US concerned by Russian presence near undersea Internet cables

Internal debate in Washington illustrates how US is increasingly viewing every Russian move through a lens of deep distrust

Washington: Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications, raising concerns among some US military and intelligence officials that the Russians might be planning to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict.

The issue goes beyond old worries during the Cold War that the Russians would tap into the cables—a task US intelligence agencies also mastered decades ago. The alarm today is deeper: the ultimate Russian hack on the US could involve severing the fibre-optic cables at some of their hardest-to-access locations to halt the instant communications on which the west’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent.

While there is no evidence yet of any cable cutting, the concern is part of a growing wariness among senior US and allied military and intelligence officials over the accelerated activity by Russian armed forces around the globe. At the same time, the internal debate in Washington illustrates how the US is increasingly viewing every Russian move through a lens of deep distrust, reminiscent of relations during the Cold War.

Inside the Pentagon and the nation’s spy agencies, the assessments of Russia’s growing naval activities are highly classified and not publicly discussed in detail. US officials are secretive about what they are doing both to monitor the activity and to find ways to recover quickly if cables are cut.

But more than a dozen officials confirmed in broad terms that it had become the source of significant attention in the Pentagon.

“I’m worried every day about what the Russians may be doing," said rear admiral Frederick J. Roegge, commander of the US Navy’s submarine fleet in the Pacific Ocean, who would not answer questions about possible Russian plans for cutting the undersea cables.

Commander William Marks, a Navy spokesman in Washington, said, “It would be a concern to hear any country was tampering with the communication cables; however, due to the classified nature of submarine operations, we do not discuss specifics."

In private, however, the commanders and intelligence officials are far more direct. They report that from the North Sea to Northeast Asia and even in waters closer to US shores, they are monitoring significantly increased Russian activity along the known routes of the cables, which carry the lifeblood of global electronic communications and commerce.

Just last month, the Russian spy ship Yantar, equipped with two self-propelled deep-sea submersible craft, cruised slowly off the east coast of the US on its way to Cuba, where one major cable lands near the US naval station at Guantánamo Bay. It was monitored constantly by US spy satellites, ships and planes.

Navy officials said the Yantar and the submersible vehicles it can drop off its decks have the capability to cut cables miles down in the sea.

“The level of activity,’’ a senior European diplomat said, ‘‘is comparable to what we saw in the Cold War."

One Nato ally, Norway, is so concerned that it has asked its neighbours for aid in tracking Russian submarines. ©2015/The New York Times