Coping with multiple crises is a key skill in the new world disorder. A Baltic pipeline breach amid tragedy in the Middle East is a test of that ability.

A breach of gas and data links between Finland and Estonia has been described as “deliberate”[1] – but as yet, nobody has officially apportioned blame to any perpetrator.

But whether or not this was a deliberate attack by Russia, the incident highlights the opportunities that Russia could take at little cost if it wanted to. Coming while the West is fully distracted with ongoing combat operations in Israel, the breaches present an important test for NATO and the EU. There are few good options for responses – but a firm response is essential if Russia is not to conclude that there is little downside to deliberately triggering similar and more serious incidents in the future.

It was inevitable that suspicion would immediately fall on Moscow. It’s true that only Russia had the means, motive and opportunity to carry out the attack.

Russia’s hydrographic survey vessel Sibiryakov had been observed apparently mapping the pipeline on several occasions.[2] And at the time of the pipeline breach, another Russian vessel, the SGV Flot, had been in the area for over 24 hours.[3] The SGV Flot’s owners say it was there riding out the weather[4] – but the location and timing is convenient for injecting doubt that the cable damage could have been caused accidentally by a dragging anchor.

That possibility has been denied by maritime experts and government officials.[5] Russia’s subsea attack capability is well documented,[6]  and the pattern of previous activity over the pipeline resembles the Russian “ghost ships” implicated in the Nordstream attack in September 2022.[7]

What’s more, Russia has repeatedly promised retaliation for Finland joining NATO.[8] And diversions of the West’s attention and resources benefit Russia and harm Ukraine, as graphically demonstrated by the wholesale switching of attention from support for Ukraine to support for Israel in the preceding days.

No accusation

But none of this – yet – has been used by either Finland or Estonia to point the finger conclusively at Russia. And the comprehensive evidence that would allow them to do so may not come any time soon. After more than a year of government inquiries, media investigations, and wild conspiracy theories,[9] there is still no publicly agreed version of who attacked the Nordstream pipelines.

The incidents cut across geographical boundaries – in the exclusive economic zones of Finland and Estonia, but outside their territorial waters – and across boundaries of responsibility between different national security agencies and private industry. Attacking along these seams is a key feature of what was briefly called “hybrid warfare”.[10] Other features include the relatively small investment for high impact, and the way incidents leave the public concerned and apprehensive about what comes next.

That grey area of responsibility shows how security is a shared concern that also has to work seamlessly across government, private industry, and even national borders. It’s a validation of Finland’s long-standing emphasis on whole-of-society resilience that the destruction of a pipeline does not affect security of supply. That’s a lesson other states at risk of sabotage should by now have learned.

Some voices in Finland have criticised their government’s low-key response, saying it resembles a former time when Finland had to absorb punishment because it was not a member of a military alliance.[11] In Finland in particular, as a new member of NATO, this could be seen as a test of the alliance’s value and credibility.

But the problem is an even harder one at the level of NATO or the EU. NATO has promised to respond if a deliberate attack is proven.[12]  There’s no detail so far on what that might look like, and the options for responses by a military organisation seem limited.[13] And the EU’s response would have to be less chaotic than its handling of the Hamas attack on Israel days previously to be meaningful.[14] Above all, the challenge to Western institutions is one of attention deficit – the tragic events in the Middle East have forced other alarming developments, and even the war in Ukraine, off the news agenda,[15] which is precisely how Russia would like it to be. But polycrisis[16] is the new normal. And dealing with multiple crises simultaneously is an essential skill for surviving the new world disorder.

Slow reactions

The vulnerabilities presented by subsea infrastructure have been well documented.[17] And it can hardly be said that governments like that of the UK are unfamiliar with the challenge, given that the current British Prime Minister wrote a policy paper laying it out in detail as long ago as 2017.[18] And yet, so little was done that the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key could still refer to the 2022 Nordstream attack as a “wake-up moment” for critical infrastructure protection.[19]

The swift identification of Russian vessels behaving suspiciously in the vicinity of the damage – in the same way as they did near the breaches of the Nordstream pipeline in 2022 – will surely raise questions as to why these vessels are not more closely supervised. And that inevitably leads to recognition of the scale of the challenge – not least because of the enormous size of the sea area that needs to be protected. The UK’s new Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship (MROSS), the RFA Proteus, by coincidence entered service days after the Baltic incident.[20] But Proteus is one of only two vessels that are intended to protect seabed critical national infrastructure.

The challenge may be even greater for countries like Norway, responsible for policing vast areas of sea where it has already suffered a consistent pattern of attacks on its subsea infrastructure.[21]

The big picture is key. But it’s essential to find the balance between treating parts of Russia’s campaign plan as isolated and unrelated incidents,[22] and overcompensating by seeing the Kremlin’s hand behind every bad thing that happens. If this was indeed a deliberate Russian attack, in a way the problem of finding the evidence to say so resembles cyber warfare, where for years Russia leveraged the misguided perception that it was impossible to attribute attacks to wreak havoc with relative impunity.[23]

Russia will observe the responses carefully – not only by the two countries directly involved, but also especially by NATO and the EU. Whether or not this incident is proven to be a deliberate act by Russia, those responses will tell Moscow what it can get away with in future.[24] At the moment, the costs for Russia of covert attacks on the West are low, and the benefits high. That calculus needs to be reversed – the West’s response must be designed to convince Russia that replicating this incident is not a profitable line of effort because the negative consequences will outweigh the gains. And that is likely to be a far more effective insurance against Russian sabotage than even a fleet of subsea surveillance vessels.

Keir Giles is a professional explainer of Russia who has worked with think-tanks and defence research agencies in more than a dozen countries globally. His most recent book is ”Russia’s War on Everybody” (November 2022).


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