By Alexander Dalziel and Henri Vanhanen, November 6, 2023
The last month has seen undersea infrastructure damaged under suspicious circumstances in the Baltic Sea. NATO allies — including Canada, with its own critical undersea links— must accordingly recognize the emerging threat to their own national critical infrastructure and step-up efforts to counter a new class of murky threats to their security.
The most recent series of incidents (at the time of writing) took place in early October. On the 8th, the Baltic Connector underseas natural gas pipeline and a nearby telecommunications cable linking Finland and Estonia were both damaged suspiciously. On the 17th, the Swedish government announced that another cable, this one between Sweden and Estonia, had experienced minor damage at around the same time.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö immediately stated that “external activity” was the likely cause of this damage. Subsequent investigation has shown that an anchor drag, extending over tens of kilometres of seabed, was the culprit.
Investigators have identified the Hong Kong-flagged Newnew Polar Bear container ship as their prime suspect, determining that the movements of the vessel match the timing of the damage on the Baltic Connector and data cables. Other elements of its voyages activities, including a docking in Russian Kaliningrad, are also being investigated, as are the vessel’s ownership and crew. The most recent information that the operator of the vessel has shifted from a Chinese entity in July to a Russian-registered company in Moscow and Shanghai in October of this year.
Interestingly, this is not the first time the vessel has been in the papers. The ship made headlines in early October for completing a Europe-Asia roundtrip via the Arctic Northern Sea Route.
Right now, it remains difficult to attribute the intentionality and state links of the ship. Sources in the marine sector described an anchor drag of this distance and duration as unusual, if not unprecedented, but nonetheless an accident and poor seamanship remain potential explanations. As Estonia, Finland and Sweden are among the most transparent democracies in the world, reliable conclusions about what happened are likely to materialize in the coming months. So far, Chinese authorities are cooperating with the investigation, per Finnish sources.
These are the third and fourth suspicious incidents in the region since the start of last year involving subsea critical infrastructure. In January 2022, a telecommunications cable between mainland Norway and its Arctic archipelago Svalbard was severed. The following September, an intentional explosion destroyed an undersea segment of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline linking Germany to Russia via the Baltic Sea.
It is a sign of our times that “external activity” immediately suggests, as a contending hypothesis, a hostile foreign act. The leading suspect is often Russia, well known for its adroit “hybrid” warfare: that is, disguising acts of aggression and interference so as not to invite a reciprocal response. These often take the form of campaigns, where a pattern emerges only later that a malicious, coordinated intent was involved. The goal is to make incremental strategic gains and sow confusion and mistrust among those it deems unfriendly. Finland, NATO’s newest member, has joined Russia’s list of ‘unfriendly’ nations; Sweden was already on it, and Estonia has long resided there.
China, too, is active in the use of such “grey zone” techniques that fall below the threshold of open warfare but can bring about strategic gain – notably in advancing territorial claims in the South China Sea. In the case of the recent incidents, it is harder to discern what a Chinese strategic interest might be in disrupting Nordic-Baltic critical telecommunications and energy infrastructure.
In recent years, Russia has invested in capabilities that would allow it to threaten Europe’s critical infrastructure – an approach that has been central to its security logic since the Soviet era. Maritime special operations are tools of Moscow’s various security and military organizations, especially in the Russian Navy and the Main Directorate for Deep Sea Research (GUGI). GUGI, for example, is known to operate surface ships that nominally act as research vessels to gather intelligence. The various components of Russia’s overall maritime sabotage capability pose multifarious challenges to undersea telecommunications cables, natural gas pipelines, wind-farms and other critical infrastructure in Europe and North America.
Events in the Baltic-Nordic region underscore the challenge of securing critical infrastructure. Should it be determined that Russia, or for that matter any state-actor, intentionally caused the damage, the question will be how to respond.
International agreements provide a basis to counter suspicious maritime activities. For example, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) permits countries to limit the activities of civilian vessels conducting surveillance relevant to economic exploitation within their exclusive economic zones. The UNCLOS also provides a basis for limiting the activities of Russian auxiliary ships while remaining within international law.
As a first response to the events, NATO has decided to increase patrols in the Baltic Sea. Additional measures include enhanced surveillance and more frequent reconnaissance flights, including with maritime patrol aircraft, NATO AWACS planes, and drones. A fleet of four mine hunters has also been dispatched to the area.
Yet a more comprehensive and long-term approach to these threats is necessary. This encompasses NATO’s ability to counter and deter hostile maritime operations. An attack on the critical infrastructure of two NATO members might breach the alliance’s threshold for a collective security response. Such a case would set a precedent for NATO in establishing a policy of countermeasure and deterrence in the maritime domain. NATO countermeasures could range from diplomatic expulsions, economic sanctions, vessel seizures, increased maritime surveillance and patrolling (now underway) or even asymmetric offensive cyber operations. We will, of course, have to wait for Estonian, Finnish and Swedish investigators to release their findings and conclusions, but the stakes are high and now is the time to start planning potential responses.
Most importantly, whether the damage is intentional or not is not entirely relevant. Fundamentally, the case is a test for NATO, its collective decision-making processes, and its resolve to protect maritime critical infrastructure – something Russia will follow closely. A weak or delayed response would signal that the alliance is not capable of preventing future acts of sabotage. This is an opportunity to form a deterrence for potential adversaries and, as such, a chance that should not be missed.
These developments in the Baltic Sea have two sets of implications for Canada. First, as a member of NATO active in the Baltic Sea (via its military mission in Latvia) Canada will have the opportunity to be a part of planning and executing the response. While the Royal Canadian Navy sends ships to the Maritime Task Force in the Baltic Sea on a persistent rotational basis, the current focus of the Canadian mission in Latvia is largely land-based. Meeting Canada’s obligations to scale up its land presence to the brigade level, as laid out in the July 2023 joint statement from the Canadian and Latvian defence ministers, is mostly an Army matter. Canada could use the present juncture to take stock of what patrol, cyber, intelligence and other assets it might have to contribute an enhanced NATO maritime and aerospace effort.
Second, Canada would need to think about its own underwater assets, especially cables. The world’s informational circulatory system flows through a network of slim maritime fibre-optic arteries. In Canada, cables are or will soon be coming ashore from Europe and Asia in British Columbia, Labrador, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. They are already spreading along the coast of Hudson Bay and will eventually reach Nunavut. Some important transoceanic cable projects will also likely pass through Canadian waters. For instance, a proposed Finnish-U.S.-Japanese venture would run fibre-optic cable from Europe to Asia via the Northwest Passage.
These investments will bring new vulnerabilities. Subsea hybrid threats are a novel development in North American security. The Arctic, where strategic and conventional military threats have long defined security posture, is especially vulnerable. Both China and Russia are advancing in underwater technologies with dual-use potential. Their conduct on the oceans, whether that be the Baltic Sea or South China Sea, already shows a propensity for aggressive posturing and hybrid tactics. One step in the right direction for Canada would be enacting the recommendations for urgent action made by the House of Commons Standing Committing on National Defence this year on acquiring undersea surveillance equipment and new, under-ice capable submarines.
Resilient solutions bake in security upfront, not after the fact. The time is therefore now to get a move on policy and contingency planning. Tapping into the knowledge and experience of Nordic and Baltic allies will be one path to strengthening Canada’s critical infrastructure security.
Alexander Dalziel is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
Henri Vanhanen is research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
 Acronym form of Glavnoye upravlenie glubokovodnikh issledovanii