in Helsinki. “At some stage in a crisis, an adversary might try to damage this infrastructure in many ways, and this could include these kinds of techniques: a commercial vessel and its anchor.”

The Balticconnector pipeline was ripped open in October. The likely culprit: the trailing anchor of a Chinese-flagged, Russia-bound commercial ship | Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images.

While a raft of countries, including Finland and Germany, have diversified their gas sources over the past year, defending this supply remains critical to Europe’s energy security. Around half of German homes are heated by gas.

“Europe cannot afford to see damage [to] or acts of sabotage [on] pipeline infrastructure, because should this happen at important interconnectors … that would be a major event that could really create significant problems for Europe,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank.

A ship in the night

At around 2 a.m. on October 8, staff at Balticconector operators Gasgrid Finland and Elering of Estonia noticed a sharp drop in pressure on the 77-kilometer offshore section of the pipeline, which runs between Paldiski on Estonia’s northern coast and Inkoo in southern Finland.

They scrambled to shut the valves to stop the flow of gas into the Baltic Sea as Swedish and Estonian telecom companies registered damage to seabed cables, also allegedly caused by the Newnew Polar Bear.

In the following days, as Finnish and Estonian police began to investigate, military and political leaders in Finland and nearby countries raised the idea of a deliberate attack.

“We often mention hybrid warfare and gray-zone problems, and we can say that this — to put a label on it — is probably what has happened,” said Swedish navy chief Ewa Skoog Haslum.

In the weeks since, Finnish and Estonian officials have said they wanted to wait for the end of police investigations before suggesting who might be responsible. Still, Finnish Minister of European Affairs Anders Adlercreutz recently went further, telling POLITICO in late November that “everything indicates” that the rupture of the Balticconnector was “intentional.”

On October 20, Finnish police investigator Risto Lohi said the Newnew Polar Bear was the focus of its investigations, given that its movements coincided with the date and time of the pipeline damage.

On November 10, Lohi said that an anchor found lodged near Balticconnector belonged to the Newnew Polar Bear.

The ship’s crew did not respond to Finnish and Estonian authorities’ attempts at contact before sailing out of the Baltic Sea and back to China through waters north of Russia.

“Basically, the captain did not pick up the phone,” Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said in an interview with POLITICO in late November.

Because the ship was moving through international waters — where vessels have extensive rights to navigate freely — there was nothing more that authorities could do to intercept the ship, Pevkur said.

Finnish and Estonian authorities said they were cooperating with their Chinese counterparts in an attempt to get aboard the ship, which docked at the Chinese port of Tianjin in early December, and question its crew.

Meanwhile, as engineers begin the months-long repairs to Balticconnector, there seems to be little stopping a stray anchor from puncturing the pipeline again.

“There’s an awareness of anchors being a possible threat,” Finland’s Adlercreutz said.

Estonia’s Pevkur suggested a possible rethink of the risks to commercial infrastructure in international shipping lanes, and that over time, pipelines and cables could be further reinforced with physical protection — such as extra concrete — while increasing surveillance.

“We can see that we are not in the same situation as we were 10 years ago when international waters were a safe place to be,” he said.

Creating a deterrent

NATO has already established an entity called the Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell, led by German Lieutenant General Hans-Werner Wiermann.

The cell, set up in the wake of the Nord Stream bombing, aims to connect the various actors involved in protecting undersea infrastructure — including private companies, national governments and NATO itself — and assist in identifying threats.

One of the initiative’s goals, Wiermann said in an interview with POLITICO, is to identify threats and suspicious behavior around critical infrastructure in real time.

“Hybrid strategies depend on the intent to use ambiguous environments to do a lot of harm to our societies, and because of the ambiguity of the environment, there’s a fair chance to get away with it,” Wiermann said.

But if you can use data and the latest technology to swiftly identify the attackers, this sends a “strong deterrent signal,” he said.

These methods are not infallible. In the case of Newnew Polar Bear, Wiermann said the ship did not raise suspicions because its behavior appeared normal. The vessel was traveling at full speed above the cables and pipelines, as a ship would be expected to do, he said.

But even when the ship itself is not under scrutiny, damage to infrastructure can be spotted quickly.

Wiermann said more efficient sensors were becoming available; for example, the use of fiber optic cables that could sense objects being dropped close to infrastructure would be a game-changer.

“The likelihood of identifying a perpetrator will increase due to technological developments,” he added.

Wiermann said NATO and its allies were trying to identify particularly vulnerable areas, such as a concentration of cables or critical infrastructure. But existing maps detailing undersea cables and pipelines can quickly become dated given how “more and more nations are investing in green energy transition,” he said.

The surge by the JEF navies announced in late November is also in part an effort to increase deterrence.

For the Mounts Bay, some takeaways from the Freezing Winds 23 training mission look set to be put into action almost immediately, with the ship named — alongside the U.K. frigates HMS Richmond and HMS Somerset, among others — as part of the JEF’s Baltic Sea deployment.

On board, Finnish planning officer Laakkonen said his country’s navy was also ready to respond to the challenges ahead.

“As directed and resourced by political decision-makers, we are ready to take the necessary actions,” he said.

Claudia Chiappa contributed reporting from Brussels.

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