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Submarine warfare has been a key focus of Russian military development for decades, analysts said, forming part of their culture of pursuing asymmetrical military tactics.
“In the school of Russian warfare at sea it’s not about aircraft carriers, it’s about the undersea domain,” said Roberts.
There have been reports of Russia damaging communication lines in the North Atlantic as early as the 1970s, according to Igor Sutyagin, an expert in U.S.-Russian affairs at RUSI, who
spent more than a decade in Russian prison on charges of espionage for the United States.
“It’s not a new danger or threat, because it was possible even then,” he said, adding that the idea had only become more attractive with the invention of the internet.
In 2014, Russia successfully used electronic warfare in its occupation of Crimea, cutting off the main cable connection to the outside world and blocking non-Russian information from reaching civilians, according to the Policy Exchange report. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula during the upheaval in Ukraine.
“Crimea is the gold standard of information operations to win a conflict with very little fighting,” said Giles of Chatham House, explaining that Russia would seek to replicate the operation in any future conflict.
Since 2014, Russia’s submarine and on-land investigations into global communications networks has become increasingly urgent and less covert as they believe the likelihood of conflict has increased, Giles said.
“They are aggressively probing vulnerabilities in internet infrastructure elsewhere,” he added.
U.S. military and intelligence officials have spoken of Russian submarines and spy ships “aggressively operating” near Atlantic cables, according to the Policy Exchange study and
The Policy Exchange study also noted that in 2007 British intelligence forces foiled an al-Qaida plot to destroy a key London internet exchange.
Analysts have warned that it is not only Russia that could seek to exploit the West’s reliance on the internet and telecommunications networks — China has been repeatedly flagged as a potential threat.
Sean Kanuck, director for future conflict and cyber security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Russian threat should be understood as a combination of vulnerability, capability and intention.
“The vulnerability exists, the capability has been documented and proven from an engineering perspective, and the intent is there for espionage and to disrupt those cables in event of a serious military conflict,” he said.
Analysts warn that combating this threat is no mean feat. “Policing and patrolling undersea cables, we’ve not done this before, it would require a big investment,” said Roberts of RUSI.
Kanuck pointed out that the cables are owned and operated by private companies, rather than the state, adding another layer of complication to questions of security.
Nevertheless, Giles said last week’s public acknowledgment of the Russian threat was a major step towards addressing the problem.
“In times of crisis and conflict with Russia, civilian communications infrastructure requires the same degree of physical protection as any other strategically important facility,” he said.
Kanuck said while he felt security specialists had always been attuned to the risk of Russian espionage, he welcomed its return to popular discourse.
“If there was a hiatus, it was likely at a political level, not at the security professional level,” he said. “Politics of the day has resurrected what is a very worthwhile and significant concern.”