The search for the perpetrators has begun following Monday’s sabotage attack on the Nord Stream pipelines. Which countries could have been behind it, and how secure is Europe’s critical infrastructure at the bottom of the sea?
The route of the gas pipelines through the Baltic Sea could have been copied out of a cruise catalogue. From Ust-Luga near St. Petersburg, the route leads through the Gulf of Finland, then south past the Estonian island of Hiiumaa, past Gotland in Sweden, past Bornholm through Danish waters before approaching the German coast and ending in Lubmin in the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It’s a route where you wouldn’t typically expect anything out of the ordinary to happen, a region intended for comfortable vacations. A place where all was well.
Anschlag in der Tiefe
Heftige Explosionen haben die Röhren der deutsch-russischen Pipelines Nord Stream 1 und 2 in der Ostsee aufgerissen und fast 800 Millionen Kubikmeter Gas entweichen lassen. Während Geheimdienste nach den Tätern suchen, macht der Fall klar, wie verwundbar die Infrastruktur des Westens ist.
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Take the Nord Stream 1 natural gas pipeline, for example, the completion of which wasn’t permitted until 2009, when officials finally reached an agreement on contractually stipulated respect for cod spawning periods. The “Core Issues Paper on Fish and Fisheries,” which teemed with mentions of sprat, herring and ruffe, was just a part of the environmental impact assessment – and it was 50 pages long on its own. Such papers tell the story of a different, better yesterday, of orderly procedures, of peaceful rule of law, transparent processes and binding treaties. On Monday, however, a little more of that world disappeared.
Contracts don’t seem to apply any longer in the Baltic Sea. Russia’s war in Ukraine has, it seems, reached Europe’s great inland sea and turned its floor into an offshore war zone. On that day, officials reported shocks from the underwater worlds off Denmark and Sweden, in the Bornholm Basin, baffling damage and large-scale destruction.
Initially, reports spoke of three leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, with a fourth added later. It then emerged that the first explosion had taken place in a Russian-built section of the pipeline. The affected pipelines are not currently being used to transport gas, but they were still filled with hundreds of millions of cubic meters of natural gas.
The aerial shots of circles of roiling seawater, a vast whirlpool, immediately became the focus of news reports around the world. But what is the story behind those images? Has Russia really opened up a new front? Did the United States, as immediately discussed by many voices on Twitter and other social media platforms, finally drive a stake in the heart of a pipeline project that it has always strongly opposed? Are Ukrainian forces involved? Is it conceivable that “rogue units” were at work, out-of-control intelligence agencies that wanted to write history on their own? Or was it, as is often reflexively whispered in conspiracy theorist circles when it comes to processing unexpected and perplexing developments, Israeli’s Mossa
At the moment, there is not yet any evidence – neither concrete nor circumstantial – to back any specific version of events. If there are any meaningful leads at all, they will require weeks of legwork on the part of civilian and military investigators. Germany’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office is now officially keeping tabs on developments. What is clear is that the narratives developed thus far to incorporate existing knowledge, initial damage reports and early intelligence are of varying complexity and plausibility.
For the moment, it certainly looks to be far more likely that the Russians were involved than the Israelis. And the large group of possible suspects bring along lists of prior offenses of varying length. The United States, for example, prefers to sell its energy to the highest bidder, while Russia has been playing brutal power politics with its energy sources for decades, turning on and off gas and oil taps at will. Did Moscow just take things a step further this time around? Or has Washington opted for a new strategy to send a clear message to Russia?
It was already clear on Monday that an accident is out of the question as a possible explanation for the gigantic leaks. What the seismographs measured for the Bornholm area at 2:03 a.m. that night and then nearly 17 hours later, at 7:04 p.m., could only be explained by blasts or explosions. Björn Lund of the Swedish National Seismic Network (SNSN) told public broadcaster SVT that there was no doubt about that. And no one has disputed the claim.
A damaging event could be expected for such a comparatively new pipeline only “once in 10,000 years,” assesses Germany’s foreign intelligence agency.
First, Nord Stream 2 was hit southeast of Bornholm in Danish waters, then Nord Stream 1 was struck twice further to the northeast. The explosions marked the start of a new, difficult to read phase of this war.
SNSN described it not as an accident, but rather disturbances “with massive releases of energy.” Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, issued its assessment that such a damaging event could be expected for such a comparatively new pipeline only “once in 10,000 years” and that a breakdown or wear and tear could be ruled out as possible causes.
