Deliberate acts of sabotage were responsible for the damage done to two major Russian underwater natural gas pipelines, European leaders said Wednesday, with multiple suspects, murky motives and a deepening divide between the Kremlin and the West serving to spook already uneasy global energy markets.
The heated but inconclusive back-and-forth over the Baltic Sea leaks from the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines underscores the leverage Russia still holds over European energy supplies and how a disruption to Russian natural gas flow carries serious economic ramifications for the continent. European leaders were already bracing for a long, cold winter and were urging member nations to scale back fuel use after cuts in Russian gas deliveries.
Moscow blamed those cuts on technical issues with the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, but U.S. and European officials generally believe it was Russia’s way of exacting revenge for Europe’s economic sanctions after its February invasion of Ukraine. Russia, one theory holds, is the prime beneficiary of chaos, terror and uncertainty in global energy markets. The pipeline disasters increased all three of those factors.
Basic questions remained unanswered more than three days after “seismic events” were detected near the pipelines. Although the pipelines were not operational, stored fuel leaked into international waters near the Danish and Swedish economic zones. Investigators offered no clues publicly on who carried out the attack, how it was conducted, what the motive was and what the perpetrator hoped to achieve.
The three pipeline leaks sparked immediate speculation that Russia was upping the ante in its use of energy supplies as a weapon. A top spokesman for President Vladimir Putin dismissed such speculation as “stupid.”
Mr. Putin made a veiled threat last week to deploy nuclear weapons if his war in Ukraine continues to flounder. Sabotage of the two pipelines would increase speculation that Moscow is turning to desperate measures as its ground invasion in Ukraine stalls and Russian citizens protest the war.
The impact on global energy markets was immediate. Though neither Nord Stream pipeline was delivering gas to the continent, European gas prices shot up 10% Wednesday as fuel leaked into the Baltic Sea. Prices jumped 7% on Tuesday.
European natural gas prices are up over 100% compared with a year ago.
With preliminary inspection work not even begun, experts said repairs to the pipelines could take months. No significant shipments can be expected as long as Russia labors under international sanctions over its war in Ukraine.
Officials promised a quick response. Most European leaders were careful to avoid blaming Russia by name, though it was unclear who else would have had the means or motivation to pull off such an operation.
“All available information indicates those leaks are the result of a deliberate act,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement. “Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response.”
Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau suggested that Moscow may have launched a carefully planned operation that could disrupt European energy markets without triggering a direct military response from NATO.
“The explosions took place very close to Danish territorial waters, but not inside them, because that would have meant NATO territory,” he said during an event in Washington hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This could mean that someone is trying to intimidate the countries of the Baltic Sea. With the exception of Russia, all these countries are NATO members or are aspiring to membership” in NATO.
The case for sabotage
Seismologists said explosions were detected in the Black Sea before the leaks were discovered Tuesday, seemingly backing up the claims of sabotage.
Nord Stream 1 was a long-running source of contention between the U.S. and Germany. Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden said it was a geopolitical gift to Moscow. The pipeline delivered gas from Russia to Europe before Moscow slashed its capacity in July, temporarily taking offline its fuel shipments to Europe.
Before its invasion of Ukraine, Russia supplied more than 40% of Europe’s natural gas. That figure has been cut substantially throughout the year as the EU and its member nations slash fuel use and search for gas from other sources, including liquefied natural gas from the U.S.
Russian officials also suggested sabotage was behind the pipeline leaks but said Moscow had no motive to destroy its own pipelines. Moscow used the route to get Russian gas to Western nations and get Western dollars and euros into the Kremlin’s coffers. Kremlin officials said they intend to call a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the matter.
“I promise you, we will be able to do it,” the president said.
Russian officials seized on those comments and suggested that Mr. Biden may have ordered a U.S. military operation to damage Nord Stream 1 and 2, essentially forcing Europe to buy more of its gas from America.
“U.S. President Joe Biden must answer the question of whether the United States carried out its threat on Sept. 25 and 26 when an emergency was reported at three lines of Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, which has been preliminarily recognized as ruptures, whereas he suggested those were blown up,” Kremlin spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a social media post, according to her country’s state-run Tass news agency.
“His statement of intent was backed up with a promise. One must be responsible for one’s words,” she said. “Failure to understand what one says does not absolve anyone of responsibility. Europe must know the truth!”
Dmitry Polyanskiy, a deputy Russian representative to the United Nations, seemed to suggest on Twitter that the U.S. is behind “this terrorist-style targeting of civilian infrastructure.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to speculate on who or what was responsible for the leaks but used the incident to highlight U.S. efforts to wean Europe off a dangerous dependence on Russian gas.
“This just drives home the importance of our efforts to work together to get alternative gas supplies to Europe and to support efforts to reduce gas consumption and to accelerate true energy independence by moving to a clean energy economy,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.
In addition to the economic and political fallout, the leaking pipelines likely come at a heavy environmental cost.
Methane leaking from the damaged Nord Stream pipelines is likely to be the biggest burst of the potent greenhouse gas on record by far, The Associated Press reported.
The methane discharge could be as much as five times as measured in the October 2015 Aliso Canyon disaster, the largest known terrestrial release of methane in U.S. history. The projected methane release could be equal to a third of Denmark’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions, a Danish official said.
Across Europe, government officials said they will beef up security around pipelines and other energy infrastructure. U.S. officials urged energy operators to do the same.
“Everybody should be on high alert,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a speech Wednesday in Vienna, according to Bloomberg News.