It works to Russia's benefit when the West believes it was behind the recent damage to a gas pipeline and to communications cables running under the Baltic Sea, regardless of whether it actually was culpable, security expert Kristi Raik says.
This is because the incidents help to sow fear and engender a sense of danger – even if we only consider it a possibility that Russia was involved in the rupture of the Balticconnector pipeline, and damage to the Elisa telecoms cable, both of which run under the Gulf of Finland, and, most recently to come to light, damage to a Swedish-owned communications cable located inside Estonian waters.
Appearing on ETV panel show "Impulss" Tuesday, Raik, who is deputy director of the International Center for Defense Studies (ICDS), said: "This will serve to sow fear in Western societies, and heighten the sense of danger."
This effect was preferable to engaging NATO and the West in open conflict, Raik added.
"If we take a look at the wider strategic picture, Russia's position in the Baltic Sea is actually weaker now than it has been at any time over the past 300 years. And Russia is not happy with that state of affairs," she went on.
"Russia does not want a military conflict with NATO , so it is looking for ways to weaken NATO and break the alliance's unity, via non-military means; critical infrastructure is definitely one such area that Russia tries to influence us with."
Energy and transit expert Raivo Vare, also appearing on the show, concurred, saying: "Kristi Raik put it well when she said that it is useful for Russia that we think that it may have been behind the incident."
"This fear tactic is one of the methods and techniques used in hybrid war. And since we have also talked about Finland and Sweden joining NATO, meaning the Baltic Sea will become a NATO 'lake,' this certainly does not sit well with Russia in any way. Russia has to bare its teeth, it has to show that it can still hold sway here either in a hybrid form, or by lurking in some way, and that it can show itself and prove itself," he commented.
Both Estonian and Finnish authorities have been investigating the damage to the Balticconnector gas pipeline and to the Elisa communication cable in the Gulf of Finland, first discovered early on Sunday, October 8.
The damage to the Swedish-owned submarine cable, the site is around 50km West of Hiiumaa, is thought to have occurred around the same time, though only came to light yesterday, Tuesday.
Both incidents were followed by speculation, in the light of last year's Nord Stream gas pipeline rupture, that Russia was behind damage.
All the panelists on "Impulss" felt that cable breakages could be the result of various circumstances, adding it is right to let the authorities carry on with their job of establishing the facts of the matter.
Kristi Raik drew a parallel with the Nord Stream pipeline incident, meaning we may never know with full certainty what exactly happened there – though with Balticconnector, it at least served as another reminder that critical infrastructure can be the target of hybrid attacks, and that such things could also recur in the future.
If putting reason ahead of empiricism for a moment, Raik noted that there was one prime candidate nation when discussing culpability.
"Inevitably, we have to consider that it's really only Russia that has both the motive and the ability to create this kind of damage," she said.
"So even if we don't get to know for sure what happened there, we still have to be prepared for similar incidents also happening in future. But it is typical of hybrid attacks that they are carried out in a way where it is tough to determine who was responsible for what. That is planned in such a way to sow uncertainty and confusion in Western society, and among decision makers, as we do not have any cast-iron solid evidence, which makes our decision making more difficult," Raik said.
MP Peeter Tali (Eesti 200), who is a strategic comms expert, noted several out-of-the-ordinary incidents in this region in the recent past, adding he does not believe pure coincidence is at play.
While we're not going to be able to pin the blame directly on Vladimir Putin with regard to Balticconnector and the two communications cables, "if you look at the bigger picture, that is, our critical infrastructure, which lies under the sea, logistically speaking Estonia is like an island at the end of the world, so it is highly vulnerable."
Tali noted the recent emailed bomb threat campaign which targeted schools in Estonia and in Latvia, and the large-scale cyber attack which hit Elron last month, all coincided – which meant, in fact, that there was no coincidence at all.
Raivo Vare said that regardless of responsibility, Russia was watching the West's reactions, and closely, possibly with a view to getting a clearer picture of the various outcomes in crisis situations.
That Putin referred to the issues unprompted was demonstration also that Russia may have had a hand in the damage Vare went on.
Former naval commander Sten Sepper, also appearing on "Impulss", noted that the Balticconnector and Elisa damage happened at a time of rough seas, which could also point towards accidental damage from a vessel hastily dropping anchor.
"With the larger freighter ships, time is always money, and it is vital for them how quickly they can get their cargo into port. That said, I agree with the previous speakers that all variations are up in the air and would also give the authorities time to set things straight," Sepper said.
In any event, the panelists found that preventing all damage scenarios in the case of both pipeline and cables would have been unfeasible. This would have required constant patrols, Sten Sepper said, though Raivo Vare noted that a quicker response time could be put in place – reaction time in the recent events was about 12 hours.
An added complication, Peeter Tali noted, was that some critical infrastructure is privately owned, making it's owner, and not the state or the navy, ultimately responsible for safeguard – even as such private sector firms say they do not have the resources to do so.
Sweden's Defense Minister Pål Jonson said Tuesday that the cable between Sweden and Estonia appears to have been damaged around the same time as the Balticconnector leak earlier this month.
Investigations are ongoing.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael
Source: 'Impulss,' presenters Anna Pihl and Uljana Kuzmina.