Can Putin turn off the Internet?

It’s easy to imagine the Internet as an ethereal and immaterial phenomenon. We spend our days connecting to wireless networks and storing our data in the cloud assuming our information is safe as it flows from one part of the world to another.

Unfortunately, most of these perceptions are wrong. The global network on which we depend so much is physically alarming and eminently vulnerable. According to Marshal Edward Stringer, former Director of Operations at the UK Ministry of Defence, 95% of all international data traffic passes through a small number of submarine cables. There were talks of around 200 cables, each the thickness of a garden hose and capable of transferring around 200 terabytes per second.

This very physical network processes approximately $10 trillion in financial transactions every day. As Stringer explains, Russia has invested heavily in systems capable of attacking this network of submarine cables over the past 20 years. The Kremlin today has a fleet of sophisticated unmanned submarines designed specifically for this purpose. So does China. A large and furious escalation of Russia’s armed conflicts could include an attack on submarine cable systems.

This is not a hypothetical threat. As recently as October 2022, an undersea cable linking the Shetland Islands to the rest of the world was severed in two places. A few days earlier, a Russian scientific research vessel had been detected in the area. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to prove that Russia cut the cord. Most of the time, in fact, the disservices are due to accidents with fishing boats or seismic events on the seabed. Even so, the coincidence greatly concerned the security agencies of the Western powers, which perceived the incident as a warning from the Kremlin. Another notable event was the decision taken in February 2023 by China’s two largest telecommunications companies to withdraw from the international consortium that is developing an 11,930-mile (19,200-kilometer) submarine cable network linking Southwest Asia and Western Europe.

The impacts of a coordinated attack on these submarine cables would be incalculable. Such an attack would cripple global trade, banking and finance, telecommuting, not to mention the technology and communications industries as a whole, and likely trigger an instant global recession. But the impacts would go far beyond that. Supply chains in the 21st century depend on the constant transfer of data to coordinate the delivery of goods and supplies. Interruption of this flow of data would cause a domino effect of delays and failures, which would limit the economic, political and even cultural integration of different geographical areas.

Furthermore, the financial and economic crisis that this attack would precipitate would not even be the biggest problem. Severing the cables of rival powers would lead to an unmanageable crisis, especially if responsibility were placed on a specific state actor, which could provoke conflicts and reconfigure alliances. Countries that rely heavily on digital infrastructure would be most affected, while those with autonomous technology and communication capabilities would gain strategic advantages.

Such scenarios shouldn’t be ignored, especially since anarchy reigns on the high seas. Existing international treaties do not satisfactorily cover the case of submarine cables. This is emblematic of a global system which, while of paramount public importance, is not adequately protected either physically or legally. Until now, maritime powers have refrained from attacking submarine infrastructure on a large scale. This is because attacking an opponent’s submarine cables and connections would result in costly retaliation. But the current equilibrium is unstable and inherently susceptible to upheavals that could destabilize the world system overnight.

When we imagine events that could trigger an escalation between the West and its rivals, we tend to forget this reality. Much like the blood in the body, contemporary societies cannot function without data flowing through the Internet, which currently flows through an infrastructure that is extremely difficult to defend.

West’s sense of invulnerability is illusory and his rivals understand that infrastructure bottlenecks such as undersea cables are his Achilles heel. This reality underlines the need to maintain minimally functional relations on the international scene.

Interdependence between countries is not just a concept used by diplomats. It is a reality that defines the world today. This is a world where problems, risks and threats are becoming increasingly international while government responses remain predominantly national. There are problems that no country can solve on its own. The need to coordinate our actions and collectively respond to threats is a challenge the world is not ready for.

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