clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Nord Stream pipeline sabotage, explained

The undersea explosions in two gas pipelines from Russia exposed Europe’s vulnerabilities — just as the continent faces a looming energy crisis.

Denmark reports leak in Russian Nord Stream 2 offshore gas pipeline
Danish Defense shows the gas leaking at Nord Stream 2 seen from the Danish F-16 interceptor on Bornholm, Denmark, on September 27.
Danish Defence/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

European and NATO officials are blaming sabotage for three leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 undersea pipelines running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. EU officials did not accuse anyone directly, but the allegation underscored the uncertainty around Europe’s energy standoff with Russia, and how volatile the continent’s energy security is as winter approaches.

Officials detected significant drops in pressure in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on Monday, and then detected another pressure drop on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which were ultimately determined to come from three separate leaks. Swedish seismologists have said underwater explosions caused these leaks. The Danish military released footage of gas from the pipeline bubbling to the surface of the Baltic Sea.

One leak in a major pipeline is a singular event; another from a twin pipeline in an entirely different location is even more unprecedented. Add to that the fact that both of these pipelines are the source of geopolitical tension spilling over from the war in Ukraine, and it makes it very difficult to interpret this as an accident or coincidence. Oh, and in case you weren’t convinced, the Nord Stream leaks happened as officials inaugurated the Baltic Pipe, a new gas route from Norway to Poland.

“Deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, tweeted. “Deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response.”

Right now, though European and US officials are calling this a deliberate act, they have not directly laid out the potential suspects. Officials in several countries, including Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, are investigating the origins of the leak. But unofficially, many in Europe are accusing Russia of the sabotage, given the EU believes the Kremlin has a track record of trying to weaponize energy. Moscow likely has the capability and equipment to carry out such an operation, and an incentive to keep putting pressure on Europe as Vladimir Putin escalates his war effort. The Kremlin has called it “stupid and absurd” to blame Russia for the Nord Stream leaks — and is likely gleeful at the percolating conspiracy theories that blame the United States.

In the immediate term, the Nord Stream pipeline leaks have little impact on European energy security. Nord Stream 2 never opened; Germany finally killed the project in the lead-up to the Ukraine invasion. Russia reduced and then entirely cut off Nord Stream 1, with Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas company, claiming technical issues prevented the delivery of gas, which no one really believes.

Whoever is responsible, the Nord Stream leaks are a signal of just how precarious Europe’s energy situation remains. The leaks added to global uncertainty around access to energy and its cost. European countries have stored up natural gas and bought replacement supplies at a premium on the global market. But many European industries relied on cheap gas from Russia, and high costs are forcing industry cutbacks and closures with still-unfolding economic consequences. Countries and cities are trying to reduce demand by cooling swimming pools and turning off traffic lights. Households across the continent face higher energy bills, even as some fear gas shortages. That’s happening without another major disruption.

Damaging the Nord Stream pipelines is a warning that any disruption to energy, whether by accident, an act of nature, or intentional, could deepen and prolong the energy crisis in Europe and beyond. “These attacks show that Europe does not have spare capacity in the energy system. It was already running up against that to begin with. Now this is an enormous vulnerability,” said Emily Holland, an assistant professor in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College.

What we know (and don’t know) about the Nord Stream leaks

The leaks — two in Nord Stream 1 and one in Nord Stream 2 — were detected in the Baltic Sea, off Bornholm, a Danish island. According to the Financial Times, German seismologists detected a spike in activity shortly before Danish officials detected the Nord Stream 2 leak. Swedish seismologists also registered activity, which they said was in keeping with an explosion, and not a natural event.

It didn’t take long for officials in European states to conclude an act of sabotage, backed up by NATO. It probably wasn’t too hard of a conclusion to come to: Damages like these to undersea pipelines are rare, and for three to happen at the same time, on the same day, at the same time another gas delivery route to Europe opened? It’s hard to imagine this is all a big coincidence.

Publicly, officials have cautioned against rushing to conclusions on who and why. “This is something that is extremely important to get all the facts on the table, and therefore this is something we’ll look closely into in the coming hours and days,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Privately, many officials have a culprit: Russia. Experts emphasized that we still don’t know for sure, and it may be hard to fully know Moscow’s motivation.

