Russian Ships Could Cause 'Catastrophe' for West by Cutting Transatlantic Internet Cables

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center), Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu (right) and Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy Vladimir Korolev visit the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 30. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/Reuters

Russian warships in the Atlantic could become a serious threat to NATO without even firing a shot, by cutting underwater cables vital for international trade and communications, a top British defense official has said.

Severing those links could paralyze everything from trade to internet connection, according to the U.K.'s Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Stuart Peach, who is also an air chief marshal and chairs the NATO military committee as of September.

"There is a new risk to our prosperity and way of life, to the cables that crisscross our seabeds, disruption to which through cable cuts or destruction would immediately—and catastrophically—fracture both international trade and the internet," Peach said at London's Royal United Services Institute on Thursday, according to The Guardian.

Although few individual members of the alliance can match Russia soldier for soldier or gun for gun, the organization has long seen its strength in faster communication and response.

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Only two weeks ago, the Policy Exchange think tank warned in a report that 97 percent of global communication and around $10 trillion in daily transactions relied precisely on such cables. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, one of its first moves was to sever the cable connecting the peninsula to the rest of the world.

Cables are typically considered targets for tapping rather than destruction. At the height of the Cold War, the practice of tapping those cables was an established area of operation for intelligence agencies.

As relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated significantly since Moscow's annexation of Crimea, U.S. military officials have sounded the alarm on Russian naval activity near known underwater communication lines. In 2015, officials told The New York Times they had noticed an increase in Russian ships sailing along some of those routes in waters from the North Sea to Southeast Asia.

Sea traffic often inadvertently clips a cable, cutting the line with its anchor or a ship's body, but such mishaps happen in shallow depths, nearer to shore, and repairs can be made relatively quickly. What is a much greater concern, according to Michael Sechrist, an expert on undersea cable vulnerabilities who managed a Defense Department–funded project for Harvard-MIT, is when a deliberate cut is made in the open ocean. Finding the rupture and fixing it becomes a very challenging task.

The routes of the cables, however, are not hard to find.

"Undersea cables tend to follow the similar path since they were laid in the 1860s," Sechrist told the Times.

According to the Kremlin's new naval policy strategy, announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin this year, sea forces are "one of the most effective tools of strategic [nuclear and nonnuclear] containment" for Russia. He primed naval forces to resist what he said was an attempt to "limit Russia's access to resources at sea and its access to vitally important naval transport communications."