In the Baltic Sea – home of the twisted wreckage of the Nord Stream pipelines – another pipeline was recently damaged along with telecommunications cables. Western officials are making escalatory statements and are again floating the idea of closing the “NATO lake” to Russian ships, which would likely be viewed by Moscow as an act of war. Onshore, Finland is rapidly militarizing its border with Russia. And a notable Chinese cargo ship is now at the center of the firestorm.
The Newnew Polar Bear
Over the weekend of October 8th there was an unusual drop in pressure in the Finnish-Estonian Balticconnector gas pipeline. By the morning of October 10th, an investigation had found that the pipeline had ruptured. Telecom cables linking Finland, Estonia and Sweden had also been damaged, as had a Russian telecom cable in the Gulf of Finland.
By October 20th, Finland and Estonia were pointing the finger at the Newnew Polar Bear – a Chinese vessel. The Finnish National Bureau of Investigation produced a large anchor found near the damaged pipeline, which it believes belonged to the 169-meter-long ship and likely broke off as it was dragged across the sea floor. Investigators have not explained a theory for how exactly the anchor damaged telecom cables on opposite sides of the pipeline and broke off at the Balticconector.
I haven’t been able to track down an exact distance between the Balticconnector and the telecom cables, but Finnish telecom operator Elisa told Reuters that the distance between the two was “significant.”
Nonetheless, speculation is that damaging the pipeline and cables would have been hard to do without knowing. According to Insurance Marine News:
It seemed unlikely-to-impossible that the crew could have been unaware of this incident, as the event would have slowed the ship dramatically and involuntarily. If the anchor had fallen accidentally and it had hit the gas line, it could have caused severe damage to the pipe. If the anchor had been stuck to the seabed, it would not have passed unnoticed because the speed would have slowed and the ship would have tilted.
The Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat wrote on Oct. 23rd that the Newnew Polar Bear stopped in bad weather 1.4 nautical miles from the gas pipeline for about eight minutes before continuing on.
Images of the Newnew missing an anchor were soon circulating:
Photo circulating of the NewNew Polar Bear, the ship suspected of cutting the Balticconnector gas pipeline and two communications cables with its anchor.
Everyone is looking at the (missing) anchor
— H I Sutton (@CovertShores) October 27, 2023
Newnew Shipping Co. has been silent on the matter. Meanwhile, Finland and Estonia have formally submitted a legal notice to China for cooperation as part of their ongoing investigation. Beijing has promised its full cooperation, although it’s possible China might not be too eager to assist Estonia, which is allowing Taiwan to set up a government office in Tallinn. The Estonian FM recently doubled down on that decision, declaring that the country’s goal is to cooperate “with like-minded partners, mainly our transatlantic allies.”
Accusations have already been flying of a plot by the Russians and Chinese since the Newnew sails under the Hong Kong flag and had a Northern Sea Route sailing permission issued by the General Administration of the Northern Sea Route addressed to Torgmoll, a Russian-registered company with offices in Moscow and Shanghai. While this has been treated by some as some sort of smoking gun, it’s simply because of a joint project of two Chinese companies – the international shipping line Hainan Yangpu Newnew Shipping Co and cargo agent Torgmoll. Russia’s state-owned Rosatom also provides information and navigation support for the newly established container transportation service via the Northern Sea Route between China and Russia.
Sari Arho Havren, an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL the following:
Whether this incident was intentional or not, it’s something that both Russia and China can benefit from. Even if the scale may be small, it once again diverts NATO’s attention and resources away from other global focal points.
Russia has denied any involvement and China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning recently said this on the issue:
We hope relevant parties will follow the principles of being objective, fair, just and professional and find out what happened soon. China stands ready to provide necessary assistance in accordance with international law.
Interestingly, there is much more significance to the Newnew Polar Bear than just its alleged involvement in the incident with the pipeline and communication cables. From Maritime Executive:
In another demonstration of the efforts to expand shipping along Russia’s Northern Sea Route, the Chinese-owned containership Newnew Polar Bear (15,950 dwt) became the first to reach the Russian port in Kaliningrad after a six-week passage. The governor of the Kaliningrad region Anton Alikhanov hailed the achievement on his Telegram account.
