A return to the Stone Age? Among the various threats posed by Russia to the West, that of a cut in the submarine cables, which link the world’s communications, deserves to be examined. An option that could be considered in the context of the escalation of tensions after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
On February 15, Florence Parly, the French Minister for the Armed Forces, already warned about the ” new terrain of balance of power that the seabed represents, where the cables through which telephone communications and Internet data pass are located. Camille Morel, researcher at the Institute for Strategy and Defense Studies at Lyon-3 University, deciphers for Marianne the risks that the sabotage of these cables would pose to Western countries.
Marianne : Can you explain what these submarine cables are and their importance?
Camille Morel : They are essential to the proper functioning of the economy and of global society. Submarine cables allow the transit of 98% of international communications, which includes telephone exchanges as well as Internet data that leave from a server to the end user. We are talking about all daily activities that require a connection or data transfer. These cables connect the continents to each other and there are just over 420 of them.
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In this entanglement, France is particularly well situated. It is the only country in Europe to have cables on its Atlantic and Mediterranean coast, making our country an important hub because it is an arrival point for data coming from both the United States and Africa. Thus, Europe is at the heart of world trade.
In 2014, Russia cut cables, this time land, during the annexation of Crimea. Last year, a Russian oceanographic vessel tracked some cables that connect Ireland to the United States. Should we be worried about a possible Russian action to paralyze the Western world?
In the current state of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the involvement of Western countries through international sanctions, this threat seems unlikely. But, within the framework of an internationalized conflict, it is something conceivable. Anglo-Saxon countries have been considering this possibility for several years.
“Theoretically, a Russian ship has the right to cut a cable in the middle of the Atlantic. »
They denounce a latent threat from Russian ships located in the English Channel, near the American coasts and even in the Bay of Biscay. These are regular maneuvers but so far, there has never been an act of sabotage claimed or denounced. This presence shows a balance of power. But in the event of an increase in tension, the Russians know where these cables are and have the possibility of cutting them. These maneuvers, as well as the rearmament of Russian maritime capabilities, suggest such an action.
Is there no system for protection or prevention of potential sabotage?
Marine cables have different degrees of protection, depending on the depth. The closer they are to the coast, the more they are protected, in particular by being surrounded by large pipes. A system especially designed to avoid accidents due to fishing boats. But in the seabed, it is estimated that they are hardly subject to these risks. They are sometimes simply placed on the ground.
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Regarding monitoring, it is complex. States are guarantors of their own maritime spaces. Everyone stays in their area. The cables stretch for thousands of kilometres, it is impossible to monitor every portion at all times. Remember that, according to international law, the belligerents have complete freedom of action on the high seas. Theoretically, a Russian ship has the right to cut a cable in the middle of the Atlantic.
How would cutting a cable affect Western countries?
With a single cable, there is no risk. If a path is blocked, the data will find other passages. The problem is quite different in the case of a coordinated attack on several cables. It would be a very strong symbol sent to Western countries. To repair just one, the delays range from five to ten days. In order to intervene, good weather conditions, human resources and the necessary equipment must be available.
“The dependence on the American continent poses a problem because the majority of European data is found across the Atlantic. »
A parallel can be drawn with the recent situation in the Tonga Islands. In this Pacific archipelago, a volcano erupted on January 15. The cable that connects the island to the rest of the world has been severed and repair estimates are four weeks. During this time, she is totally isolated.
In the case of this disaster scenario, what would be the concrete impacts?
It’s very difficult to estimate that, simply because it never happened. We can make some guesses. Part of the Internet may no longer be accessible. The activity of companies as well as banks will also be largely affected. Everything related to telephone exchanges, WhatsApp conversations and emails could be blocked. daily activities as well. For example, Netflix would be unavailable. It would be possible to prioritize certain uses to ensure a minimum of network operation, but this will be done to the detriment of other uses.
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Dependence on the American continent poses a problem because the majority of European data is found across the Atlantic. On the Old Continent, land cables would continue to operate normally. Data decoupling has taken place and there are data centers in Europe that would avoid a total Internet blackout. But most applications and software used by citizens around the world remain on servers located in the United States.
The implications are therefore numerous. Isn’t Russia so dependent on the global Internet? Wouldn’t she shoot herself in the foot by making cuts?
Authoritarian countries can more afford to restrict internet access to their citizens. In Russia, the government is trying to build a sovereign internet and reduce its dependence on the rest of the world. We see it with the creation of its own platforms, both social networks and videos. It remains to be seen what is the display and the reality. I don’t think it’s totally isolated yet, but it’s less dependent than European countries.