The attack marks a dangerous escalation between the West and Russia
On Tuesday afternoon the Danish Armed Forces released on Twitter disturbing aerial footage of a huge area of bubbling water in the Baltic Sea, near the Danish island of Bornholm, caused by gas leaks on both the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines.
Nord Stream 1, which was inaugurated in 2011, stretches 1,200 kilometres under the Baltic Sea from the Russian coast near Saint Petersburg to north-eastern Germany. Until recently, it was by far the biggest Russian gas pipeline to Europe. However, it hasn’t transported any gas since August, when Russia closed it down, officially due to “maintenance” reasons (Moscow says the sanctions have made it impossible to maintain the gas infrastructure properly, while Western governments have accused Russia of deliberately closing it down in retaliation for the West’s sanctions and support for Ukraine).
Nord Stream 2 is a parallel pipeline that was completed in 2021 and was expected to enter into service in 2022 — though Germany halted the project after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Neither pipeline was therefore operational at the time of the leaks, so the latter won’t have any immediate impact on supplies, even though they’re expected to further drive up gas prices.
However, the longer-term implications are massive. Especially if we consider the wide agreement that this was no accident, but rather a deliberate act of sabotage. The Swedish, Danish and Polish governments have been very clear about this, and even EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen agrees the leaks were caused by sabotage. Indeed, the Swedish National Seismic Network said two “probable explosions” had been recorded in the area of the gas leaks. Apparently, the CIA warned the German government about possible attacks on gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea weeks ago.
The United States, Russia and Germany have all raised the possibility of a targeted attack but haven’t yet taken a definitive stand on the matter.
If it was a deliberate act, the question is, of course — who did it? Despite the lack of evidence, the finger-pointing has already begun. Ukraine, somewhat unsurprisingly, has accused Russia of causing the leaks in what it described as a “terrorist attack” and “an act of aggression against the EU”.
However, it’s unclear exactly how Russia would benefit from causing serious damage to a pipeline that cost €15 billion to build, when, if its aim is to hurt Europe, it could simply turn off the tap — as some claim it has already done. Besides, just over a week before the leaks, Putin had said that that if Europe wants to solve the gas issue, all it has to do is lift the sanctions and open up the Nord Steam 2 pipeline. “Just push the button and everything will get going,” Putin said.
Moreover, the Nord Stream pipeline is part-German-owned, and the “attack” occurred in Danish territorial waters. Therefore, it effectively amounts to an aggression against two NATO countries. If Russia wanted to trigger World War III, there are less roundabout ways to do it.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that an alternative theory has been making the rounds on social media — that the United States itself might be behind the sabotage. Many have pointed to a press conference in February where US president Biden said: “If Russia invades… then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring it to an end”. When asked by a reporter “But how will you do that exactly, since… the project is in Germany’s control?”, Biden replied: “I promise you, we will be able to do that”.
Now, it is certainly true that Biden could have meant many things by this comment. But it’s also no secret that the US has always been opposed to the Nord Stream 2, which it saw as paving the way to stronger Russian-European relations. Even some figures in Europe are suspicious, with Radek Sikorski — Poland’s former foreign minister and current chairman of the European Parliament’s EU-US delegation — tweeting an image of the leak along with the words “Thank you, USA”.
However, if the objective was putting an end to Nord Stream 2, it had arguably already been attained: just the other day the German economy minister Robert Habeck stated that he didn’t see “a scenario, or no foreseeable scenario where Nord Stream 2 would play a role for Germany’s energy security”. So while there’s always the possibility that the US might have wanted to drive an even bigger stake into the heart of the project, taking Biden’s words as an admission of guilt is a bit of a stretch.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know who the real culprit is. One thing is clear, though: the attack marks a dangerous escalation in the West’s proxy war with Russia.