Affairs: Energy / Global
Speculation about the blasts that wrecked the Nord Stream gas pipelines has been rife. Is the truth about to surface?
Just after 02.00 on a rainy September night in 2022, seismologists on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea registered a powerful tremor. Measuring 2.3 on the Richter scale, it was detected as far north as the Arctic Circle. Moments later, the pressure inside one of the two Nord Stream gas pipelines, which run underneath the Baltic from Russia to Germany, dropped dramatically. As day broke, a Danish Air Force pilot in an f-16 fighter jet spotted a large area of bubbling water 20km southeast of Bornholm in Denmark’s exclusive economic zone. It didn’t take long for the authorities to work out what had happened: the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline had exploded and was leaking large quantities of natural gas. The Danish coast guard was dispatched to set up a five-nautical-mile (9.26km) exclusion zone around the site.
At 19.00, 17 hours after the first blast, another powerful explosion was detected about 70km north, this time in Swedish waters. Two sizeable ruptures were found in the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. As the explosions ripped through the steel and concrete pipes, masses of gas stored at high pressure burst into the sea. Together, these two pipelines have the capacity to transport 110 billion cubic metres of gas a year (more than Germany’s total annual consumption) and have come to symbolise Europe’s dependence on Russia’s natural resources.
“Laboratories will be able to pinpoint where the explosives were manufactured and that can be cross-checked with who is known to use them”
These explosions became an international incident and a major news story worldwide. Images of gas plumes bubbling on the surface of the Baltic – at places about 1km wide – flooded TV screens. The Danish and Swedish governments, alongside the EU and Nato, quickly attributed the leaks to sabotage. After a week the gas leaks stopped, having emitted, according to some estimates, as much methane as the whole of Sweden does in a year. All 1,224km of Nord Streams 1 and 2 now lay empty. Danish and Swedish authorities began examining the damaged pipelines but remained tight-lipped about their findings, releasing only a handful of carefully worded statements.
When monocle approached the Swedish Prosecution Authority for this report, our interview request was turned down with the explanation that “when the prosecutor has something to communicate, such as when the investigation is set to be concluded, it will be done in a new press release”. And despite the months that have passed since the explosions, no underwater images have been released by the authorities – they have come from specialist teams hired by investigative reporters.
On 18 October, navigating the rough seas in a Targa 29 utility boat hired by journalists from the Swedish newspaper Expressen, Norwegian underwater-drone company Blueye Robotics found the damaged pipelines. The drone’s operator, Trond Larsen, was the first civilian to see the effects of the explosion and was struck by the extent of the damage. “At least 50 metres of the pipe was missing”, he tells monocle. “The 4cm-thick steel pipe, which was encased in 11cm of concrete, was bent and torn with a lot of force.” According to Larsen, the drone found pieces of debris as far as 200 metres from the pipeline, suggesting that the explosion was powerful. “We did not see many large pieces of debris,” says Larsen. “I suspect that the Swedish investigators had already confiscated them.” On Borholm, crew from Danish news channel tv2 piloted an underwater drone to the explosion site and made similar findings.
Three weeks after the explosions, Swedish government investigators were careful not to speculate in public how the attacks had been carried out or by whom. But by then independent experts had much more to go on. “Judging by the extent of the damage, the attackers used several hundred kilos of explosives,” says Mika Tyry, a retired Finnish army explosives expert. Tyry has analysed the scenes of bomb attacks in Afghanistan and is the person the Finnish police call upon for explosives advice. He believes that the Nord Stream attacks required immense skill and co-ordination, as well as knowledge of the pipelines. “To carry out a series of explosions in such a heavily trafficked area, while avoiding collateral damage, is no small feat,” he says. Tyry’s theory is that the explosives were planted by an underwater vessel – a submarine or drone piloted from a surface vessel as inconspicuous as a fishing boat whose transponders were switched off. “Several sets of explosives were placed in carefully selected locations near different parts of the pipeline,” he says, adding that “no single diver can pull this off; this was done by a state”. Tyry believes that the explosives were detonated by a countdown timer, as a remote-controlled trigger would risk revealing where the signal was sent from.