But there are a few hints that point to the Kremlin. For one, Russia likely has the technical capabilities and equipment to pull off such an act, including potentially by divers or undersea drones.

Russia is also intensifying its war effort in Ukraine; Putin implemented a mobilization effort that is facing resistance and chaos at home. Russia is still under heavy sanctions from Western countries, and the Kremlin has already used energy infrastructure — Nord Stream 1 specifically — as a tool to pressure the West.

Russia may be trying to make clear that Europe won’t be getting gas from Russia — not this winter, not in the near future, and maybe not ever again. “It’s a signal that Russia is saying, ‘Fine, you don’t want our energy, find it somewhere else,’” Holland said. It would be Russia’s final break in the relationship with Europe, to indicate now it has no choice but to get its energy elsewhere.

Of course, Europe was largely doing that, and everyone knew Russia wasn’t sending any gas this winter. The Nord Stream pipelines are basically offline, so the immediate effects on supply are minimal. But the act of sabotage underscores the risk to other European infrastructure, like the now all-important pipelines from Norway. Norway and Denmark, for example, have increased security around their own oil and gas infrastructure.

Stefan Meister, an expert in EU-Russian relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that while European gas prices had gone down recently, a shock like the Nord Stream leaks could potentially rattle the energy markets once again, less for what it actually means and more for the reminder of how fragile the energy situation is.

After all, the Nord Stream pipelines are, right now, pretty useless to Russia, too. “That means [the way] to make use of it is to blow it up to impact the gas market,” Meister said. “It’s not on the current situation of the gas supply, but it’s more on psychology.”

Why Europe is even more on edge

The Kremlin itself has said the possibility of a deliberate attack can’t be ruled out, and spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said Russia was “extremely concerned.” The Russian foreign ministry also leaned into a conspiracy theory that the United States is behind the sabotage — fueled by a tweet from a former Polish defense minister and a clip of Biden from February saying Nord Stream 2 would be done if Russia invaded Ukraine.

The US had reportedly warned allies this summer that intelligence suggested Nord Stream pipelines might be attacked, and has, of course, backed up European allies as they investigate. Some have floated Ukrainian sabotage, as a kind of false flag, but experts said Ukraine likely doesn’t have the technical know-how or equipment to do that.

But, again, in some ways, the Nord Stream damage matters more for the risk it signals for Europe. “The supply situation is very tight. Every single molecule that we can find, we bring into Europe, at whatever price at the moment,” said Andreas Goldthau, an energy expert at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt.

Europe has no choice but to do that because Russian gas made up about 40 percent of Europe’s gas supply at the start of the war; now it’s down to about 9 percent. Europe had to replace that gas from somewhere, and so it sought out alternative sources. That includes more pipeline gas from Norway and liquefied natural gas from around the world.

But it doesn’t leave Europe with much room if another backup goes offline. Gazprom warned Wednesday it might cut off natural gas flowing through a Ukrainian pipeline to Europe. Other disruptions can happen, sometimes by accident. As Goldthau pointed out, US hurricanes could disrupt the LNG market, too. “There’s so much else that can go wrong, and now, on top of that, there is the pipeline situation,” he said. “And all of that is something that at least will, at some point, have an impact on the risk premium and on the futures market.”

The fears that other energy infrastructure could go down may affect the markets, and that makes it pricier for Europe to get gas — but also has a destabilizing effect on the rest of the world, as energy prices rise, and lower-income countries have to compete for even more expensive gas. (And for the world: The full climate and environmental impacts of these leaks are still unclear, but the methane leaching from those pipes is a “powerful greenhouse gas.”)

Beyond energy, infrastructure sabotage is the kind of hybrid warfare that many in the West worried about ahead of Russia’s invasion — cyberattacks, or other hacks on critical infrastructure. It’s unclear if Russia really has opened up a new front with the West as it wages its months-long war in Ukraine. But the Nord Stream leaks hint at an even more uncertain winter in Europe.