The apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline highlights Russia’s willingness to use any means necessary to turn the tide in the war against Ukraine. According to NATO, all available information points to a deliberate act of sabotage likely perpetrated by Russian forces. Western powers continue to fear potential attacks on their infrastructure.
Joel Gehrke; September 30, 2022
“It’s to threaten the West [by saying] that ‘we can damage your communications as well … pipelines, electricity lines, communication cables,’” a senior European official told the Washington Examiner. “The seabed is full of them.”
That perception implies the expansion of the so-called hybrid war that Russia has conducted against Western powers in recent years. The range of targets could include the natural gas pipelines intended to replace the Russian natural gas that heated Germany and other countries before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his attempt to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in February, putting pressure on the trans-Atlantic allies.
“All currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” NATO said in a joint statement Thursday without accusing any specific nation or actor. “We, as Allies, have committed to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and non-state actors. Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”
The leak occurred Tuesday within Denmark’s exclusive economic zone, near the Western European end of the pipeline. That same day, a group of leaders from Denmark and two other NATO members met in western Poland to celebrate the opening of the Baltic Pipe connecting Poland to Norway.
“The era of Russian domination in the field of gas is coming to an end — the era that was marked by blackmail, threats, and extortion,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday.
Another Polish official added Thursday that the explosions will not disrupt the operation of the Baltic Pipe. “The circumstances of leaks on Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 are being investigated by dedicated agencies in Poland, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden,” Poland’s strategic energy infrastructure chief, Mateusz Berger, told Reuters. “Gas transmission via the pipeline will start on Oct. 1 as earlier declared.”
Still, some European officials worry that the Baltic Pipe could be “the next target,” as one put it. And NATO analysts previously have identified an array of other infrastructure projects in the Baltic Sea that could tempt Russia into an attack, such as the cables that provide electricity to the three Baltic countries that have helped lead the NATO efforts to support Ukraine.
“The same forces that could disrupt transatlantic internet cables might also threaten electric power transmission cables on the bottom of the Baltic Sea,” NATO Energy Security Center of Excellence research associate Lukas Trakimavicius, a former Lithuanian diplomat, wrote in a 2021 report. “If submarines or other naval vessels would target multiple power cables simultaneously, this might spell trouble for the three Baltic States. … And underwater attacks against power lines could prove to be effective, low-cost and low-intensity tools of power, where attribution is difficult, if not impossible.”
The location of the leak in Denmark’s exclusive economic zone, while stopping short of any NATO member’s territorial waters, raises the possibility that Russia has identified environmental damage as a new weapon in its ambiguous conflict with the West.
“This is certainly, in terms of deliberate environmental harm just for the sake of causing harm, this is obviously a novel development,” American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Elisabeth Braw, an expert on emerging national security challenges, told the Washington Examiner. “It’s just a very provocative act with no consideration for the effect on the environment. And that seems to be the message.”
Nord Stream 2 functioned as a geopolitical lightning rod throughout its construction over the last several years, as U.S. and Eastern European countries opposed the project on the grounds that it was designed to increase Putin’s leverage over Europe. Germany agreed to shutter the pipeline in February, a decision cemented by U.S. sanctions on the project. A senior Russian lawmaker invoked those sanctions to suggest that it “will take a long time” to repair the pipeline.
“It may take a long time. It’s not a month or two — it’s six months or a year, at least,” parliamentary energy committee Chairman Pavel Zavalny told the Sakhalin Gas Forum, according to TASS, a Russian state media outlet. “The pipe was laid in such a way that would make it possible to hoist it up. This will also take time, technical equipment, cranes, ships, and so on. … Probably, these pipe-laying vessels are under sanctions, so they simply won’t be allowed to be used to repair the gas pipeline.”
Putin’s government has a recent history of using crises, such as a food shortage wrought by the Russian blockade of the ports that export Ukraine’s vast grain resources, as leverage to press for the lifting of Western sanctions.
“That’s exactly the spiel that we would expect them to present: ‘Yeah, we have the solution, but because we are under sanctions, and our companies are under sanctions, there’s nothing we can do,’ which, again, I think is an indication of Russian culpability,” Braw said. “But anyway, that’s where we are. [A repair is] not going to happen within the next few days. And every hour, every minute that this gas leaves those holes, more harm is done to the environment, and, obviously, more anxiety is being caused in Europe.”