Officials from the U.S. and its allies are worried about increased Russian-ship activity near underwater cables that carry most of the world’s data. Officials are suspicious the Russian vessels may be laying the groundwork for future operations against the lines.
Most people are not aware that 99% of the world’s overseas data runs through undersea cables. That includes voice calls, text messages and internet traffic. The route is faster than satellite communications, by as much as a factor of eight.
Large-scale breakages in the cables could disrupt military operations, international commerce in addition to communication. Most of the lines are a little over an inch diameter, roughly of the size of a garden hose, and there are roughly 620,000 miles of fiber-optic cables running under the world’s oceans, enough to circle the earth twenty-five times.
Cutting one cable would have minimal impact on the world’s communications but cutting several could cause a greater disruption.
Ships in the fleet of Russia’s Directorate of Deep Sea Research have been tracked to areas where undersea cables have been laid for days at a time. In some cases, the ships’ tracking signals are turned off while they are in the vicinities.
There have been relatively few incidents of intentional sabotage of the wires in the past. Most of the outages that have occurred have been the result of accidents. Ship anchors often snap cables and the wires can often become entangled in commercial fishing nets. Natural disasters such as tsunamis can also cause damage.
But the increase in suspicious activity comes at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the West not seen since the end of the Cold War. Last week, fourteen nations, including the U.S., expelled a combined 151 Russian diplomats over the alleged poisoning of an ex-Russian intelligence officer living in England.
Russia responded by expelling an equal number of diplomats from the respective nations.
“For the first time ever, a precedent [arises] in international relations of a collective act of punishment of a country without proving any guilt on its part. This is a large-scale provocation,” Ambassador Alexander Lukashevich, who represents Russia at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said last week.