As war rages in Ukraine both on land and in the air, concerns are growing about a Russian threat that is far less visible – but could be far more dangerous to the West.
In recent years Moscow has produced a number of submarines capable of reaching the most critical targets in the US or continental Europe, and now NATO members are increasingly sounding the alarm about the activities of Vladimir’s submarine fleet Putin.
The Russian Navy commands one of the most diverse submarine fleets in the world. Some are capable of carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, which Moscow sees as key to its strategic deterrence.
Experts also say that in the unlikely event of war, the Russian fleet will be used as one of the tools in the country’s escalation management toolkit. In other words, the threat posed by Moscow’s conventionally-armed submarines will allow it to deter Western adversaries from bringing their advantages into play in other areas.
Russia has been working to improve its submarine fleet since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin said in December the country would build more nuclear-powered submarines “which will ensure Russia’s security for decades to come.”
Last week Alexei Rakhmanov, head of the Saint Petersburg-based United Shipbuilding Corporation, said the Russian Navy would be replenished with two new nuclear submarines by the end of the year.
There are growing fears among NATO members that Putin could use his fleet to attack undersea cables and critical infrastructure vital to global communications systems.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Jan. 20 he wanted his country to gain “a seabed patrol capacity” down to a depth of 19,600 feet to protect “critical underwater infrastructure.”
Russia sees its economic future, national security and ability to influence other nations in the context of its strength at sea, according to the Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI), which conducts research on Russian military and economic issues related to the world’s oceans .
Michael Peterson, RMSI director, narrated news week that potential attacks on critical underwater infrastructure around the world pose a “legitimate and serious threat”.
“Russia has been developing very significant seabed warfare capabilities for at least a decade. Most of these are based in the so-called GUGI, which is Russia’s main directorate for deep-sea research,” he said.
Peterson said the organization reports to the Russian Defense Ministry and relies on Russian naval personnel to deploy with its ships and submarines.
“These people who are being pulled from the Russian Navy are the crème de la crème, the absolute best seamen the Russian Navy has. And that’s because the mission is so dangerous and so complex and so critical to Russian security,” Peterson said.
The organization has a number of assets, including a submarine called the Belgorod that can launch a nuclear-powered torpedo.
“Some other submarines are capable of attaching either listening devices or explosives to things like undersea cables. If there are ways to tap information in those cables, they can do that, if they want, they can put sensors on the ocean floor,” Peterson said.
“There are all kinds of abilities that this directorate have that allow them to either engage in espionage, conduct escalation management activities, or simply wage a war and impose costs on the opponent.”
“You can imagine what would happen if the transatlantic internet cables were cut by the Russians – it would have a huge financial impact and would also severely limit communications between the United States and continental Europe. Those skills are pretty significant,” added Peterson.
Admiral Tony Radakin, the chief of the British armed forces, said last year The times from London that undersea cables carrying internet data are “the true information system of the world” and that this could be seen as an “act of war” should Russia try to damage them.
“This is a relatively new activity,” Peterson said. “It’s one of the areas where Russia believes it has an advantage.”
Undersea cables, particularly undersea fiber optic cables, are critical pieces of fixed infrastructure that are extremely difficult to defend, he explained.
“Because they are capable of waging advanced deep-sea warfare, this is an asymmetric advantage for Russia.”
Russia is always trying to “exploit asymmetries,” he said. “If you have a piece of fixed infrastructure that is very difficult to defend that Russia can attack, then they will pursue it.
“So this has become a really important piece of potential real estate in a future conflict between Russia and NATO. This is a way for Russia to impose costs in an asymmetric way. And that is very difficult for NATO to defend.”
“It’s a fundamental part of Russian warfare, it’s this ability to impose costs on your opponent to undermine the political will to fight.”
Njord Wegge, a professor at the Norwegian Defense University College and a co-author of The Russian Arctic Threat, a report published by the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said news week that Norway has significantly increased its patrols in the North Sea.