A communications cable in the Baltic Sea running between Sweden and Estonia appears to have been damaged around the same time as the Balticconnector leak earlier this month, said Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson on Tuesday. Estonian officials urged the public not to worry and said investigations are ongoing.
The cable was partially damaged and could still be used, ministers told a press conference in Stockholm. The damage did not occur in Swedish territorial waters, Jonson said.
Minister for Civil Defence Carl-Oscar Bohlin said the Swedish authorities are cooperating with Estonia and Finland.
"We can't say at the moment what caused this damage," Bohlin told a press conference. "But what we can say is that this damage has happened at a similar time and in physical proximity ... to the damage that was previously reported to a gas pipeline between Estonia and Finland and a telecommunications cable between Estonia and Finland."
The 77-km Balticconnector gas pipeline between Estonia and Finland experienced a sudden loss of pressure on October 8. It is currently being investigated as sabotage.
A damaged communication cable in Estonia's exclusive economic zone is also being investigated.
This is the third cable or pipeline with reported damage.
Ministry: No reason to associate failure with other cables
A statement from the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications on Tuesday evening said it and the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority received information about the cable and a drop in capacity on October 11.
The cable, which belongs to a Swedish company, is located in Estonian territorial waters approximately 50 km off the coast of the island of Hiiumaa in the direction of Sweden.
Maximum capacity was restored within a few days and did not affect communication, the ministry said.
"According to preliminary information, there has been no reason to link the failure of the Estonian-Swedish cable to other cables," it said in a statement.
"Similar minor failures have occurred on this cable in the past. Today it is also not yet known what caused the loss of capacity on the cable. The owner of the cable is in the process of repairing it, which will also involve a joint investigation between Estonia, Finland, and Sweden to determine what may have caused the problem and whether it could be linked to the Estonian-Finnish communication cable and gas pipeline failures."
Defense minister: Cause of cable failure still needs to be clarified
The exact reason for the failure of the cable between Sweden and Estonia still needs to be clarified, said Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) on Tuesday evening.
"The scale of this failure was quite small and, as the operators also said, the failure was corrected. It needs to be clarified what exactly was the nature of the failure and whether it is also related to the Estonian-Finnish [communications] cable and [gas] pipeline failure," said Pevkur.
He said, from the point of view of defense, there is no threat.
"Cable owners, and on our side, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications and the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA), are watching this closely. At least at the moment, we don't have it on a very big radar from a defense point of view. Let's let the operators and the TTJA finish their work," the minister said.
President: Cable damage tests our ability to deal with crises
Commenting on the news, President Alar Karis said the damage to Balticconnector and undersea cables in the Baltic Sea raises concerning questions, but there is no need for excessive worry.
"Let's now let the experts determine whether this is intentional or unintentional damage, and then we can draw conclusions," he said after meeting with the heads of the defense forces and security agencies.
"These meetings reassured me that all our relevant services are doing their job thoroughly and will sooner or later find out exactly what happened and who or what is to blame," the head of state added. "Estonia has diversified critical connections and plans are also being agreed between Estonia and allies to further improve security."
Karis said last week, after the Balticconnector news broke while he was on an official visit to South Korea, he discussed the issue with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Latvian President Edgars Rinkevičs.
"Damage to communication cables is not a new issue in itself, but the recent Balticconnector incident puts the security of undersea connections in a wider and new context. The debate on whether and how such infrastructure can be protected against intentional and unintentional damage is fully justified," Karis said.
"However, it is clear that such incidents test our capacity to deal with different crises. Including with hybrid crises. In Estonia, the revelation of the undersea damage coincided with bomb threat emails that affected many children, teachers, parents. In these cases, it is important that the competent national authorities quickly provide clear instructions on how to act in such situations. Then there will be no confusion as to what is the right and wrong thing to do," the president said.
Former foreign minister: Hostile actor cannot yet be ruled out
Isamaa chairman and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu said it cannot be ruled out that the damage was caused by a hostile actor, for example, Russia.
"Things are not very good, because surely any sane person would put these things in some kind of context in time when they are so close together," he told TV show "Ringvaade".
At this stage, he said official sources do not indicate that the damage was deliberate.
Asked if Russian aggression can be taken off the table, the chairman said it certainly can not be.
"It certainly cannot be said that way. Just as with Balticconnector, the assumption is still rather the case that, until proven otherwise, in such a war situation there could be an act of terrorism by a hostile state or its agent behind it. So the security of our infrastructure, our subsea infrastructure, is of the utmost importance and we must have alternatives in place," said Reinsalu.
Estonia should expand its controlled maritime area, the said.
"One very fundamental thing must be that we must extend our sovereign territory both to the west and to the Gulf of Finland, in the form of a so-called "controlled maritime area". I made proposals to this effect to the government as early as January, and I have now called for them to be enacted without delay," said Reinsalu.
Foreign minister: Notifying EU, NATO of developments
Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200) said submarine infrastructure vulnerability needs to be discussed with Allies.
He said Estonia is working with Sweden to identify the "malfunction" and any potential connections to Balticconnector.
"We are notifying our Allies in NATO and partners in the European Union of developments; we have raised our general vigilance and that of our Allies around what is happening in the Baltic Sea. These cases demonstrate the vulnerability of submarine infrastructure and the need to address infrastructure security thoroughly with Allies," he said in a statement issued on Wednesday morning.
This article was updated to add comments from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, President Alar Karis, Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Isamaa Chairman Urmas Reinsalu, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna.
Editor: Mark Gerassimenko, Merili Nael, Johannes Voltri, Helen Wright