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EXPLANATION: A deep dive into the risks of subsea cables and pipelines

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PARIS — Deep beneath the water, the pipes and cables that carry the lifeblood of the modern world — energy and information — are out of sight and largely out of mind. Until, that is, something goes catastrophically wrong.

The alleged sabotage this week of the gas pipelines linking Russia and Europe is showing how vulnerable to attack vital but weakly protected underwater infrastructure is, with potentially disastrous repercussions for the global economy.

It is not known who set off the explosions, powerful enough to be detected by earthquake monitors in the Baltic Sea, that European governments suspect were the cause of multiple punctures in Nord Stream pipes. The leaks released foaming torrents of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The Kremlin has denied involvement, calling suspicions that it sabotaged the pipelines “predictable and stupid.”

Analysts found it hard to believe and said Russia, the gas producer, apparently had the most to gain by raising market prices with such a strike and punishing Europe, creating fear and uncertainty, in retaliation for its change to other gas suppliers due to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Because undersea sabotage is harder to detect and easier to deny than more easily visible attacks on land and in the air, the blasts also seemed to fit Russia’s military playbook for “hybrid warfare.” That is the use of a series of means (military, non-military and subterfuge) to destabilize, divide and pressure adversaries.

A look at subsea infrastructure that military and economic analysts say need increased protection:

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Gas networks form just one part of the world’s dense mesh of subsea pipelines and cables that drive economies, keep homes warm and connect billions of people.

More than 1.3 million kilometers (807,800 miles) of fiber-optic cables, more than enough to stretch to the moon and back, crisscross the oceans and seas, according to TeleGeography, which tracks and maps vital communication networks.

The cables are usually the width of a garden hose. But 97% of the world’s communications, including trillions of dollars in financial transactions, pass through them every day.

Without them, modern life could suddenly freeze, economies would collapse and governments would find it difficult to communicate with each other and their troops, British lawmaker Rishi Sunak warned in a 2017 report, laying out the risks before becoming head of the Treasury. United Kingdom.

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Power cables also run underwater. Lithuania alleged in 2015 that a Russian warship repeatedly tried to block the laying of an underwater power cable linking the country with Sweden. Lithuania’s energy minister was quoted as saying that he viewed Russia’s actions as “hostile”.

The gas pipeline explosions demonstrated that it is possible to attack seabed infrastructure and escape seemingly undetected, even in the crowded Baltic Sea. Relatively shallow, with heavy shipping traffic and unexploded bombs on its bottom from both world wars, the sea is seen as a challenge to navigate undetected.

Even the Kremlin agreed that it seemed unlikely to be the work of amateurs.

“It looks like a terrorist attack, probably carried out at the state level,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday.

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Dozens of breaks each year of submarine communication cables, often caused by fishing boats and anchors, testify to their fragility. Their location on the seabed is not a secret, they are not strongly protected under international law, and it does not take a great deal of expertise or resources to harm them, the Sunak report says.

“Our infrastructure is fragile,” said Torben Ørting Jørgensen, a retired admiral in the Danish navy. The Baltic gas leaks “have sharpened our attention to these vulnerabilities like the Internet, power lines or gas pipelines,” he said.

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Internet giants such as Amazon, the parent company of Facebook, Meta, Google and Microsoft have been among those driving the expansion of the cable network, with ownership stakes in a growing number of undersea cables. That avoids the need to spend taxpayer money on installing the networks.

But because private companies don’t think about national security as broadly as governments do, they haven’t been alert to the “aggressive new threat” to cables from places like Russia, Sunak’s report says.

Industry voices are now calling for more to be done.

“Given the critical importance of submarine cables to global communications, as well as their vast economic and social impact, protecting these vital assets should be an imperative,” said Chris Carobene, vice president of submarine cable laying company SubCom.

He called on governments and “key stakeholders” to work together to “ensure protection is a priority for new and existing systems” and to develop a clear set of “risk mitigation processes around systems of cable”.

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After the Cold War, nations in the NATO military alliance reduced their anti-submarine warfare forces, cutting defense budgets and deeming the threat from Russia diminished.

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“The ability of many Western nations to reliably detect, track, deter and counter Russian underwater activities has atrophied,” said a 2016 study, “Underwater Warfare in Northern Europe,” led by Kathleen Hicks, now number 2 in the US Department of Defense.

Retired French Vice Admiral Michel Olhagaray, the former head of France’s center for higher military studies, said Western nations have “allowed themselves to fall asleep” and must now dedicate themselves to better protecting undersea cables and pipelines that Russia has identified as vital and vulnerable.

“They have certainly fallen behind,” Olhagaray said of Western defenses against submarine attacks.

“The ocean floor is a much more important and obvious domain” than space exploration, he added. “Instead of going to Mars, we should better protect the infrastructure.”

AP writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Kelvin Chan in London contributed.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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