Other experts share Tyry’s view. Hans Liwang, an associate professor at the Swedish Defence University, is an expert in maritime security. “Any nation with a navy could have done this,” he says. According to Liwang, fishing boats, commercial ships and state vessels navigate in that zone all the time. “Any one of them can launch an underwater drone or a small submarine and transport the explosives down 70 metres to where the pipe runs,” he says. But it is not really about who can deliver a few hundred kilos of explosives to the bottom of the Baltic; it is about how they are placed. Both Nord Streams 1 and 2 consist of two parallel pipes. Of these four pipes, three were severely damaged, with only one of Nord Stream 2’s pipes left intact. During such massive explosions, how was it possible that one of the four pipes was left operational? “Either the attack failed in this respect or this was done on purpose,” says Liwang.
Majority owner Gazprom says that it would take up to a year to repair the damage. To this day, however, no repair work has taken place and the area is closed while the investigation continues.
While many Western experts and politicians believe that the Nord Stream saboteurs were probably Russian, only a few have said it out loud. The US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm told the bbc that it “seems” Russia is to blame. “This is clearly an act of sabotage of some sort and Russia certainly is the most likely suspect,” former cia director John Brennan said in a cnn interview. “Only Russia can really be considered for this,” Gerhard Schindler, the former head of Germany’s federal intelligence agency, told Welt. Others, such as Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, have chosen their words more carefully. “We will further increase the protection of our critical infrastructure in light of the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines,” he said in October.
Russia, for its part, has called the allegations preposterous, countering that the Nord Stream pipelines are a key element in its energy-export infrastructure, which has the potential to bring in billions of euros a year. “This is a big problem for us and the gas is very expensive,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in September. “Now the gas is flying off into the air.” In hindsight, the decision by Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy company that runs the pipelines, to halt gas supplies indefinitely three weeks before the explosions could be called into question. The Kremlin has blamed the UK’s Royal Navy, without offering any evidence.
In October, Vladimir Putin said that his country was willing to start selling gas to Europe using the remaining pipe of Nord Stream 2. “The ball is in the EU’s court. If they want to, then the taps can be turned on,” Putin said during a speech in Moscow. Though Putin’s words are usually to be taken with a Baltic Sea’s worth of salt, many commentators have questioned why Russia would commit such a seemingly self-destructive act. The Nord Stream pipelines are a massive source of revenue for the country and an integral part of its 21st-century statecraft, often used to win European acquiescence for other forms of Russian foreign policy, such as the interference in former Soviet countries, by leveraging the continent’s reliance on fossil fuels.
“We all know who knows the pipelines best and how to place explosives in such a way that one pipeline remains operational”
Any attempt to explain the reasons behind the sabotage is at this point theorising but Moscow might well have been using the most effective weapon it had (short of a direct military attack) to destabilise Nato. Moreover, an attack on Nord Stream might actually work to its economic advantage by increasing the price of gas in a globalised market, which Russia still dominates despite Western sanctions. Much of this theorising boils down to asking not who has the most to gain from Nord Stream’s distruction but who has the least to lose. In February, Russia requested that the UN Security Council open an inquiry into the sabotage. “We all know who knows the pipelines best and how to place explosives in such a way that one pipeline remains operational,” says Jens Wenzel Kristoffersen, a military analyst at Copenhagen University and a commander of the Royal Danish Navy. He is convinced that Russia is behind the attack. “No allied nation would sabotage the critical infrastructure of Nato countries,” he adds. “All arrows point east.” According to Kristoffersen, publicly available information sent from vessels’ transponders shows that there was a lot of Russian maritime traffic in this part of the Baltic Sea in the run-up to the explosions. “That and the fact that the Russians have been conspicuously passive in investigating the attacks makes me suspicious,” he says.
There have been other theories. In February, American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a detailed account of what he said was a US plot to sabotage the pipelines. Hersh says that the US made the decision to destroy the Nord Stream pipelines, which it has always opposed, so that Russia would not be able to weaponise Europe’s gas dependence. The attack, Hersh claims, was carried out by elite military divers who planted C4 explosives near the pipelines and detonated them using a sonar buoy dropped from a plane a few months later. At first, the theory sounds plausible. After all, Joe Biden previously warned that, “if Russia invades [Ukraine] again, then there will no longer be Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” Much of Hersh’s theory relies on what he calls “a source with direct knowledge of the operational planning”. But the experts who monocle spoke to find the idea that Washington was behind the attack unlikely.