The vessel was acquired earlier this year by a new Chinese shipping company, Hainan Yangpu Newnew Shipping Co., and ushered in the route sailing from St. Petersburg at the beginning of July. She started the return trip from China in late August, reaching Kaliningrad on Tuesday and spending three days on dock. The ship registered in Hong Kong is 554 feet long with a capacity of 1,600 TEU.
She is part of the effort to expand trade between China and Russia and grow traffic along the Northern Sea Route. President Vladimir Putin has ordered the authorities overseeing the route to boost annual shipments to 80 million metric tons in 2024.
“Transport companies plan to make this logistics product permanent. It turns out cheaper and faster than through the Suez Canal,” writes Alikhanov touting the party line on his Telegram account.
So the Newnew was also a symbolic milestone for the increasing Russia-China trade via the North Sea route – part of the Arctic final frontier of the New Cold War where Russia already has an apparent advantage. Moscow says freight turnover in the Arctic Basin rose 4.4 percent in 2022 to 98.5 mln metric tons. From Reuters:
Russia is sending more crude oil produced in the Arctic region to China and India, and at steeper discounts, after Europe slammed its doors shut on Russian supplies last month, trade sources and data show.
Over many years Russia has built up its fleet of icebreakers, ships and submarines. Moscow has also developed mining and oil well operations along its 15,000 miles of Arctic coastline. The US is trying to play catch up by pouring money into existing bases in Alaska and Greenland and establishing four US military bases on Norwegian soil. But Russian economic activity in the Arctic is only expected to increase in coming years, and Moscow considers it an “area of existential importance: where it can use all components in the defense of its interests, including force.
Much of the oil and gas from the Russian arctic used to go to Europe. It’s now headed to China and India. India got its first shipment of Arctic liquefied gas last year, and the country’s energy companies are looking at investing in Russian projects there.
As Andrew Korybko points out, Finland’s efforts to manufacture crises at its Russia border could be seen as part of the West’s efforts to militarize the Arctic confrontation:
Granted, the “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) between NATO and Russia places very real limits on how much pressure can be exerted along this newfound front, but still opening it might be deemed by the bloc’s decisionmakers to be better than keeping it closed in that scenario. In other words, “where one door closes, another opens”, or to be more direct, the end of NATO’s proxy war on Russia via Ukraine could lead to the opening of a less high-stakes but still destabilizing front in Finland.
This outcome would also serve the supplementary purpose of being exploited by the Mainstream Media as the “publicly plausible” pretext for accelerating the Arctic’s militarization. This “final frontier” of the New Cold War is poised to soon be a theater of competition between the US-led West’s Golden Billion and the Sino-Russo Entente due to the Northern Sea Route’s growing role in facilitating East-West trade. Considering this, hyping up the Finnish front like NATO is already doing “kills two birds with one stone”.
The immediate fallout from the damage to the Balticconnector is minor. According to Naval News, the Finnish gas grid is still stable thanks to a massive US-owned floating LNG facility that was moored last year to replace Russian gas. The rupture of the Balticconnector does mean that Finland cannot send gas to Estonia until repairs are made, which could take a few months. The telecom cables have already been repaired.
Bigger picture, however, it will serve as a useful tool to further militarize the Baltic and Arctic.
Before the investigation into the damage of the pipeline and communications cables even settled on the Newnew Polar Bear, Baltic officials had itchy trigger fingers pointed at Russia. For example, Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs said the Baltic Sea should be closed to Russia if it is found Moscow was involved. The statement was part of the growing chorus to turn the Baltic into a new front against Russia.
A Baltic Blockade?
The tale of the Newnew Polar Bear could provide more fuel for western hardliners who keep pushing the blockade gambit. The Financial Times reported on Nov. 14 that the EU was actually considering stopping Russian oil ships to check their papers as part of a desperate attempt to enforce the ill-conceived oil price caps. Under that failed plan oil not sold under the $60-a-barrel limit cannot be covered by western insurance for its sea voyage.
Well, western officials admit that “almost none” of Russian crude exports were sold below that price point in October, and the ships are simply using non-western insurance.
