On September 26th, 2022, in the middle of the night, an unknown actor blew up the underwater Nord Stream 1 and 2 Pipelines in the Baltic Sea, causing one of the largest releases of methane gas ever. Investigations began immediately, but findings and details have been kept quiet.
Who sabotaged the pipelines, and what does an analysis of incentives to engage in covert action reveal about the current state of international relations?
Owned by Gazprom, an energy company controlled by the Russian government, the pipelines have caused international controversy since Nord Stream 1 began piping natural gas from Russia to Germany in 2011. Western officials complained that the pipelines would increase German energy dependence on Russia.
The German government, bowing to international pressure, announced in February that the recently-constructed and not yet active Nord Stream 2 would remain offline because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Subsequently, in July, Gazprom halted Nord Stream 1 due to “technical” problems. Since both pipelines were offline when attacked, they were filled with pressurized methane gas to prevent damage from water pressure, a precautionary measure that became environmentally damaging after the explosion.
Many commentators see Russia as the most likely perpetrator. Russia has responded that the pipelines are Russian-owned and sabotaging them would run contrary to their economic interests. This claim has some merit. Burdensome sanctions have been levied on Russian markets since the Ukraine war broke out. Even the energy market, which was aided early on in the conflict by a dramatic increase in prices, has started to feel the pain of decreased demand. Why would the Kremlin dig a deeper hole for its most valuable industry – particularly given the attack could prevent natural gas exports to valuable German markets even after the conflict with Ukraine has ended?
Commentators assert Russian President Vladamir Putin might be trying to signal either A) willingness to attack civilian infrastructure, or B) willingness to decouple Russian gas exports from European markets. These claims both miss the mark. Russian forces have effectively demonstrated their willingness to target civilians and civilian infrastructure with attacks in Ukraine. Why would President Putin take the costly additional step of sabotaging Russian property? Western media, government reports, and international bodies are all already awash with descriptions of Russian atrocities against civilians and civilian infrastructure. Regarding decoupling, assertions that the Kremlin is ready to decouple from European energy markets overestimate the Russian economic position and fall for President Putin’s bluff. Moreover, if President Putin wanted to decouple, the pipelines were already offline. Why take the additional step of sabotage?
Russia blamed the West while methane was still surfacing in the Baltic Sea. More recently, the Kremlin cast blame on the UK, asserting the British Navy is responsible. Russian information campaigns aside, the UK has a reputation for “subservience to U.S. military and foreign policy” dating back to the Second World War. The US, and the Biden Administration particularly, has made its position against the pipelines clear. President Biden ominously stated in February “If Russia invades [Ukraine]…there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2.”
On the one hand, Russia invaded Ukraine and the US has the capacity and incentive to take Nord Stream offline. US jets circled the area after the attack and American officials have protested European energy dependence on Russia for years. The US gains significant strategic and economic advantage out of a European pivot from dependence on Russia to dependence on American energy producers.
On the other hand, the Biden Administration has exhibited caution regarding the risk of escalating the conflict with Russia. Military resources have been purposely withheld and a line has been drawn preventing involvement by US soldiers. A covert or clandestine action of this scale must be authorized by the President if conducted by American operatives. The consequence of an intelligence community leak notifying the world that American operatives sabotaged Russian property would be a significant escalation of tensions.
Perhaps the gravity of this risk adds merit to Russian finger-pointing of the UK. If the Biden Administration wanted the pipelines inoperable but feared an American leak, the Administration may have quietly turned to its British counterparts, who are often described as less prone to intelligence leaks. Again, however, the risks associated with a US-affiliated attack on Russian property are substantial. Likely too substantial to reliably assert that the Biden Administration was willing to ignore them.
To be clear, there has been no evidence released connecting China to the Nord Stream pipeline attack. However, there has been little-to-no evidence released at all and China has incentive and capacity to render Nord Stream inoperable long-term. It’s no secret China has benefited from Russia’s decoupling with Europe. Russian exports headed for Europe before the war with Ukraine, particularly of natural gas, have been forced to find new buyers. Many of these new buyers are Chinese firms unwilling to pay the high prices Europeans accepted. Chinese firms are not strangers to negotiating with partners the People’s Republic of China (PRC) holds over a barrel. China has incentive to maintain and increase this beneficial relationship.
In decades past, China would not be a contender on any list of potential aggressive actors outside of its Indo-Pacific bubble. The PRC prioritized regional defense and domestic growth. However, with the reign of Xi Jinping came an increase in international belligerency – particularly conflicts at sea. The possibility that China was somehow involved with the Nord Stream attack remains small until more information is released. But, it would be short-sighted to assert that the chance this global superpower was involved is zero.
As with China, no evidence has been released connecting OPEC to the Nord Stream attack. They are listed here because they have incentive and capability to strike. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia (OPEC+) announced on October 5th that they would cut oil production quotas by two million barrels per day. The announcement was made less than ten days after the Nord Stream attack. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) was the driving force behind the decision.
Like China, the Saudis have benefited from the war in Ukraine. Even before the OPEC+ decision, energy prices had increased dramatically, filling pockets in Riyadh. MBS has incentive to drive a wedge between Russia and European energy consumers. If Western sanctions and decoupling continue, oil prices remain high or climb. Further, MBS and President Putin have maintained a close working relationship. This relationship likely contributed to Russia’s involvement in the October decision and scored Saudi Arabia a share of the quickly-pivoting Russian energy industry, with imported Russian fuel oil freeing up Saudi crude for exportation. MBS’s role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi demonstrates his willingness and capacity to undertake high-risk covert operations. As with China, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC actors should not be counted out of analyses of responsibility for the Nord Stream pipeline attack.
These actors are not the only ones potentially responsible for the Nord Stream pipeline attack. The list of other possible perpetrators includes Ukraine, which has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity for covert operations, and Iran, a Russian ally profiting handsomely from the war in Ukraine. Until the results of investigations are released, an accurate allocation of responsibility is impossible. But, analyzing who has incentive and capacity to get involved can aid investigators and reveal critical foreign policy conundrums relating to the conflict in Ukraine.
Author Biography: Avery Morrow is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a JD Candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from James Madison University.