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nato flexes plans for new center to protect critical infrastructure in the black sea

NATO Flexes Plans for New Center to Protect Critical Infrastructure in the Black Sea

Author: Samantha Fanger

Jun 27, 2023

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the suspected sabotage and explosion of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in September 2022 in the North Sea, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has announced plans to make a “maritime center for the security of underwater infrastructure.” This center will bring together NATO, the private sector, and other partners to “help improve information sharing about evolving risks and threats,” according to the head of Critical Undersea Infrastructure and Coordination, Hans-Werner Wienermann.

The Black Sea is “a key front in transatlantic security,” according to Dr. Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategy for the U.S. Department of Defense. She added that in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is now also “the site of the largest conflict in Europe since World War II." 

Meddling operations by Russia could be carried out not only by their Navy, but also by the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI), which is known as Russia’s “Deep-Sea Spetsnaz.” NATO has received intelligence indicating that GUGI has focused on underwater cable networks more recently.  

According to Wienermann, Russia has mapped out critical underwater infrastructure in the Black Sea—a development that has caused concerns that Russia could target undersea cables as a form of disruption. With the increase in naval activity since the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, cables could be cut or even damaged accidentally.  

About 95 percent of the world’s global data flow is transmitted through undersea cables, and much of the critical infrastructure found in the Black Sea are cables used to transmit telecommunication signals.  Currently, the Black Sea’s underwater infrastructure makes an estimated $10 trillion in transfers daily, and about two thirds of the world’s oil and gas. 

 5,000 miles of oil and gas pipeline networks stretch across the North Sea alone, and yearly, there are about 100 reported cable-cutting incidents around the world. Determining if instances of cut cables are deliberate is a challenge. Another difficulty is that it would be impossible to have a NATO monitoring presence that could cover all undersea infrastructure in the Black Sea. Instead, NATO Allies will be focusing on “high-risk” areas. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says their goal is to “be better at collecting...intelligence, sharing information, connecting the dots.” He added that the private sector collects large swaths of data on maritime movements and surveillance that can be used to aid this effort. 

The cable systems found in the Black Sea literally and figuratively connect countries in the surrounding region and beyond. After the European Union (EU) signed a $2 billion dollar agreement for a submarine power cable between Georgia and Romania, the president of the European Commission (EC), Ursula von der Leyen, said the cable would "bring the European Union closer to partners in the South Caucasus region, and it will help both our regions achieve the clean energy transition.” Some of the main cables and systems are the Kerch Strait Cable, the Russia-Georgia cable system, the Caucasus Cable System, and the Black Sea Fiber Optic System (KAFOS) that connects Türkiye, Bulgaria, and Romania. Even prior to NATO’s new maritime security center, countries with cable networks in the region had begun working on new initiatives that could “reduce the threat from malicious actors by creating more redundancies to direct data traffic and electricity in cases of damage to other undersea cables or land-based systems.” One example is the Romanian-Georgian-Azerbaijani digital and energy connectivity project that will provide viable alternatives for Moldova and Ukraine, both of which could face more communication and energy disruptions as the war continues. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to alter regional security considerations, necessitating a proactive response from neighboring countries to avert other crises that trickle down. The suspected attacks on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines last year, that halted gas shipments from Russia to Germany, was a turning point of sorts that shifted the regional security focus. The new center demonstrates international awareness of the larger threat that looms over the region and could have sweeping effects if this critical infrastructure becomes compromised.

More importantly, it exemplifies the united approach that Karlin says will be critical to the region’s security in the future. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused the world’s attention on the strategic geopolitical importance of the Black Sea. However, just east of it lies the Caspian Sea which holds vast networks for trade, energy, and communication that have become especially critical during this period of conflict. While "the United States will continue to work with NATO allies to advance military modernization to address Russia's military threat, including through enhanced posture and exercises to improve security and prosperity for the region," allies and regional partners should examine other critical areas for trade and infrastructure that could be under threat and how initiatives such as this one could be replicated to proactively safeguard them. 


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