From the Editor: The Nord Stream mystery [Gas in Transition]
Both the energy crisis and the broader conflict between Russia and the West were ratcheted up a gear, when in late September, three of the four Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were ruptured, with sabotage widely concluded to have been the cause.
What we know
Four large leaks occurred across the three pipelines in Danish and Swedish waters on September 26, and Swedish seismologists recorded seismic activity at the site, concluding that the cause was certainly explosions and not earthquakes. Photographs published by the Danish military showed that one of the leaks had resulted in methane bubbling to the surface across an area around 1 km in diameter. Investigations into the blasts are being undertaken separately by Denmark, Sweden and Germany, and Danish police have already likewise reached a preliminary conclusion that “powerful explosions were the cause.”
The first underwater photographs and footage of the ruptured Nord Stream 1 pipeline 1 were published in a Swedish newspaper on October 18, taken by an underwater drone. They appeared to show long tears in the seabed near the concrete-reinforced steel pipe. The pipe was not only cracked but torn apart, with at least 50 metres of it seemingly missing.
The incidents had limited immediate impact on European gas markets, as Nord Stream 1 has been out of action since the end of August, with Gazprom citing technical difficulties relating to sanctions. But they may have been a contributor to climbing futures prices for gas later this winter, as it is clear that Nord Stream 1 will not be able to open again this year. Indeed, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller has indicated that it may take 12 months for the pipeline to be repaired.
There is broad consensus across Europe, and in Russia, that sabotage is to blame for the leaks. Pipelines do explode from time to time, but it is highly unlikely that three separate strings would leak at different locations on the same day. However, there is no hard evidence so far regarding the perpetrators.
Western governments are yet to blame Russia for the blasts. Although some Western politicians, intelligence officers and commentators have done so, including Olga Khakova, deputy director for European energy security at the Atlantic Council, who said in late September that “we still don’t know 100% that Russia was responsible, but everything is pointing to Russia being behind this.” Russian president Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has directly accused the “Anglo-Saxons” – referring to the US and the UK.
“The sanctions were not enough for the Anglo-Saxons: they moved into sabotage,” he said on September 30. It is hard to believe but it is a fact that they organised blasts of the Nord Stream international pipeline.”
Absent evidence, it is worth considering who stands to gain from the attacks. One explanation is that Russia undertook the attacks to further unsettle European energy markets. But this seems counter-intuitive.
It has been demonstrated that Moscow is more than willing to use the threat of withholding energy as a geopolitical weapon. And this is likely what it had been doing over the summer, steadily reducing gas flow via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline until eventually it was closed down altogether.
Russia claimed these constraints were due to the fact that necessary repairs to turbines abroad could not happen because of sanctions, as well as other technical problems. But even after Germany convinced the government in Canada, where one turbine had been repaired, to make a sanctions exemption to allow its return to Russia, Moscow refused to take it. In late August, Canada’s government gave assurances in late August that other turbines used by the pipeline could also undergo maintenance and then be returned, but Russia responded by saying it had to shut the pipeline down indefinitely because of an oil leak.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said that due to sanctions imposed on the company, the leak could not be repaired. However, Germany’s Siemens Energy, the manufacturer of the turbines, responded saying “such leaks do not normally affect the operation of a turbine and can be sealed on site.”
“It is a routine procedure within the scope of maintenance work,” the company said.
And in any case, Russia could have replaced lost flow to Germany and other European countries via Nord Stream 1 with extra volumes delivered through Ukraine, where transit remains stable. But it chose not to.
However, Russia uses energy supply as a weapon in order to get something in return – in this case, perhaps Germany and other European countries easing back on military support for Ukraine, or perhaps becoming more open to a peace deal that benefits Moscow. Without Nord Stream 1, though, Russia loses the leverage to turn supply back on. Its only option would be to send extra gas via Ukraine, but that puts Kyiv in a very advantageous position.
This said, it is quite a significant assumption to make that the Kremlin is acting entirely rationally. After all, it has launched a war at great financial and human cost that has left Russia a pariah state, facing a steep economic downfall, with seemingly little to gain except for potentially some bombed-out and depopulated territories in east and south Ukraine.
For the sake of argument, the Russian line of thinking is that Washington destroyed the pipelines to ensure that energy ties between Europe and Russia remain severed, to weaken Moscow’s geopolitical power and help precipitate regime change. If Europe’s break with Russian gas will be for the foreseeable future, that will provide extra opportunities for US LNG exporters on the continent, and make the EU increasingly dependent on the US.
However, such a move would be risky. If European investigators were to uncover evidence of US involvement, that would be very harmful to the Europe-US relationship. Other vocal critics of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, and Europe’s overreliance on Russian gas, include Poland, and, of course, Ukraine. But then there may be a question of capability to carry out the attacks.
It may be some time before the Nord Stream mystery is solved.