So, what happened? Representatives of the European Union, NATO and the affected coastal countries soon settled on the term “sabotage.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday evening that she had spoken to Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen about “the act of sabotage.” Frederiksen also chose this word in a telephone conversation with Olaf Scholz, telling the German chancellor that her authorities were convinced it was sabotage – and that they would now be communicating it as such.
German Chancellor Olof Scholz poses in front of the Siemens Energy turbine for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in the city of Mülheim an der Ruhr in August. Foto: Lars Heidrich / FUNKE Foto Services / action press
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson spoke publicly of “detonations” but also insisted she didn’t believe it was an “attack on Sweden.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted about “sabotage” after a conversation with Danish Defense Minister Morten Bødskov.
German security authorities believe massive explosive devices were detonated, each with a force of perhaps 500 kilograms of TNT, a conclusion that has been drawn from the seismic data. The strength of the explosive used also suggests that a state is behind the attack, and not some terrorist organization.
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell responded to this week’s events with a somewhat aimless threat. Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable,” he said, “and will be met with a robust and united response.” But what does that even mean? A response against whom? Robust against what? The situation since Monday has forced European leaders into a kind of political tai chi, shadow boxing against invisible, unknown adversaries.
On Wednesday afternoon, the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s central decision-making body, met at alliance headquarters in Brussels. The next day, the Council issued a joint statement stating that all currently available information indicates that the pipelines had been the target of “deliberate, reckless and irresponsible acts of sabotage.” In line with the statements from EU foreign policy chief Borrell, it continues: “Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”
Did Moscow Open a New Front in Its War? Or Did Washington Kill the Pipeline?
NATO sources say the question of what that response might look like is completely open. “We have a wide range of instruments to choose from,” says one high-ranking diplomat. Either way, the source says, the incident in the Baltic Sea will lead to faster progress now on the “hardening” of critical infrastructures agreed to in June 2021. “This will certainly give it greater attention and urgency,” the diplomat says. An attack like the one on Nord Stream 2 “fits precisely into the scenarios we have been concerned about.”
The seabed has been a theater of operations for militaries for decades. The neural pathways of global trade and the pipelines and cables for energy and communications run along the bottom of the sea. The technical term is critical infrastructure. And even though it is extremely difficult to reach, it is also extremely vulnerable and irreplaceable.
Known in military circles as “seabed warfare,” several countries have the operational assets and specialized forces for this hostile underwater world, but they are unevenly distributed. Within the EU, Ireland, Portugal and France are particularly active in this realm, according to an analysis commissioned by the European Parliament in June. The primary concern of the analysis was to address the vulnerability of European submarine cables, which the authors concluded is excessively high.
In February, then-French Defense Minister Florence Parly unveiled a comprehensive new seabed-warfare strategy for the French navy. In addition to protecting French resources, it explicitly addresses underwater transport routes for electricity, oil, gas and data. “France wants to defend its sovereignty, its resources and its infrastructure even in the depths of the ocean,” Parly said. The minister referred to similar projects by the Chinese and the British. To strengthen its own capabilities down to a depth of 6,000 meters, the French navy plans to invest primarily in autonomous underwater drones and remote-controlled mini submarines.
Officially, it’s always about defense capabilities. A leaked 2008 U.S. Department of Homeland Security document that identified critical infrastructure targets at particular risk around the world listed pipelines such as the Druzhba – the two Nord Stream pipelines didn’t yet exist at the time – in addition to key submarine cables and their landing points that they deemed to be worthy of protection.
But those countries with the ability to monitor the seabed and defend assets there are, of course, also capable of attacking the undersea assets of others or committing sabotage. The June EU analysis identified “maritime improvised explosive devices” (MIEs) and mines as possible weapons that could cause massive damage underwater. The report provides detailed consideration to only two possible opponents: Russia and China.
NATO says it has been observing increased Russian submarine activity near key cable routes since as early as 2015. Moscow is evidently showing increased interest in the underwater infrastructure of NATO member states, a senior alliance military official is quoted as saying.
On the day of the explosions in the Baltic Sea, German Navy Inspector Jan Christian Kaack pointed to the strategic importance of underwater warfare and the role played in it by the Kremlin in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt. “Russia has built up significant capacity underwater,” he said. “There is quite a bit of critical infrastructure like pipelines or submarine cables for IT on the floor of the Baltic Sea, but also the Atlantic.”
German intelligence officials with the BND also believe that Russia’s military has the know-how and equipment to operate on the seabed. Western intelligence agencies, for example, know of underwater robots in Russia’s inventory that have the capability of traveling from Russia along the pipeline to potential attack sites to plant explosive charges. They are currently trying to determine where these robots were last located. Government sources say that the BND will also now investigate all movements in the Baltic Sea going back to Jan. 1, 2022.
