An incident of infrastructure sabotage in the Baltic Sea could show how Beijing and Moscow are already engaged in a hybrid war with the West.
A vessel known as Newnew Polar Bear appeared to be quite busy on the night of October 7. The Chinese cargo vessel is suspected of damaging at least two underwater telecommunications cables and a natural gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea before scurrying to the safety of Russian waters. The audaciousness of the sabotage, coupled with the ship’s murky ownership, suggests the depths to which China and Russia are now engaged in coordinated efforts to undermine the West.
The relative silence of the Biden administration on the incidents may arise from squeamishness around publicly airing classified intelligence assessments. It may also reflect a desire to avoid yet another crisis that would require a coherent response. A third inhibitor may also have been at play. At the time of the incident, President Joe Biden desperately sought a sitdown with China’s Xi Jinping during the APEC Summit in San Francisco. The administration did not want anything, including Newnew Polar Bear, to throw a wrench in the works.
Thankfully, Congress is not so artificially constrained. Some members have already asked the administration for classified briefings on the Baltic Sea sabotage. Policymakers certainly need more information about the incidents. They need a better understanding of the increasingly cozy relationship between Vladimir Putin and Xi to determine how the U.S. and its allies can deter and respond to similar hybrid attacks in the future.
What we do know is that, in the early hours of October 8, Estonian and Finnish transmission system operators registered a sudden pressure drop in the Balticconnector, a forty-eight-mile-long natural gas pipeline running from Finland to Estonia under the Baltic Sea. Subsequent closer inspection found significant damage to the pipeline. Repair work is expected to continue for more than a year.
Finnish officials stated that the damage was caused by “external activity.” That same night, underwater telecommunications cables running between Sweden and Estonia and from Estonia to Finland were also damaged. Authorities have stated they believe the incidents are all related.
Investigators from Sweden, Finland, and Estonia quickly identified Newnew Polar Bear as the prime suspect. The ship operated near the location of the damaged infrastructure at the time of the incidents. An anchor dragged maliciously along the sea floor would account for the damage.
Shortly thereafter, Finnish authorities recovered an anchor near the damaged pipeline. There is little doubt it came from the Newnew Polar Bear, as the ship was photographed missing an anchor on its left side. A Russian cargo ship, the Sevmorput, was in the same area that night and may have helped coordinate the sabotage. Ironically, the operation seems to have inadvertently damaged theRussian Baltika telecommunications cable, collateral damage from the anchor’s wild ride.
Finnish authorities could not detain Newnew Polar Bear after the incident as it was sailing in international waters. The ship is currently returning to China via the Northern Sea Route under the escort of Russian icebreakers. Wary of damage to their own underwater critical infrastructure, Norway closely monitored both the Newnew Polar Bear and the Sevmorput with coast guard vessels as they sailed together along the nation’s western coast on their eastward journey home.
Oddly, despite being flagged in Hong Kong, the Newnew Polar Bear’s sailing permission for the Northern Sea Route was sent to a Russian-registered company, Torgmoll, which has offices in Moscow and Shanghai. Research intothe ship’s ownership leads to a murky web of Chinese and Russian companies, both real and existing merely on paper—an opaqueness clearly intended to obfuscate.
Yet, in practice, it doesn’t much matter whether the true owner of Newnew Polar Bear is Chinese or Russian. Xi and Putin are working together. While the investigation into the anchor dragging is not yet final, a Finnish minister statedearlier this month, “Everything indicates that it was intentional.” And the impact is already clear: cutting key infrastructure nodes in Europe benefits both China and Russia.
That Russia posed a threat to European undersea infrastructure was known before the incident. In May, NATO officials warned that Russia was “actively mapping” undersea gas pipelines and fiber-optic cables. In April, Danish media reported that Russian spy vessels had been surveilling wind farms, gas pipelines, and fiber optic cables near Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
As has been noted in the past, a period of imperfect but incredible consolidation of Chinese and Russian cooperation has begun. The damage, almost certainly intentional, of key infrastructure under the Baltic was not the first salvo in a hybrid war against the West, and it will certainly not be the last.
The Biden administration may be keen to sail on from such incidents, but Congress should demand more information and answers about what actually happened that night. If it was, indeed, sabotage, both Moscow and Beijing must be held to account for this latest attack on our Baltic allies.