Balticconnector case more sabotage than an accident - Chinese cargo ship suspected

The damage to the Balticconnector gas pipeline and submarine communication cable in October caused a great deal of alarm, but four months later, little is known. ERR, together with experts, decided to take another look at the facts: What really happened to our critical infrastructure? The experts said that if it was an accident, it was an astonishing accident.

The Maritime Administration and the Navy confirm that the Hong Kong-flagged Newnew Polar Bear, owned by a Chinese company, entered Estonian waters at 5:18 p.m. on October 7, when one of the strongest tidal storms of the season was breaking trees and blowing off roofs on land, but the 169-meter container ship was visibly unaffected. The ship reported to the control center as usual, and everything seemed normal.

“It was reported to us when the vessel entered our area of responsibility from the west, and all relevant information was relayed. We have not been in communication with the ship since then,” said the director of the maritime safety service of the Transport Administration. Saska said that there was no particular reason to pay special attention to the ship.

But even without the dramatic events that followed, the voyage of the cargo ship was remarkable. In fact, it was the first round-trip voyage of a cargo ship on the route linking the European part of Russia with China via the Arctic Sea Route.

Alexander Lott, a researcher at the Norwegian Center for the Law of the Sea, and Michael Delaunay, an undersea infrastructures expert at the French Maritime Academy, both said that, on the one hand, climate change has made the Northern Sea Route (NSR) easier to navigate, and on the other, Russia requires new trade links with Asia in light of the sanctions imposed as a result of the Ukraine war.

That is why the launch of the Newnew Polar Bear from St Petersburg in the summer and return in the autumn was widely covered by nautical portals. There has been conjecture as to whether the Chinese or Russians are behind his company’s complicated ownership structure, but researchers believe it doesn’t matter because everything is already under Russian control. The New New Polar Bear was granted permission to sail the Northern Sea Route by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, and it was accompanied in the Arctic by the 260-metre nuclear-powered icebreaker Sevmorput, which is also owned by Rosatom.

The ships that had made the long journey arrived in the Gulf of Finland about midnight on October 7, more or less together, moving in the EEZ, or outside territorial seas. Sevmorput, a Russian nuclear-powered cargo ship, arrived first at 1:12 a.m., followed by the Newnew Polar Bear around eight minutes later, and the gas pipeline saw a rapid reduction in pressure.

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The ERR requested that a decrypted Vessel Traffic Control screen recording from that evening be released. This is the exact visual that the operators saw. The recording has been sped up for clarity, but it shows the Hong Kong and Russian ships going more or less simultaneously. The cargo ship leads, followed by the icebreaker, which crosses the Balticconnector. The Newnew Polar Bear maintained a steady speed of 11 knots, or 20 kilometers per hour, but if you look attentively, directly over the Balticconnector, around 1:21 a.m., the speed plummeted to 6 knots, or roughly half.

Delaunay, who specializes in underwater infrastructure at the French Maritime Academy, believes there could be two causes. First, technically test how to destroy the cables. “The ability to sever connections is very important if you are planning or want to prepare for a possible war.” As a second motivation, he mentioned sending a message to NATO countries in the region.

“Are we really prepared that on the eve of war, some cargo ship with a Russian special unit, which is trained for such operations, will target not two submarine cables, but all five?” Lott asked.

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