Now, EU officials are saying with a straight face that the reason they must stop ships carrying Russian crude is that non-western insurance policies may not be effective in the event of an oil spill. Anonymous EU officials told the Financial Times that the task would fall to Denmark in the narrow Danish Straits and checks would be conducted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea laws permitting states to to “institute proceedings, including detention of the vessel” given “clear objective evidence” that the vessel poses a threat of environmental damage.
What of the problems with such a plan? The Financial Times notes:
But officials briefed on the proposal say it relies on the capacity of Denmark’s naval authorities to stop and check the tankers, and raises the question of what Copenhagen would do if a ship refused to stop. “Discussions appear to be centred on making life more complicated for Russia and the buyers of its oil,” said Henning Gloystein at Eurasia Group. “If you can make the bureaucracy and risk associated with trading Russian oil a lot more onerous the expectation is buyers will start to demand larger discounts again for their trouble.”
The fact that Russia would almost certainly see such efforts as an act of war goes unmentioned. Roughly 60 percent of Russia’s total seaborne oil exports pass through the Danish straits on its way to international markets, and Moscow’s updated version of the Naval Doctrine of the Russian Federation lists the Baltic Sea and and the Danish Straits as “important areas,” in which the use of force will be available as a last resort after the other options have been exhausted.
After the FT report based on info from unnamed EU officials, Reuters shot it down with other anonymous EU officials saying that there was no such plan in the European Commission’s proposal for tightening the implementation of a price cap on Russia’s crude oil, noting the following:
Three maritime experts said blocking commercial vessels in the Danish straits would be contrary to fundamental rules of the sea, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs marine traffic.
Denmark would only have the right to stop a vessel if it posed an obvious threat, they said.
“Denmark has never done anything like that before. Blocking commercial traffic in the Danish straits would come close to a declaration of war,” said Hans Peter Michaelsen, an independent defense analyst.
It’s possible that disagreement over the ship inspection gambit is one of the reasons behind the delay in the European Commission’s delay on its 12th sanctions package. It’s also possible that the FT report was just another in a long line of trial balloons on the possibility of upping the ante in the Baltic.
Estonia, which has a population smaller than Russia’s armed forces, is making noise about causing problems in the Gulf of Finland with Estonian Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur recently talking about how Helsinki and Tallinn will integrate their coastal missile defense, which he says would allow the countries to close the Gulf of Finland to Russian warships if necessary. Early this year Estonia was also proposing closing the Gulf of Finland to Russia – effectively blockading Saint Petersburg.
The fact that western governments continue to go back to these ideas increases the odds that at some point they’re going to try something along these lines.
They’re already well on their way to implementing The Center for Strategic and International Studies plan for NATO near-term actions in the Baltic:
Bring Sweden and Finland into NATO. The ratification of these two nations needs to move forward without delay. Elevating them from strong partners to alliance members changes the calculus of a Baltic conflict significantly. The alliance can immediately leverage these two nations to increase strategic depth.
Forward stage capabilities. Mines, anti-submarine capabilities, missile defense, and secure supply and logistics infrastructure should be forward staged across all domains, increasing deterrence.
Increase patrol. A whole-of-government approach from each Baltic nation and its allies is needed to ensure that energy, communications, and sea routes remain secure. This includes Baltic Air Policing, readiness to shift the balance of A2/AD, and the monitoring and protection of maritime infrastructure.
Strengthen command and control. Existing multi-domain command and control should be tested and ready for use. The need for effective command and control will be swift and will require resilient disaggregated nodes, though an eye should also be kept on future capability.
Taken altogether, it’s clear that despite the waning support for Project Ukraine, there will be no winding down of the confrontation between Europe and Russia, and the Baltic is one potential spot for tensions to rise considerably. The Caucasus and Central Asia are other hot spots, as is the Black Sea where attempts continue to sabotage the TurkStream pipeline that transports gas from Russia to Turkiye and onwards to southeastern Europe.
Upon the announcement that Finland and Sweden would join NATO, former Secretary General of the military bloc Anders Fogh Rasmussen proclaimed it was a strategic victory because “If we wish, we can block all entry and exit to Russia through St. Petersburg”.
The caveat to Rasmussen’s pronouncement is that such an effort could very well lead to open war. Is the West crazy enough to try?