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Adviser: Force cannot be used to protect international waters' infrastructure

SNMG1 ships visiting Tallinn.
SNMG1 ships visiting Tallinn. Source: Aleksander Espenberg

Twenty Allied warships will conduct patrols of the Baltic Sea to deter threats to underwater infrastructure during the first half of December. However, the use of force to defend infrastructure in international waters is against the law, according to "Uudis+" with Markus Holst, an adviser to the Ministry of Defense.

It was announced on Tuesday that about 20 warships, in addition to patrol aircraft and helicopters, will patrol for underwater infrastructure in the Baltic Sea. Six countries comprising the joint expeditionary force (JEF) will be in charge of the operation, one of which is Estonia. The monitoring will continue through December 15.

According to Holst, this allows for a speedy response should the need arise. "These can be humanitarian disasters, in fact, up to the point of conventional warfare, but the primary objective is to respond before the NATO Article 5 threshold has been crossed," he said.

Holst said that in addition to the Baltic Sea countries' ships, a British frigate will monitor the area, providing additional protection to Estonian and Finnish ships. "It is a larger naval vessel than Estonia's two small patrol ships and the presence of such a larger ship is more daunting than only having Estonia police the seas with its own resources, same goes for Finland," he said.

Holst said that only deterrence may be used in international waters, including the area where the New Polar Bear was operating (where it likely severed a gas pipeline and communication cables), since direct coercion aboard a vessel is impossible.

"The primary objective is to enhance deterrence. If you have ships constantly monitoring in the path of underwater critical infrastructure or cables, that alone is a signal to foreign vessels that there is no point in trying to take any action that is detrimental to our interests," Holst said.

Protecting the entire undersea infrastructure in the Baltic Sea is difficult, as the whole area is divided into two areas of activity, one in the eastern part of the Baltic Sea and the other more towards Sweden, he said.

"The Danish Straits and the North Sea are included as well. They can cover a large area collectively, and, in addition to ships, there are patrol planes that can move considerably faster than ships and have a better field of vision," he said.

"The incidents concerning the gas pipeline and cables happened in early October, as is widely known," he went on to say.

"It is not that we could not have started sooner, one of the reasons is that NATO was active in the immediate aftermath of these incidents in the Baltic. The second reason is that the first time things may not go as fast as they could, but I think it will get faster," Holst said.

From December 1 to 15, the Joint Expeditionary Force will operate in the Baltic Sea. The British frigate arrives on December 4. Holst said this exercise may be repeated and several countries have already indicated interest.

"Countries have already made preparations for the possibility of similar activities in the future," he said.

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Editor: Marko Tooming, Kristina Kersa

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