Russia Says Baltic Telecoms Cable Was Damaged Just Before Nearby Gas Pipeline

By Mark Trevelyan | November 7, 2023

A Russian fiber optic cable under the Baltic Sea was damaged last month only 28 km (17 miles) from where a gas pipeline linking Finland and Estonia was ruptured a couple of hours later.

The details emerged in a statement on Tuesday from Russian state company Rostelecom, which publicly acknowledged the damage to its cable for the first time.

Rostelecom called it an “accident” but did not specify the cause. However, it noted the proximity in time and distance to the Balticconnector gas pipeline, which Finnish investigators suspect was damaged by a Chinese container ship dragging its anchor along the seabed.

The Russian company said the damage to its cable was recorded at 2330 Moscow time (2030 GMT) on Oct. 7.

“The site of the cable damage is located 28 km from the section of the Baltic Connector gas pipeline damaged on October 8,” it said.

Two other Baltic telecoms cables, connecting Estonia to Finland and Sweden, were also damaged on Oct. 7 and 8, local time. Estonia has said those incidents were “related” to the Balticconnector outage.

Security of sub-sea cables and pipelines in the Baltic has become a top concern against the background of the Ukraine war, especially since Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipelines were blown up in an act of sabotage last year. Investigators have yet to establish who was responsible.

Data from shipping intelligence firm MarineTraffic, reviewed by Reuters, showed that the Chinese container ship NewNew Polar Bear passed over the Swedish-Estonian telecoms cable at 1513 GMT on Oct. 7, then over the Russian cable at around 2020 GMT, the Balticconnector at 2220 GMT and the Finland-Estonia telecoms line at 2349 GMT.

Finnish police leading the pipeline investigation have named the Hong Kong-flagged vessel as the prime suspect in damaging the Balticconnector. A large anchor was found nearby, and the investigators believe the pipe was broken as a ship dragged it across the sea bed.

Rostelecom and the Russian communications ministry did not immediately respond to emails from Reuters asking whether Moscow was investigating the damage to its cable and whether the Chinese ship could have been responsible.

As far back as Oct. 13, President Vladimir Putin dismissed as “complete rubbish” suggestions that Russia might have been to blame for the Balticconnector damage and floated the possibility that a ship’s anchor could have caused it.

Finnish police announced on Oct. 24 that they had found an anchor near the broken pipeline. They have not concluded whether the damage was caused accidentally or deliberately.

Operator Gasgrid has said the pipeline could be out of commission until April or longer.

China has said it is willing to provide necessary information in accordance with international law. NewNew Shipping, the owner and operator of the NewNew Polar Bear, has previously declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

Rostelecom said a specialized vessel had started repairs on the fiber optic cable on Sunday and that the work was expected to take 10 days, depending on weather conditions.

The cable runs from St Petersburg to Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. The company said users had not been affected because data was transmitted via terrestrial routes and backup satellite channels.

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