EU plans Black Sea Internet cable to reduce dependence on Russia

Maps showing the proposed Black Sea cable which aims to reduce the EU's dependence on cables crossing Russia

The EU is planning an undersea internet cable to improve connectivity with Georgia and reduce dependency on lines running through Russia amid growing concerns over vulnerabilities in the infrastructure that transmits global data.

The €45m cable will connect EU member states to the Caucasus via the international waters of the Black Sea, over a length of 1,100km. The project aims to reduce regions’ dependence on terrestrial fiber optic connectivity transiting through Russia, the European Commission said in a policy paper.

The EU and Georgia jointly identified the need for the Black Sea Internet Cable in 2021 to improve Georgia’s digital connectivity. However, the war in Ukraine has added impetus to the project given the need to avoid relying on connections that are not secure or stable, said a person familiar with the proposal.

Internet cables have come under scrutiny due to global concerns about espionage, as land lines and stations where undersea cables run ashore are seen as vulnerable to interception by governments, hackers and thieves.

Concerns about the intentional sabotage of undersea cables and other maritime infrastructure have also increased after the multiple explosions on the Nord Stream gas pipelines last September, which the media recently linked to Russian vessels. Two cables off the coast of Norway were cut in 2021 and 2022, sparking concerns about malicious attacks.

Maps showing the proposed Black Sea cable which aims to reduce the EU's dependence on cables crossing Russia

Reinhard Btikofer, MEP and chairman of the European parliament’s delegation to China, said Russia had signaled its readiness to target sensitive infrastructure.

From a Russian point of view, targeting infrastructure projects would be an option for a regime that absolutely disregards international law if they want to inflict harm on the European Union, he said.

Approximately 99% of transcontinental Internet traffic data, messages, emails and video calls are transmitted via more than 400 active submarine cables extending for 1.4 million km. Underground terrestrial cables also carry data internationally.

Russia is one of multiple routes by which data packets move between Asia and Europe and is integral to connectivity in parts of Asia and the Caucasus, which has sparked concern from some politicians over an excessive dependence on the nation for connectivity.

David McAllister, MEP and chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the Black Sea cable was a flagship project and a regional priority for the bloc, given that without [internet cables] there would be no video conferences, no research cooperation and no Netflix and even the Russians know that.

Questions remain about the project’s feasibility and timing, particularly as Russia continues to use its warships in the Black Sea to launch missiles at Ukraine and had blocked ports last year.

Global tensions over physical infrastructure are not limited to concerns over Russia. China has begun blocking plans to lay and maintain submarine Internet cables across the South China Sea as Beijing seeks to assert greater control over the infrastructure. Insiders say several countries have become more defensive of their territorial waters.

Taiwanese authorities recently accused Chinese fishing and cargo vessels of disrupting two Internet cables linking the main island of Taiwan to one of its smaller islands. Most cable damage is accidental and usually caused by fishing tackle or anchors.

Map showing that Russia is a vital route for connections between Europe and Asia

The Black Sea cable project is part of the European Commission’s Global Gateway initiative. It aims to offer developing countries an alternative to Beijing’s wide-ranging strategic funding for physical and digital infrastructure around the world, known as the Belt and Road Initiative and Digital Silk Road Initiative, respectively. The European Investment Bank has proposed a grant of 20 million for the Black Sea cable project.

A commission spokesman said improving data connections with the EU was a top priority for Georgia and that the blocks’ investment in the cable project was in line with the goals of the Global Gateway strategy.

The project is currently under feasibility assessment and the tender is not currently open.

Vodafone is also exploring the possibility of developing a cable route across the Black Sea, according to two people familiar with the plan. The project, called Kardessa, would connect Ukraine to Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia and then continue overland to Armenia, Kazakhstan and then on to Asia.

It needs as many routes as possible to key points of vulnerability, said a person familiar with the project, about which Vodafone is currently consulting with potential suppliers. Russia is because of the current political situation. Vodafone declined to comment.

There are some major internet arteries running through Russia. For example, the so-called Dream cable runs 8,700 km through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and China and is majority owned by the Russian operator MegaFon. Another, called Europe-Russia-Asia, sends data between Hong Kong and Frankfurt via Russia in about 156 milliseconds.

Kaan Terziolu, chief executive of Netherlands-based telecommunications group Veon, which is selling its Russian assets, said terrestrial networks across Russia are an important conduit for international connectivity to Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. Relying on a single terrestrial network is never a good idea, he said.

The EU is also planning a separate power cable under the Black Sea as part of the Global Gateway programme, which will connect Hungary and Romania to Georgia and Azerbaijan, to boost the bloc’s security of supply.

Maps by Chris Campbell

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