Russian spy ships could cut global Internet communications as well as tap into the cables to eavesdrop on communications flowing through them.
Russian spy ships and submarines navigating international waters have become the center of attention among many American military and intelligence officials. Russian vessels have been showing aggressive behavior near some of the most vital undersea cables that carry pretty much all communications, including the Internet.
What Washington officials are concerned about is that Moscow ships might be planning to cut those lines during tensions or military confrontation, and given that West’s governments, economies and citizens have become largely dependent on communications, such a move would give Russia a crucial edge in a possible war.
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What’s especially alarming to the U.S. is that such sneaky operations could involve cutting the fiber-optic cables to disrupt the instant communications at some of their hardest-to-access locations, which would make it costly and time-consuming to repair them.
And although there have not been an instant of Russian ships cutting undersea cables yet, the growing concerns over the issue are part of Western wariness over the rate at which Russia beefs up its military activity around the globe.
However, the Pentagon classifies any of its data about Russia’s threatening naval activities around the globe, which is why Washington officials are not willing to give any additional details.
But according to The New York Times, more than a dozen U.S. officials confirmed that the Russian naval threat, particularly the possibility of cutting global Internet communications, has been in the focus of the Pentagon’s attention.
“I’m worried every day about what the Russians may be doing,” Rear Adm. Frederick J. Roegge, commander of the Navy’s submarine fleet in the Pacific, told The New York Times. The official was unwilling to answer questions about whether the Pentagon is aware of any possible Russian plans to cut the undersea cables.
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But when it comes to intelligence officials, they are more open to discuss the issue. It was reported that there has been an uptick of Russian naval activity in North Sea to Northeast Asia and even in waters closer to American shores. The nature of their activities is yet to be determined, but the area has most routes of the cables, which the U.S. and the West as a whole are largely dependent on.
Russia’s military operations, including naval operations, have been expanding at an alarming rate ever since the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. The issue has become even more acute since Russian President Vladimir Putin started bombing U.S.-backed rebels in Syria earlier this month.
Even though cables get cut all the time – most of the times unintentionally (natural disasters or vessels being dragged through the cables) – most of those cuts usually take place just a few miles away from shores, which makes it possible to repair them within a few days.
But what the Pentagon is especially concerned about is that Moscow might be finding U.S. vulnerabilities at harder-to-reach depths and locations, where it would be practically impossible to monitor the cables and repair them.
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It must be noted that the locations of some of the most crucial Western communications cables are not kept in secret, and it is not difficult to track down their locations, since the operators of the cables laid them in familiar environments under longstanding agreements.
But there are still a few cables, the locations of which are kept in secret. Such cables include those that have been commissioned by the U.S. for military operations. U.S. officials also suspect that the Russians might be snooping those secret cables.
Apart from carrying 95 percent of daily communications, including the Internet, the cables play a crucial role in the Western life. The cables where Russian spy ships have been spotted conducting suspicious activity carry global business worth more than $10 trillion a day, with financial transactions being transmitted through those cables every second.
Any tampering with the cables would immediately damage the financial sector and cut the flow of capital.
The proof of the significance of the cables is that the Department of Homeland Security puts them at the top priority of its “critical infrastructure” lists, especially those around New York, Miami and Los Angeles.
Russian spy ship spotted near cables close to U.S. shores
The U.S. is especially concerned over the Yantar, the Russian spy ship equipped with two self-propelled deep-sea submersible craft.
In September, the Yantar ship was spotted cruising slowly off the East Coast of the United States on its way to Cuba, the area where vital cables are located. According to U.S. Navy officials, the Russian spy ship is capable of dropping off its decks and cutting cables miles down in the sea.
“The Yantar is equipped with a unique onboard scientific research complex which enables it to collect data on the ocean environment, both in motion and on hold. There are no similar complexes anywhere,” said Alexei Burilichev, the head of the deepwater research department at the Russian Defense Ministry, told Russia’s Sputniknews in May 2015.
In the past two years, Russia has increased its naval activity at the rate not seen since the end of the Cold War. Having invested $2.4 billion in the Black Sea Fleet expansion by 2020, Moscow is also developing an undersea unmanned drone capable of carrying nuclear weapons.