The Germans were warned in summer by the CIA about a possible attack scenario on the Nord Stream pipelines. U.S. intelligence claimed to have intercepted Russian communications in which concerns were expressed about possible Ukrainian attacks on Western infrastructure. The Ukrainians allegedly tried to rent a boat in Sweden for this purpose. The CIA did not consider the scenario of a Ukrainian attack to be very credible, but the mere fact that the possibility of an attack on Western infrastructure was mentioned by the Russian side prompted the Americans to warn the Germans about the scenario.
There were other reasons to suggest Russian responsibility for the attack, they said at a closed-door meeting this week in which intelligence officials briefed the chancellor and other officials. They said the action was intended to throw the gas market into chaos and drive up the price of gas. Perhaps Russia also wanted to show the world that it was capable and determined to carry out such an attack – a warning shot, in other words.
What is clear is that gas wars, both large and small, are a constant feature in Russian history. For decades, the claim that Russia is a trustworthy partner and reliable supplier of oil and gas, even in times of crisis, was ultimately only ever valid when it comes to Western European and, in particular, German customers. Eastern European countries and former Soviet states have repeatedly been politically and economically blackmailed through the withholding of gas – Ukraine in particular, but also Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic states.
An older study produced by Robert Larsson of Sweden in 2006 – well-known among experts – speaks of more than 55 instances between 1991 and early 2006 in which Moscow has used energy exports to apply pressure, an average of almost four times per year. Energy exports were suspended entirely more than 40 times, but threats, blackmail attempts and aggressive pricing are all part of Putin’s arsenal, just as they were for his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
The current, rather unusual natural gas war with the West began almost exactly one year ago, largely out of sight of the public. Starting in October 2021, Gazprom began sending significantly less natural gas to Europe. Initially, the state-owned monopoly only curtailed deliveries through less heeded pipelines like Yamal-Europe, which runs through Poland, and Transgas in Ukraine. But in the Baltic Sea pipeline Nord Stream 1, which has been in operation since 2011, pressure never dropped.
Experts, of course, were quick to notice the curtailments and speculated that the Kremlin was perhaps trying to force the final approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, construction on which had been completed but operational certification was still outstanding. In November, Gazprom intermittently suspended deliveries through Yamal entirely, insisting that the move was made out of commercial considerations but that all contractual requirements would be fulfilled. Deliveries through Nord Stream 1 even continued after Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine and customers across Europe continued buying, despite ethical reservations and demands for a Europe-wide embargo. In fact, natural gas prices actually dropped a bit in February 2022.
The situation, though, changed abruptly on June 14, with Gazprom declaring that deliveries through the Baltic Sea pipeline would have to be reduced by 40 percent – because of a missing turbine which hadn’t been returned following routine servicing in Canada due to the sanctions. Two days later, Gazprom reduced deliveries by an additional third. The German government said the turbine was merely a pretext, but nevertheless began working to get it returned from Canada. And ultimately, it did make its way to Germany, where it remains in storage today. The Russians, after all, refused to take delivery and the alleged technical problem with Nord Stream 1 persisted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a C-Explorer 5 submersible in the Gulf of Finland in 2013 Foto: Aleksey Nikolskyi / RIA Novosti / Sputnik Photo Agency / REUTERS
On July 11, natural gas flows through Nord Stream 1 ceased entirely, officially due to annual maintenance that would last for 10 days. German Economics Minister Robert Habeck warned right at the beginning of that time period, though, that it would be ill advised to assume that delivery levels would return to normal. Events would ultimately prove him right.
Deliveries, to be sure, did resume to 40 percent capacity following the maintenance period, but Gazprom quickly halved the flow before then, on Sept. 1, cutting off supplies through the pipeline entirely. The operator said that an oil leak in a turbine was responsible, though Siemens Energy rejected the claim, saying that the purported problem “does not represent a technical reason for stopping operation.” It proved impossible to verify the Russian claims from afar. Then, on Monday, Sept. 26, at 2:03 a.m. and at 7:04 p.m., explosions burst through the walls of the pipes and gas shot up to the surface. And once pipeline pressure sinks low enough, salt water will begin flowing into the line, damaging the pipeline from the inside. Who stands to benefit? Who would do a thing like that?
