UE and G7, Submarine Cables as a Strategic Asset for Network Security

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has highlighted the urgency of also controlling energy and data transport infrastructure. The projects of the EU, Australia, India, and Japan for the creation of autonomous submarine connections are the first step towards securing internet networks. However, the real issues remain the control of transport and Internet governance, as stated by Andrea Monti, adjunct professor of Digital Law in the master’s degree program in Digital Marketing at the University of Chieti-Pescara – Initially published in Italian by Formiche.net.

The Global Gateway Strategy is a project of the European Commission that, among other initiatives, plans to lay a submarine cable through the Black Sea to Georgia. Started in 2021, the project recently climbed to the top of the Union’s geopolitical priorities as a way to “reduce the region’s dependence on fiber optic connectivity that passes through Russia,” as noted in a Financial Times article on May 12, 2023. Simultaneously, on May 20, 2023, during the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, the presidents of Japan, Australia, India, and the United States also announced a renewed interest in enhancing submarine cables crossing the waters of the Indo-Pacific. The goal, not explicitly stated but quite apparent, is similar to the European one: creating alternatives to routing data that circulates on internet networks, thereby avoiding dependence on specific countries. However, the strategic implications of the two projects can be much more complex than simply achieving “resilience” of communications enabled by physical line redundancy.

Isolating Networks as a Security Measure

The most immediate scenario is the differentiation of traffic routes to increase the passive security of infrastructure. In this hypothesis, certain infrastructures become accessible exclusively through routing that does not pass through networks considered insecure. A whitelisting system like this (already possible now) would reduce the exposure of allied infrastructure, making them “invisible” to the rest of the systems connected to the Big Internet. However, the trade-off of such a choice would be the loss of visibility into the actions of counterparts. On one hand, the combination of physical transport and traffic routing reduces the risk of access by unauthorized parties, thus increasing overall perimeter security. On the other hand, it hampers a range of informational activities and unattributable actions that are currently covered by the “background noise” of global network traffic.

The Role of a Checkpoint System

A definitive isolation of Western networks would be, at least for now, impossible, primarily due to the economic and industrial dependence induced by globalization. However, it would not be unthinkable to conceive the creation of a patrolled perimeter, a sort of border, with a limited number of checkpoints through which information is exchanged with countries outside the Western alliance or with whom diplomatic relations are less than ideal. Alongside this, a public network should be established, physically separated from the one currently in operation, on which critical infrastructure, services, and essential functions can be hosted.

Geopolitical Use of “Connection Concessions”

A strategy based on deglobalizing transport networks would also allow for expanding the possibilities of influencing choices made by developing countries that, nevertheless, have a critical role on the international chessboard. Adhering to the policies of the Western alliance could become the prerequisite for accessing resources and tools such as procurement systems, financial, banking, and logistics systems that would otherwise be unreachable, in a sort of reverse Silk Road.

On another note, it is necessary to consider that in the case of kinetic escalation, the submarine cables of both sides would become “potential” targets. When data transport is ensured through alternative infrastructure and traffic is selectively routed, those resources that were previously inherently non-aggressive because they were necessary for all parties now become potential recipients of (bilateral) sabotage actions, as exemplified by the attack on the Nord Stream gas pipeline.

Control of Internet Governance

The ultimate evolution of a strategy aimed at building the Western equivalent of a Great Wall for defensive purposes would be to take definitive control of Internet Governance. This refers to the intricate system of regulating the use of IP addresses and domain names that is currently not under direct control of executives and operates independently from the political choices of governments.

The criticality of the role played by the structures that control the functioning of the Big Internet became evident on March 3, 2022, when the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister asked RIPE NCC and ICANN to revoke the right to use IP addresses and the top-level domain .ru in order to globally isolate the Russian Federation from the rest of the world. The request was rejected not based on a political evaluation by the interested governments but on the positions of those responsible for these structures, who made a decision of particular strategic relevance entirely autonomously. It is clear that a comprehensive re-thinking is now necessary of how resources such as domain names and IP addresses are managed if the goal, for which the laying of submarine cables is a necessary but not sufficient element, is to be achieved.

The End of the Narrative on the “Cyberspace”

So far, the analysis has focused on considerations related to the possible tactical consequences of strategic choices, but recent news suggests a broader assessment on the consequences of uncritically adopting the narrative based on the “cyberspace.”

The realization by the US and the EU (or the end of turning a blind eye) that they can control the traffic flowing through telecommunications networks marks the end of the fanciful narrative of the “virtual space” imaginatively theorized by John Perry Barlow in his 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

The political statements, economic choices, and strategic doctrines based on the absence of digital borders, the uncontrollability of information, and the impossibility for states to exercise effective control over the use of the internet are conceptually flawed from the beginning, and today (if the news from recent years from other democratically variable countries were not enough) they are beginning to prove themselves concretely. It is true that in addition to the need to gain physical control over networks, the EU has already made some systemic choices regarding the centralized management of European DNS servers and crypto assets that aim to territorialize the use of networks and services.

Understanding the consequences of succumbing to the illusion of cyberspace is not only an academic issue but also a political one. By avoiding science fiction or irrational narratives, it is possible to give concreteness to long-term choices that involve not only telecommunications networks but also structural technological innovations caused by machine learning systems. Similarly to the case of cyberspace, the topic of artificial intelligence is often approached based on a euphemistically imprecise perception of its technical components and inspired by science fiction literature. This is evident in the European debate that has even considered the possibility of resorting to Isaac Asimov’s “laws of robotics.” Having experienced the historical consequences of following fairy tale narratives with cyberspace, it would be desirable to avoid falling into the same mistake.


The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has contributed to bringing the issue of the security of infrastructure and telecommunications networks back to a more pragmatic context compared to approaches based on suggestions that are incongruent with reality. In summary, the current state of relations with the Eastern bloc:

  • Has highlighted the need to deglobalize control over telecommunications networks and data transport.
  • Has directed Western governments towards choosing a non-parity access architecture that “breaks” the internet as it has traditionally been understood.
  • Suggests adopting a similar approach at the national level by creating a physically separate network to house critical infrastructures, services, and essential functions.
  • Requires executives to make a decision regarding the current internet governance structure in order to achieve effective control over networks, even in the event of varying intensities of conflict.
  • Requires basing political choices related to critical technologies on extremely concrete elements.

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