View from Brussels: Crucial networks set for better protection
Image credit: Dreamstime
The European Union is coming up with a plan to protect critical undersea communications and energy infrastructure, after a gas pipeline was sabotaged and governments were spooked by fresh fears about major disruptions.
Deep in the Baltic Sea, two gas pipelines – Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 – lie empty. NS2 had not shipped a single molecule to Germany from Russia thanks to Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of this year.
At the end of September, the Danish and Swedish governments detected significant leaks of gas coming from both pipelines. An investigation by the coastguard revealed that explosions had ripped holes in the pipes.
No one has claimed responsibility for the act of sabotage, although most logic points towards a Kremlin-sanctioned operation. The damage might let state-run firm Gazprom off the hook for compensation payments and only a state actor would have the resources to pull it off.
More far-fetched theories say that the United States was behind the damage after President Joe Biden had previously said that his administration would make sure Nord Stream 2 would never be used.
The idea of a US-led op, like the Nord Stream pipes, is full of holes. Both pipelines had already been taken out of commission by EU sanctions and with no end of the war in sight, any notion the taps would be switched back on are wide of the mark.
Other laughable theories about culprits include Ukraine, Greta Thunberg and Polish coal miners.
Who blew up Nord Stream is not much of a pressing question now. Attention has turned to how to prevent a repeat of the sabotage, especially against infrastructure that is actually being used and is crucial to Europe’s energy security.
Norway, which has taken up a lot of the gas supply slack left by Russia, stepped up security at oil rigs and gas stations in the wake of the NS explosions. Authorities even put drone-detection equipment on oil rigs after suspicious sightings were monitored.
The vulnerabilities of undersea pipes and cables were brought into even clearer view last week when comms cables linking the Shetland and Faroe Islands to the mainland were knocked offline, in what police called “a major incident”.
According to the cable operator, internet and phone services were most likely taken down by fishing vessels, which may have dragged the cables out of position and caused damage with nets and anchors. Further investigations are ongoing.
Even on land, where security is easier to guarantee and where regulation exists in less of a grey area, there are risks. Northern Germany’s rail lines were disrupted by sabotaged cables earlier in October. A culprit has not yet been identified.
Future projects are also firmly in mind. Greece and Egypt recently agreed to start building a 1,300km-long electricity cable across the Mediterranean. Another cable and possibly gas pipe linking Israel, Cyprus and Greece could also be targets.
The EU is taking the possible risk to its networks seriously and last week came out with a number of recommendations that governments should stick to in order to protect their pipes and cables.
“In view of fast-evolving threats, with Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the sabotage of Nord Stream and the German rail network, it’s clear we need to accelerate our work to protect our infrastructure,” said top EU official Ylva Johansson.
The European Commission’s guidelines urge governments to do in-depth risk assessments to identify which infrastructure is most at risk. Existing laws that boost IT resilience should also be implemented more quickly, the EU executive says.
Top officials are surprised that those stress tests have not been conducted more regularly and now hope that governments will wake up and pinpoint weaknesses so that they can be fixed.
A more comprehensive “blueprint” for how to protect infrastructure is now being put together and will be published later this year. Increased cooperation with Nato is also on the agenda.
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