TCSS Security Commentaries #029

The large-scale damage inflicted upon the Nordstream pipelines marks an important turning point in Europe’s energy crisis, exemplifying how much is at stake in this complex constellation of interests.

Milan Thiée, University of Heidelberg

The ongoing power struggle between Russia, Europe, and the US noticeably played out in a scramble for energy security over the past months. It further escalated as four leaks in the underwater gas pipelines of Nordstream 1 and 2 sparked a series of accusations and speculations.

On September 26, a Danish Island of Bornholm’s seismograph recorded a spike typical of an underwater explosion in the Baltic Sea. In the evening, another seismic shock of similar intensity was reported. Simultaneously, Germany registered a sudden pressure drop in the Nordstream 2 pipeline. On September 28, the Swedish Coast Guard confirmed four leaks, two each in the Danish and Sweden economic zone.

When the damage was detected, both pipelines were not operational in supplying Russian gas to Europe. Germany had halted the certification of the controversial Nordstream 2 pipeline project in response to the Ukraine crisis. On another front, Russian Gazprom suspended gas delivery through Nordstream 1 under the pretext of technical issues and a defective turbine. In response, the European Union effectuated a gas emergency plan to reduce gas consumption and become less reliant on the Russian energy supply. The gas leaks coincided with the opening of the Baltic Pipe Project – to carry gas from Norway through Denmark to Poland and neighboring countries – which marks an important shift towards utilizing European gas sources.

Map depicting leaks discovered in Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines
(Source:  Sky News)

Drawing on the quality of the seismological data, researchers unanimously recognized the man-made nature of the underwater detonations, raising questions among affected countries as to who could be responsible for this presumed act of sabotage. In theory, every involved government could be blamed for having a logical incentive for damaging the pipelines and the technical ability to carry out such an offshore mission. It is not surprising that many parties believe Russia is involved in an attack on vital energy infrastructure. Many analysts believe Russia could benefit from intensified disturbances and uncertainty in the European gas market, especially as winter is closing in and the demand for natural gas increases.

In an interview with DW news (video), former US State Department’s European Energy Security Advisor Benjamin Schmitt suggested that Russia may use repair works as a pretext to lift Western sanctions and increase its leverage on Europe. In the same vein, Ukraine’s presidential advisor Mikhaylo Podolyak tweeted, “the large-scale gas leak is nothing more than a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression toward the EU.” However, the fact that Kremlin would technically lose its grip on Europe by destroying its pipelines. It significantly undermines the arguments pointing toward Russia. Other than Russia, several European nations, especially Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Finland, could benefit from inflicting long-lasting damage to Russia’s economy.

Similarly, the Nordstream pipelines had long been a major concern for the US, continually expressing vehement criticism regarding the EU’s economic ties with Russia. The US has established itself as an important player in sending increasing quantities of liquefied natural gas to Europe, with the German newspaper Spiegel headlining “US to become EU’s most important LNG supplier” at the end of last month. Currently, a task force made up of police personnel from Sweden, Denmark, and Germany is investigating the leaks, raising criticism from Russia’s foreign ministry, which stated that a comprehensive and open investigation would require involving Russian officials and Gazprom equally. After almost a month, the investigations haven’t conspicuously identified the source of the explosions and haven’t held any actors responsible. Without providing substantial evidence, the Russian defense ministry claimed UK Navy personnel were involved in the explosion plan. UK defense ministry rejected the Russian claim and attributed “distraction tactics” to the Russian defense ministry.   

The deliberate disruption of vital infrastructure marks an important turning point in the development of regional security and exemplifies what is at stake in this energy crisis. At the same time, it shows the interrelatedness of the energy issue with the Ukraine war and, at a much larger scale, the emergence of and confrontation within a block-like strategic constellation which ultimately affects the lives of the general public. Shortly after the news about the leaks was confirmed, European gas prices increased by 12%, despite the pipelines not transporting any gas before the incident.

Milan Thiée  is an undergraduate Political Science and Anthropology student at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. In 2021 and 2022, he studied at National Taiwan University as a recipient of the MOFA Taiwan-Europe Connectivity Scholarship.