I'm not surprised by the warning from Britain's top military officer, given on Thursday, that Russia poses a growing threat to undersea communication cables between Europe and the U.S.
According to Stuart Peach, Britain's equivalent to the chairman of the joint chiefs, Russia is developing new means with which to disrupt "sea lines of communication" and thus "catastrophically effect both our economy and other ways of living." There are two parts to this emerging capability: Russia "continues to perfect both unconventional capabilities and information warfare" techniques and Russian President Vladimir Putin has a "higher risk appetite" (Peach is definitely correct about the risk appetite) than before.
And seeing as Thursday's warning came from the uniformed head of the British military, it is likely based on confident intelligence assessments of Russian intents and actions rather than a hunch. Indeed, the British security establishment is normally loathe to make big statements on emerging threats.
Yet Russia's interest in cutting undersea cables is not surprising.
For a start, in any slow rolling escalation with NATO, cutting undersea cables would allow Putin to disrupt European civilian economic and social well-being. While Russia has long sought to divide Europe from the U.S., Putin probably believes that cutting cables might encourage European populations to push their politicians to compromise to Russian demands.
Dangling the threat of impending nuclear war alongside the immediate consequences of cut cables, Putin would realistically hope to win the fight before it even began.
Cutting the cables and thus separating Western Europe from the United States would also make sense were Russia to launch a conventional invasion against the Baltic states or Poland. While such a scenario is unlikely, Russian forces recently trained for an invasion of Poland so the threat cannot be entirely discounted.
Still, while much of the NATO force complement is underfunded, undertrained, and insufficiently capable, Russia continues to fear the U.S. military. Assuming adequate American political will, Putin knows the U.S. military would eventually push back any Russian invasion. More specifically, the KGB colonel knows that the moment a large-scale deployment of U.S. fighter and bomber squadrons became operational in Europe, Russia's offensive potential would be seriously degraded. The moment a large-scale deployment of U.S. armored brigades touched down in Europe, although that would take weeks, the game would be over.
Correspondingly, Russia's best opportunity to seize territory and retain it under any cease-fire deal would be to achieve territorial dominance before the U.S. military could mobilize in response. Put simply, Russia would have to advance so rapidly into the Baltic states or Poland that NATO's broader resolve collapses. The objective would be to achieve rapid strategic effect amidst looming inferiority.
It might seem infeasible, but considering NATO's lethargic political command and control apparatus, Russian aspirations of victory are not unrealistic.
It's not all bad news, however.
If anything, Russia's target planning against undersea cables is a sign that Putin would not resort to nuclear war in the event of conflict. After all, there's very little point in destroying cables if the city they serve is already rubble.