“Hersh does not explain why only three out of four pipelines were sabotaged and why there were many hours between the detonations at Nord Stream 2 and Nord Stream 1,” says Liwang. A sonar buoy, he believes, would have detonated all three simultaneously. Tyry, meanwhile, claims that the evidence made public so far, as well as videos from the blast sites, suggests a large explosive device of several hundreds of kilos, which is too big for divers to carry. Then there’s visibility. “The Baltic Sea is one of the most challenging waters for divers; you can often see just a few metres in front of you,” he says. Kristoffersen calls Hersh’s story “fake news”, which reads like “an excellently written James Clavell novel”. He says that his colleagues in the Danish navy have discredited the account. “If this took place during the 2022 Baltops Nato military exercise [as Hersh claims], all navies participating would have known where each and every single warship was and what they were doing,” says Kristoffersen.
Another theory that has been floated is that the attack was carried out by environmental activists. Liwang says that this is unlikely, though he does not rule it out. “Yes, it could in theory be a group that benefits from the uncertainty that such an attack against energy infrastructure creates,” he says. But he maintains that “no one has claimed the attack”, which runs counter to activist groups’ usual tactics. It is also unlikely that activists would have the capacity to carry out such an operation. “A highly demanding sabotage operation like this needs a lot of planning and practice in the Baltic Sea region, known to be among the most challenging waters to navigate,” says Tyry. “It is also highly unlikely that they would have the kind of underwater vessels needed to transport close to a tonne of explosives and attach the detonators without being noticed by sonic surveillance.”
“Whoever is behind the attacks wanted to send a message to Nato that this is what we can do to you – hit you anywhere, any time,” says Kristoffersen. But while sowing fear and uncertainty is straight out of Putin’s hybrid-warfare playbook, it is also something that a terrorist group such as Isis could do. But, says Liwang, “These attackers did not want to be identified which, in my opinion, rules out terrorist groups just as it does environmental activists.”
Every expert monocle spoke to believes that investigators will reveal who the culprits are. They have already confirmed that they are analysing both the residue from the explosive material as well as the detonator used. But when exactly they decide to go public with the information is also a political decision. “Different laboratories will be able to pinpoint where the explosives were manufactured and that can be cross-checked with who is known to use them,” says Tyry. If investigators in Denmark and Sweden can prove with certainty that Russia was behind the attacks, for example by pointing to explosives that can be traced to a Russian weapons facility, Kristoffersen believes that they might not go public straight away. “Why make an already tense security situation more tense?” he says.Tyry believes it is possible that investigators already know the culprits. “This crime can and will be solved,” he says.
If Russia was behind the Nord Stream attacks, that alone might not change European geopolitics a great deal. After all, Western investigators have already proven that Moscow carried out chemical attacks in the UK and Syria. Russia still denies responsibility for these; it probably would continue to deny responsibility for the Nord Stream sabotage. The geopolitical climate has already changed and these kinds of attacks are not new. The same can be said about the weaponisation of Europe’s energy supply. Still, the Nord Stream attacks mark a turning point. Whoever is behind them has shown how vulnerable Europe’s energy infrastructure is. The continent made a strategic error in becoming reliant on Putin’s Russia for energy and nothing could serve as a better metaphor for that mistake than three exploded pipelines at the bottom of the sea.
Key facts: Nord Stream 1
Runs from Vyborg in northwest Russia to Lubmin in northeast Germany. Financed by Gazprom, Uniper, Wintershall Dea, Gasunie and Engie. Inaugurated in 2011 by Angela Merkel, Dmitry Medvedev, François Fillon and Mark Rutte.
Key facts: Nord Stream 2
Runs from Ust-Luga in northwest Russia to Lubmin in northeast Germany. Financed by Gazprom, Uniper, Wintershall Dea, omv, Engie and Shell. Completed in September 2021 but not opened. Olaf Scholz suspended certification on 22 February 2022, two days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Images: Getty Images