US government sources have revealed to the New York Times growing concerns that Russian naval vessels may be threatening the global internet infrastructure. Russian ships have been seen tracing out the routes of the trans-oceanic cables that carry the vast majority of the world’s internet traffic around the world. Russian ships seem to be deliberately staying close enough to these cables to use their attached submersibles, which the US says could descend and sever the lines — or perhaps tap them. The sheer number of ships involved has been described by senior diplomats as comparable to the Cold War.
The issue stems from the fact that these ships seem to be threatening these deep-sea cables in the deep sea, as opposed to near shore where the vast majority of natural or accidental damage occurs. A piece of the internet backbone, severed miles undersea, could potentially take weeks or months to find and repair. Analysts did say that the ships could be trying to find the location of secret cables laid down, mostly the US, for military or other private uses. Ships don’t necessarily need to be anywhere near a deep sea cable to cut it, so in a way the cables are safest from Russian tampering while Russian ships still float directly above them.
On the other hand, take this piece of news in concert with another one from earlier in the month: Russia is running tests on the feasibility of cutting itself off from the global internet. In other words, Russia may be actively researching whether it can maintain certain modern abilities with a a Russian-bloc intranet and only semi-permeable junctions of interaction with the outside world. With ships now seemingly looking into the possibility of creating such a reality, it’s a troubling situation.
If this is indeed anything more than saber rattling, it could be intended to function in one or both of two ways: as a long-term cultural tactic, or as a short-term military one.
Vladimir Putin could be looking into the possibility of re-creating some version of the Iron Curtain (Silicon Curtain? Digital Curtain?) to cut his people off from outside influences. He’s been very outspoken about what he calls the imperialism of the West in the former Soviet countries, both military and cultural. More to the point, it’s difficult to maintain a narrative of victimhood when your citizens can readily consume the internal cultural offerings of a population that genuinely has no interest in conflict. Despite firewall and filtering efforts, Western European and US media are far more accessible to modern Russians than 30-40 years ago.
The problem with that plan, of course, is that in the modern world, connection is synonymous with success. At the extreme end of the path of censorship is North Korea, a country where radio transceivers come welded so they can only receive the government channel, and where it’s thought millions may currently be starving. Russia has had trouble stabilizing its economy in recent years, so any move to further cut off the outside world will be risky. At the least, it forces the country to double down on old-world pillars like oil and gas, or good old fashioned goods production. Neither of those seem like safe bets in the short or long term.
On the other hand, you can be sure there are some American generals getting quite antsy at the prospect of a much more aggressive severing of the cables. Whether a purely malicious move meant to sow economic chaos, or a strategic prelude to some more direct military action, shutting down the global internet could be an incredibly powerful move. Just the possibility of such an attack might push the US and others to start looking longing to some recently proposed plans for global satellite internet.
Still, we’re a long way from any sort of outright military move for World War Three — which severing the internet backbone would be, given its importance. It’s worth noting, though, that just running the ships along a certain route has made the US Navy sit up and take notice, and it’s once again put Russia in the driver’s seat in international affairs. The US has once again shifted into wait-and-react mode — absolutely not the sort of place that the US likes to be.
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