NATO Struggles With How to Protect Vital Undersea Links After Nord Stream Blasts

(Bloomberg) — NATO allies are struggling to figure out how to better protect critical infrastructure underwater after the Nord Stream pipeline explosions revealed the difficulty of monitoring facilities and identifying attackers.

The sheer size and underwater depth of assets like pipelines – or data cables that enable the internet to work – increases the challenge for governments. With most systems owned by private companies, proving which government might have sponsored an attack is even more complex.

“We had theoretical concerns that it might be vulnerable, but until these Nord Stream explosions, we haven’t seen an incident like this on this infrastructure,” said Kristine Berzina, senior fellow for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC “Now that raises a lot of concerns about what other type of infrastructure can be attacked.”

Russia’s belligerent rhetoric and moves to curb Europe’s energy supply have raised concerns that Moscow could target key undersea infrastructure, like the pipelines from Norway that supply more than a fifth of the continent’s natural gas, or some of the 400 undersea data cables that supply about 98% of international internet data and phone traffic around the world.

The cause of the damage to the Nord Stream pipelines is not yet known. European Union leaders have widely condemned this as sabotage, but only Poland has directly blamed Russia. President Vladimir Putin said last week the pipelines had been attacked by “Anglo-Saxons”.

Danish, Swedish and German officials are still investigating the causes, a process that can take weeks. Researchers have previously warned that Russia has both the military capabilities and knowledge of where submarine cables and infrastructure are located. Russian military ships were also often spotted near cables or pipelines, for example, when they were laid down.

Missing tools

Allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have rushed to deploy military ships and aircraft to patrol the Baltic and North Seas to prevent another such attack. Norway has stepped up patrols of its power facilities after an unusually high number of drones were sighted. The Italian Navy strengthens the protection of strategic trans-Mediterranean pipelines.

However, the Norwegian Security Service lacks tools to prevent sabotage against the country’s power assets while such risks have increased, public broadcaster NRK quoted the agency’s deputy head Hedvig Moe as saying. While the service can prevent and investigate terrorist threats using so-called invasive methods such as wiretapping and data mining, it cannot use such means to prevent sabotage, Moe was quoted as saying.

At a NATO Defense Ministers meeting in 2020, the military alliance produced a report that highlighted the vulnerabilities associated with undersea cables and the importance of protecting undersea infrastructure.

Hybrid Warfare

“It is important to understand that most of these cables are privately owned and it is public knowledge where they are located,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the time. “And that makes them potentially vulnerable.”

Wojciech Lorenz, an analyst at Poland’s Institute of International Affairs, said the damage to the Nord Stream pipeline showed the typical hallmarks of hybrid warfare, combining plausible denial with going below the threshold of open conflict.

“Even though we don’t know who is behind the attacks, Russia can use them for its own ends,” Lorenz said, adding Moscow could pressure some countries not to support sanctions and draw attention to Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories turn.

The Nord Stream damage also comes as Ukraine’s military continues to drive Russian forces out of much of its country, which Berzina says could be another factor pinpointing the blame on Russia as Moscow may try to deflect attention from its mistakes.

NATO’s response to last month’s blasts is likely to be somewhat limited, as Swedish and Danish officials have determined the pipeline damage occurred in their economic zones and not directly in their territorial waters

Allies could instead take other measures, including sanctions or more military aid to Ukraine if Russia is behind the attack, according to a European diplomat.

NATO’s response could be different if Russia attacks a facility in one of the allies’ territorial waters, which Berzina says would potentially trigger the collective defense provisions of Article 5 of their treaty.

“We should be concerned that this could be a test run for a future situation that would meet those criteria,” she said.

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