Someone is attacking undersea cables and pipelines in the Baltic Sea. Again.

“It has been confirmed that the cable has been damaged through external force or tampering,” Sweden’s government announced on October 23. The cable in question was an undersea communications system connecting the country to Estonia.

Indeed, it was sabotaged around the same time as the Balticconnector pipeline between Finland and Estonia, along with an undersea cable.

This is what grayzone aggression looks like.

It was in the early hours of 8 October that staff working for the Balticconnector gas pipeline between Finland and Estonia noticed that it was losing pressure. Soon afterward, it turned out that an undersea communications cable between the countries had also been damaged. following an investigation, the two governments announced that this was no accident: it was sabotage.

Authorities from both countries began investigating, and so did news outlets and the open source intelligence (OSINT) sleuths who now often bring crucial insights into national security incidents. Soon, a clear picture emerged. The Swedish-Estonian undersea cable was attacked on the afternoon of October 7, Balticconnector and the Finnish-Estonian undersea cable a few hours later.

Remarkably, it transpired, two vessels were present above all three pieces of infrastructure each time: the Russian freighter Sevmorput and the Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship Newnew Polar Bear.

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The investigations will continue until the three countries’ authorities have established beyond reasonable doubt that either or both the two vessels, or perhaps another as-yet-unidentified vessel, is the culprit.

But even if the three countries are positive they know the attacker’s identity and can link them to a hostile state (as no criminal would waste time and effort on infrastructure sabotage), it’s in no way clear what they can do to mete out punishment to the aggressor hostile state. And the offender needs to be punished, not just admonished.

Grayzone aggression, that is aggression in the area between war and peace, can cause harm almost as devastating as that of weapons. Without energy, a modern society quickly grinds to a halt – and it quickly grinds to a halt too once disconnected from the internet. Just ask the residents of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, who were cut off from the rest of the world in February after two Chinese vessels severed the two undersea cables connecting them with Taiwan proper.

But punishing grayzone aggressors is much harder than punishing military aggressors. Should another country’s military attack, we have armed forces to provide a defense; indeed, they’re there to deter military aggression in the first place.

But when facing another country’s hostility executed through gray forces including proxy groups, private companies, contractors, and others not wearing military uniforms and not using kinetic force, we have nothing.

Indeed, it’s not clear which part of society is even in charge of grayzone defense or what the punishment of such aggression looks like. (That’s why this author’s book on grayzone aggression is called The Defender's Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression.)

At least the Swedish Navy has had the foresight to plan for grayzone aggression. More than two years ago, it launched a “see it, say it, sorted” public awareness campaign. Awareness alone won’t deter aggression, in the Baltic Sea or anywhere else, but it’s a good start. Remember that wherever you live, there’s plenty of infrastructure that would benefit from another set of attentive eyes.

Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and Politico Europe and the author of ‘The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression’ (AEI Press, 2022) and ‘God’s Spies’ (Eerdmans, 2019), about the Stasi.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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