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How to respond to Russian aggression in the Baltic Sea

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Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, the author of “Goodbye Globalization” and a regular columnist for POLITICO.

There’s a specter haunting Europe — the Baltic Sea region to be precise.

GPS jamming has been impacting parts of Sweden, Germany and Poland since just before Christmas. And in recent days, flights in the region have been targeted too.

These scare tactics, perpetrated by an actor with significant GPS-jamming capabilities, are leaving the region’s governments with a tricky dilemma: How exactly do they retaliate once they’re certain who’s behind it all?

Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is usually among the slowest of the year — a time for reflection and relaxation after overeating the day before. But on Dec. 26, 2023, parts of southern Sweden and eastern Germany, as well as most of Poland, were suddenly hit by GPS disruption that affected over 10 percent of the network. (On any given day, less than 2 percent of GPS in the region experiences disruption.) Then, on Dec. 27, it all suddenly stopped.

The disruption was annoying and, considering how many essential services rely on GPS, potentially dangerous. But thanks to its brevity, it was manageable.

Yet, since then, the disruption has been repeated in different guises. Pilots and merchant mariners have reported GPS oddities, with the interference usually starting at night, in different spots across the Baltic Sea region. By Jan. 12, Sweden alone had experienced five incidents since the initial reported problem.

Authorities are now investigating, as are Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) detectives, but the incidents are piling up — and evidence points in one particular direction: Russia.

An OSINT investigator posting under the handle @rundradion discovered that between Jan. 10–13, flights in the Baltic Sea region were directly targeted — but Russian and Belarusian flights were mysteriously exempted. According to another investigator with the handle @auonsson, the interference had reached Copenhagen Airport by the following day. And on Jan. 16 and 17, @auonsson reported news of GPS problems on two flights over Swedish airspace en route to Copenhagen Airport, as well as sudden navigational problems affecting five other flights.

@auonsson and other OSINT investigators believe they’ve now found the culprit: a GPS jammer in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Speaking with retired Major General Gunnar Karlson, a former chief of Sweden’s military intelligence agency, I asked what Russia’s objective here might be, if it turns out to be the originator. “One reason for the interference is, of course, the usual hybrid [aggression] reason: to stress us out in different ways,” he said. “It may also be that they want to signal deterrence by showing us examples of the damage they could cause if they wanted to.”

And with modern economies relying on GPS for daily activities, the prospect of such interference is certainly frightening. (Yes, pilots and mariners know how to navigate manually and with older technology, but it’s a lot more cumbersome.)

If all this is emanating from Russia, the GPS interference also brings the Kremlin another benefit: It can, as Karlson pointed out, “gain knowledge of what we do to counteract, which can give an advantage in the battle between means and countermeasures. In addition, of course, the Russians also learn a lot by using their technical resources for interference, which allows them to optimize.”

There’s also the possibility that Russia may just want to boil the GPS frog, as it were. By getting the populations of Sweden, Germany and Poland (and now also Denmark) used to GPS interference, it may figure we won’t immediately notice when it ramps interference up to the point of danger.

Authorities in Sweden, Germany, Poland and Denmark are now investigating — much as the governments of Sweden and Denmark have been investigating the Nord Stream pipeline explosions in their Exclusive Economic Zones, and the governments of Sweden, Finland and Estonia have been investigating the mysterious damage caused to two undersea cables and one pipeline last year.

And though it may be relatively easy to identify the source of the jamming, the authorities also have to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, exactly which entity operated it when the different incidents took place.

But once they identify the culprit, the region’s governments face a troubling dilemma: If they can, indeed, establish that Russia was behind the acts, they need to decide if, and how, to punish Moscow. And since Western countries abide by international laws and conventions, retaliation in kind — in this case, jamming Russian GPS networks — isn’t an option.

The ongoing GPS jamming in the Baltic Sea region is the textbook definition of gray-zone aggression. It takes place below the threshold of armed military action and causes harm, but because it doesn’t involve military violence, affected countries struggle to find a suitable response.

And if Russia and its friends continue to innovate in the gray zone, we will see much more of this.

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