One rather convoluted theory that nevertheless provides a convincing Russian motive goes as follows: The German BND foreign intelligence agency believes that the destruction of the pipeline could potentially have been undertaken to evade possible lawsuits for damages incurred by the suspension of gas deliveries. In the past, whenever Russia has throttled gas deliveries or used its energy supplies as a political tool, those responsible have always sought to present technical, economic or otherwise unassailable constraints as arguments to ward off potential legal action.
According to this logic, Moscow’s motive for destroying its own pipelines stems from the idea that natural gas deliveries aren’t possible if the pipelines are destroyed. And if deliveries aren’t possible, then Russia cannot fulfil its contractual obligations – and Moscow would not be legally liable. In other words, a ruined pipeline represents force majeure – it’s beyond Russia’s control. A strange argument, perhaps, but certainly plausible.
A Timeline of Nord Stream 1 and 2
BereichSept. 8, 2005:aufklappen
Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, German energy utility E.on and chemical giant BASF’s subsidiary Wintershall sign an agreement to build the first Baltic Sea pipeline from Russia to Germany. Attending the event are German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.BereichNov. 8, 2011:aufklappenBereichMay 2018:aufklappenBereichOctober 2021:aufklappenBereichFeb. 22, 2022:aufklappenBereichJune 14, 2022:aufklappenBereichJuly 21, 2022:aufklappenBereichSept. 1, 2022:aufklappenBereichSept. 26, 2022:aufklappen
Russian energy expert Mikhail Krutikhin, a Russian energy expert who believes that Russia is behind the explosions, believes that the avoidance of contractual penalties is more than just plausible. “Gazprom was apparently ordered long ago to cut deliveries to Europe but to avoid contractual penalties. And for that, one must prove force majeure,” Krutikhin told DER SPIEGEL.
Krutikhin says that Gazprom has the technology to damage the pipelines using so-called “piglets,” the small robots that are able to move through the pipeline for maintenance or inspection purposes. “Theoretically, it is possible to attach an explosive charge to them.”
The analyst is certain that sabotage is in the Gazprom toolbox. The company, he says, tried one month ago to destroy the Ukrainian pipelines. “They upped the pressure without warning the Ukrainians. That could have produced serious damage on the Ukrainian side if they hadn’t responded in time.” This behavior, he says, is a typical Gazprom tactic which was used as early as 2010 in Turkmenistan.
And yet, intelligence agencies also believe there are strong arguments against Russian involvement. Top officials said this week that irreparably damaging its own pipeline is not in Russia’s interest. It is especially nonsensical if Moscow wants to reserve the option of resuming natural gas deliveries to Europe at some point in the future – and to continue using energy as a political lever. Myriad questions remain unanswered.
Energy and risk analyst Peter Burgherr works for the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland and has created a database together with a U.S.-based researcher of more than 10,000 attacks on energy infrastructure around the world since 1980. The attack on Nord Stream, says Burgherr, represents “a new dimension.” It has targeted a central, cross-border element of Europe’s energy supplies, he says, adding that the attack was the product of a complex operation.
The pipelines, he points out, lie between 80 and 110 meters (260 and 360 feet) beneath the surface of the Baltic Sea. Furthermore, the pipeline’s steel shell is several centimeters thick and runs though a cement casing that is also several centimeters thick. “As a rule, only state actors” have the ability to destroy it, Burgherr says.
According to his research, targeted attacks on the energy sector have increased in recent years. And the perpetrators have changed. “It used to be primarily non-state actors that attacked energy infrastructure, such as guerillas in Colombia. Today, state actors have become involved as well. They have more money and personnel available and have a much more professional approach,” he says. As such, the danger associated with such attacks has risen. “We are now discussing catastrophic scenarios that we still considered extremely unlikely just a few years ago.”
Attacks on “neuralgic nodes” such as compressor stations or transmission substations for electricity can be a particularly effective way for perpetrators to cause significant damage that is difficult to quickly repair, says Burgherr.
Protection for these facilities, he adds, is frequently insufficient. With pipelines or high-tension electric wires that extend for hundreds of kilometers, security is more difficult anyway. But, he notes, it can be assumed that particularly critical pipelines, such as the ones leading beneath the North Sea from Norway to continental Europe – a line that crosses paths with the Nord Stream pipelines not far from the sites of the explosions – are being more intensively monitored now than they used to be.
The vulnerability of critical infrastructure is something that NATO has long been concerned about. In June 2021, national leaders from the alliance issued a statement called the “Strengthened Resilience Commitment,” which today reads like a dark premonition of an energy war with Russia. “We will step up efforts to secure and diversify our supply chains, as well as to ensure the resilience of our critical infrastructure,” the statement reads. “We will bolster our efforts to meet challenges to our energy security.”
