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Damaged Baltic Sea Pipeline Signals More Doubts for Europe’s Maritime Security

Eoin Micheál McNamara (Finnish Institute of International Affairs)*

Remaining unflustered while aiming to solve problems calmly has traditionally served Finland’s national security well. For more than a century of independence, this is perceived as an effective way to respond to actions from its unpredictable neighbour, the Russian Federation. Against this backdrop, many took notice when the Government of Finland called an unexpected press conference on October 10 2023 to inform the public about a serious national security incident. On the night of October 8 2023, the respective Finnish and Estonian authorities detected a loss of pressure in the Balticconnector pipeline suppling gas between the two countries. The pipeline had been damaged. Finnish authorities started a preliminary investigation. Initial assessments were deemed serious enough for the issue to be elevated to the highest levels of the Finnish government.

Undersea damage

President of Finland Sauli Niinistö issued a statement claiming that the Balticconnector had been damaged by “external activity”. In addition to this pipeline, damage was first reported to a data cable connecting Estonia and Finland operated by the telecommunications company, Elisa, and later also to the EE-S1 undersea communications cable linking Estonia with Sweden. Reports also emerged of damage to a Russian cable. All damage is believed to have resulted from a related incident. Speaking at the Finnish government press conference on October 10, Prime Minister Peeteri Orpo confirmed that damage was unlikely to have happened without some form of interference, but he clarified that Helsinki would “not be jumping to conclusions”. Investigations have progressed over recent weeks, with Finnish, Swedish and Estonian authorities cooperating closely. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)  has stepped up its maritime patrols in the Baltic Sea through “additional surveillance and reconnaissance flights” and by deploying Airborne Early Warning and Control (AWAC) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems. NATO has sent four minehunters to patrol the area.

Reports thus far released from ongoing investigations hypothesise some surprising events leading to damage. The Hong Kong-flagged Newnew Polar Bear, a container ship, has emerged as the prime suspect for Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation (Keskusrikospoliisi). It is suspected that Newnew Polar Bear damaged undersea infrastructure by dragging its anchor for several kilometres along the seabed. Finnish investigators recovered an anchor proximate to the damaged Balticconnector. Its paint had been imprinted on the pipeline. It was soon confirmed that this anchor had become detached from Newnew Polar Bear. Photographs also emerged of the same ship docking at the Russian port of Arkhangelsk without an anchor on October 22 2023. An adventurous journey for Newnew Polar Bear was well underway by early October 2023. It had made a rare voyage through the Northern Sea Route (NSR), navigating remote Arctic shipping lanes. It departed China in late August before docking at Kaliningrad on October 3 2023. It later docked at the port of Baltiysk in the Kaliningrad Oblast on October 6, before sailing on to St. Peterburg, where it arrived on October 8 – the same day that damage to the Balticconnector was detected. Between October 13 and October 21, Newnew Polar Bear returned to Kaliningrad before travelling to Arkhangelsk. On October 25, it departed on its return voyage to China via the NSR.

Ambiguous intent

Records from Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration show that NewNew Polar Bear’s operating company has recently changed from a Chinese-owned company to a Russian-registered company based in both Moscow and Shanghai. Finnish authorities have attempted to contact crew on the NewNew Polar Bear as part of investigations, but it has not cooperated. Once the vessel remains outside Finland’s territorial waters, Helsinki has no direct power to enforce compliance. The ship’s affiliation with Hong Kong has connected China with this controversy. Beijing has claimed that it will fulfil its obligations under international law to assist the Finnish government (and possibly other governments) with investigations.

The Balticconnector will likely be out of service for six months. Considerable speculation surrounds the possible motives for undersea damage. At the most innocent end of the spectrum, the anchor drag might have simply been an accident or a just a result of  “poor seamanship”. The most sinister suspicions might perceive some Russian and Chinese collaboration behind the incident, another cheap way to create a further crisis stretching NATO and European Union (EU) resources and attention when global problems are mounting. Whether such an incident can be contrived to such a strategic extent is debatable, but commentary from marine experts indicates this is unlike any simple accident. In media interviews, an experienced sea captain from Finland claims that if an anchor was somehow accidentally released, “it is unlikely it would be unnoticed by the ship’s crew”. On container ships, bow anchor release is not automatic, the crew do this manually and “several safeguards [are] in place to prevent accidents from occurring”.

An Estonian maritime expert adds that, “If, due to a technical error, such a thing could happen, it would be very unusual, because decent sailors do not drop anchor without wanting to”. Finland’s most prominent daily newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, has examined ship tracking data that indicates Newnew Polar Bear stopping immediately before entering the area where the Balticconnector was underneath. This would have been a necessary manoeuvre to help lower its anchor. Casting further intrigue, the first point of damage to the Balticconnector occurred in the 900-metre zone between two Nord Stream pipelines constructed for Russia to export gas to Germany. Creating headlines across the globe in autumn 2022, damage to Nord Stream was most likely caused by sabotage.

