The Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines have suffered two gas leaks in the Baltic Sea in the last few hours, off the territorial waters of Sweden and Denmark, which have caused a series of surface upheavals of approximately one kilometre in diameter. Navigation in the area remains suspended. Swedish maritime authorities on Tuesday found damage to two sections of the first pipeline, close to the Danish island of Bornholm. Hours later, Copenhagen confirmed the existence of a third and final rupture in the second, almost 75 kilometres away.
The only possible scenario is sabotage. "The two areas of the leaks are so far apart that natural phenomena can be safely ruled out," says Bloomberg energy columnist Javier Blas. "The same is true of ships dragging anchors or trawl nets, or a submarine that happens to collide. This is deliberate". The hypothesis of a technical failure is therefore ruled out.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen acknowledged that sabotage cannot be ruled out. "It is hard to imagine that it could be accidental," she said hours before describing the events as "deliberate actions, not an accident". Her Swedish counterpart, Magdalena Andersson, pointed in the same direction. Neither, however, wanted to point the finger of blame. Denmark and Sweden had earlier opened a joint investigation into the incident.
Earlier this week, the Swedish National Seismological Centre detected two loud detonations in the areas where the leaks occurred. The pipelines, built in parallel, are submerged at a depth of between 80 and 110 metres, and consist of high quality carbon steel pipes, coated with anti-corrosion resins, an adhesive material to fix the coating, and a third layer of polypropylene. The damage must have been done with a powerful material, and could hardly have been caused by natural causes.
The CIA reportedly warned the German authorities a few weeks ago that a series of attacks were being prepared against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, reports the German daily Der Spiegel. Several energy companies operating in the area had warned Norwegian authorities about the presence of unidentified drones flying over their offshore installations. In June, moreover, a Russian warship violated the territorial waters of Denmark, a NATO area, in an action described by Copenhagen as "irresponsible provocation".
The pipelines were not even operational. Russia's state-owned Gazprom ordered an indefinite shutdown of Nord Stream 1, while the second infrastructure never became operational. However, both pipelines contain pressurised natural gas, which has caused the sea surface disturbances. The Danish Minister of Energy and Climate estimated that the leaks will last at least a week until they are exhausted. In the meantime, authorities are trying to contain the leaks before a full damage assessment can be made.
The leaks coincided with the inauguration of the new trans-Baltic pipeline, which connects Norway and Poland. The Danish Prime Minister attended Tuesday's opening ceremony for the project, which costs up to 350 million euros and will pump 3 million cubic metres of gas over the next 10 years. In Warsaw she met her Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki. The right-wing leader of Law and Justice (PiS), one of the most combative figures against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, said he did not know the details, but associated the alleged sabotage with the situation in the neighbouring country, where Zelenski's troops have been recovering ground to the east.
The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, was blunt: "All available information indicates that these leaks are the result of a deliberate act (...) The European Union will respond forcefully and jointly to any intentional disruption of its energy infrastructure".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov first acknowledged the damage to the pipelines, which he said he was alarmed about, but said it was still too early to draw conclusions. "Until we have the results of the investigation, we cannot rule out any scenario," he said of the gas leaks in the pipelines, whose operation will continue to be halted in the coming months. If it is resumed, which seems unlikely, we will have to wait.
There is no doubt that this is sabotage. The question is who is behind it. It is not clear a priori who could have benefited from the damage to the two pipelines, given that neither was operational. It is true, on the other hand, that the Nord Stream 2 project generated controversy in the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Nord Stream 1 has been used by Moscow in recent months as a pressure tool to generate friction between the EU-27, always with the aim of lifting the sanctions imposed by Brussels.
Both sides are looking for culprits while awaiting the definitive results of the investigation. The EU executive branch is spreading the aura of suspicion over Russia. Moscow and its media terminals unreservedly accuse the United States, which has been increasing the supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe as a result of the energy disconnection from Russia undertaken by the European continent after the start of the war. But the accusations are not solid.
"The sabotage has practically no practical effect: it neither interrupts maritime navigation nor prevents an already non-existent supply. It only makes sense as a message: 'We can damage your infrastructure whenever we want'," writes Nar Research consultant Daniel Iriarte on Twitter, adding that the sabotage sends a "very calculated" message: "If they had damaged Norwegian or Baltic gas pipelines in operation, it would be an act of war against NATO countries. By sabotaging a disused infrastructure, however, we are moving into a grey or hybrid zone, to which there is no clear response".
This hypothesis would point to the Kremlin as the instigator of the sabotage, although it is also unclear what Russia would gain by damaging its own facilities through which it could supply in the hypothetical future, beyond intimidating and generating some instability in the European Union and NATO space.
Others have pointed to the United States, which has become a major energy exporter to the Old Continent. It would be in Washington's interest, according to this line of reasoning, to further dislodge Moscow as the main energy competitor on European soil. But it is unlikely to do so at the cost of affecting continental infrastructure, which would be counterproductive in relations with its partners.
The pro-Kremlin media have rescued statements from early February in which US President Joe Biden issued a warning against Russia in the event of an invasion of Ukraine. "We will stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline," Biden said in a statement agreed with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, with whom he met that same day at the White House.
In any case, the Biden administration's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, reported that the United States would support the Danish- and Swedish-led enquiries, and would continue its work to "safeguard Europe's energy security". State Department spokesman Ned Price described the events as "apparent sabotage".
As Iriarte notes, demand for gas right now is so high that the US "is having serious problems exporting liquefied natural gas and, moreover, meeting domestic supplies". "The last thing the Biden Administration is interested in is perpetuating a situation that is damaging it politically", the analyst concludes.
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