At its June summit this year in Madrid, NATO strengthened its commitment to resilience, and it not only became part of the strategic concept that determines the alliance’s future alignment. The summit declaration also mentions “national-developed goals and implementation plans” for the strengthening of infrastructure. It’s just that not much has apparently happened since then.
Europe, in particular, is lagging when it comes to the protection of undersea pipelines and cables, because countries have competing views on how important it is. In France, it is seen as a “key issue” in military planning, but in Denmark, it is primarily in the hands of private companies, as an EU analysis published in June makes clear. The report notes that Europe can deal with minor damages but warns that “a number of very vulnerable sites exist.” It also says that several countries have the capability and potentially the intent to attack the EU data network. While cables and pipelines are frequently mentioned in EU strategies, the analysis notes, “hardly any actions and programs address the issue directly.”
The report’s authors believe the risk of a large-scale attack on undersea cables to be low, “considering it could equate to an act of war.” Since Monday of this week, however, it seems likely that such views will appear in a different light – and defining what, precisely, constitutes an act of war and identifying appropriate responses is more urgent that ever.
That, though, is a tall task, as seen in a confidential EU document from spring 2021. It includes guidelines for the fending off of hybrid attacks, agreed to by the chiefs-of-staff from EU member states. Such attacks employ intentional ambiguity, lie below the reaction threshold and conceal the adversary’s true targets, the paper reads. That impairs the ability of the victim to take action.
“Russia has already denied having anything to do with it and will continue to do so.”
Carsten Rasmussen, Danish brigade officers
From that perspective, the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline is a prime example of a hybrid attack: The West is trying to figure out who might have carried out the attack and why and has virtually no ability to respond appropriately. Nevertheless, the paper argues that even in the case of hybrid attacks, traditional deterrence is a possibility – a reference to military strikes. Uncertainty as to when such a strike might be carried out would make a hybrid adversary think twice, the document states, insofar as the potential consequences have been made clear. The perpetrators in the Baltic, for their part, were not deterred.
Indeed, it seems unlikely that they will ever be identified and pursued. Danish brigade officer Carsten Rasmussen, who was Copenhagen’s military attaché in Moscow until June, believes that is one of the primary characteristics of hybrid attacks – “that they can be plausibly denied.” That is certainly the case, he says, when it comes to the attack on the Baltic Sea pipeline. “Russia has already denied having anything to do with it and will continue to do so,” Rasmussen told DER SPIEGEL.
At Moscow’s insistence, the United Nations Security Council is scheduled to meet on Friday, where Russia will deny all accusations and point its finger in all different directions, the Dane predicts, first and foremost at Washington. The idea that that the Americans might be behind the sabotage, says Rasmussen, “appears to be gaining ground in Europe at the moment, particularly on social media channels.”
“I promise you we’ll be able to do it.”
U.S. President Joe Biden
Poland’s former Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently posted an image of the bubbling Baltic Sea on Twitter with the comment: “Thank you USA” – a devious tweet that Sikorski, who has a clear affinity for the U.S., can hardly have meant as an accusation of involvement.
But it is worth considering the question: What interest could the Americans have in the destruction of the pipes? According to those who support this theory, Washington may have meant it as a signal to the Kremlin that enough was enough following the Russian mobilization and nuclear threats.
The premise interprets the attack as a concealed message that could only be understood by its intended recipient, Vladimir Putin. And it is true that the U.S. has always been staunchly opposed to the pipeline, in part due to political interests in the Baltic Sea region but also because of its own energy policy interests. The end of Nord Stream – and that is the likely consequence of this attack – is almost certainly welcomed in the White House. The destruction of the pipes likely robs Germany of the option of ever being able to use the pipeline again.
Adherents of the “It-Was-America” theory are currently exulting about an old video clip showing Joe Biden discussing the pipeline. “If Russia invades … Ukraine again, there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” In response to the follow-up question regarding how he intended to achieve that aim, he said: “I promise you we’ll be able to do it.”
Before clouds began building on the geopolitical horizon, the route of the gas pipelines through the Baltic Sea sounded to many ears as though it was straight from the catalogue of a cruise ship operator. St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Helsinki and Stockholm all lie on the coastline. The pipes run through the Gulf of Finland and the Gotland Sea into the Bornholm Basin. It’s a beautiful area. But current events are a reminder that the Baltic is a sea of brackish water. A place home not just to codfish and herring, but also to dangerous figures that seek to stay out of the light.