Risks to infrastructure

Ambiguity over the security of European and transatlantic undersea infrastructure continues to build. Damage to the Balticconnector and some data cables in its vicinity can be counted alongside the Nord Stream incidents and “human activity” suspected to have damaged an important data cable servicing Norway with a satellite station on its Arctic island of Svalbard in January 2022. This infrastructure is vital and in plentiful use, but it is quite susceptible to damage or attack. Remote seascapes provide cover for plausible deniability. Finland’s or Estonia’s respective energy supplies will not be immediately threatened from the Balticconnector’s outage. Contingencies to bridge supplies have been made with states in the wider Baltic Sea region.

Destabilisation efforts exploiting infrastructural interdependence take many forms. Coinciding with Finland filing its application for NATO membership, Russia’s Gazprom halted gas supplies to Finland in May 2022, claiming a dispute over payments. Finland had taken a hardline to denounce Russia’s escalated aggression in Ukraine. Helsinki had dispensed with past precedents and transferred weapons to Kyiv. Gazprom is a monopoly intrinsic to Russian government policy. Moscow’s attempt to jeopardise energy supplies in retaliation for the foreign policy decisions it disapproves of is a well-worn tactic. Vladimir Putin’s government has brandished this “energy weapon” against the neighbouring Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – in various ways and at regular intervals over the past twenty years. Russian-instigated “gas wars” were arguably the beginning in earnest of Moscow’s volatile post-Soviet relations with Ukraine after the election of the West-leaning President Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine with the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution.

Ending dependence, increasing security

Supported partially by EU funds, the Balticconnector distributes gas between terminals at Inkoo in Finland and Paldiski in Estonia. It only recently entered operation in January 2020 to improve Finland’s supply linkage with natural gas markets in the Baltic states. It is a major effort to reduce Baltic and Nordic dependence on Russian energy transactions laden with geopolitical risks. For raw military and economic power, the current standoff between the West and Russia is asymmetric in the EU and NATO’s favour. While Russia wages a conventional war against Ukraine, it will still attempt to undermine Ukraine’s supporters in the EU and NATO through hybrid means. This can include propaganda, cyber conflict, weaponisation of migrants, and military intimidation short of direct war. Clandestine tactics provide Moscow with some plausible deniability. Hybrid interference is psychologically subversive. It aims to coerce targeted societies into gradually feeling insecure and unsafe as revenge for supporting anti-Russian policies.

Moves away from Russian energy in the Baltic Sea region have accelerated since February 2022. Ending dependence on Russia is a major pull factor for increased integration in transnational supply pipelines and data connections between EU member states. However, this comes with the dilemma of critical vulnerabilities.

The threat to Ireland’s territorial waters

The Baltic Sea has some strategic similarities with Ireland’s territorial waters and its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Irish Sea and North Atlantic. Trade corridors, data links and energy connections intersecting with Ireland’s EEZ are the lifeblood of its economic connectivity. Russia has some military reach for menace in the North Atlantic, even if Moscow’s potential for plausible deniability is stifled mainly by naval operations and monitoring by the US, the UK, France and some Nordic countries. This is an unforgiving geopolitical situation, but as risks in Ireland’s maritime zones rise, its naval capabilities continue to fall. Recent reports confirm only two Irish Naval Service vessels are in full-time operation due to plummeting personnel numbers.

Following last year’s Nord Stream crisis, the Balticconnector incident might be a catalyst to prompt further questions for the Irish government from Western partners on the security arrangements that Dublin plans for data connections linking North America and Europe through the Irish EEZ. Ireland shares an undersea electricity interconnector with the UK, and a further interconnector is planned with France. Warning signs indicating increased vulnerability continue to build. Russian military intelligence has likely made undersea expeditions in the North Atlantic to map areas it might exploit. Russia’s navy and suspicious commercial vessels worryingly languished near some critical undersea connections as recently as spring 2023. Guarding this infrastructure is now a heightened military security issue for Western governments where the most serious defence policy matters are handled within NATO frameworks. It is in Ireland’s vital security and economic interests to cooperate actively in partnership with NATO’s recently established Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell. This will assist Western governments and private stakeholders to share information and collectively develop technological solutions for some serious maritime security problems ahead.

*Eoin Micheál McNamara is a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.

This research has been funded by the Reignite Multilateralism via Technology (REMIT) project, funded from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 101094228.


The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.