On the last day 26 of September, four natural gas leaks were detected in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. The pipelines connect gas fields in Russia directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea , bypassing western Europe. The first of them went into operation in 2011, while the second should have started its commercial operations this year, an operation suspended with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Like almost everything involving relations between Russia and the so-called West today, the leaks are now at the center of controversy and exchanges of accusations.
First, the facts. Denmark stated that, in the early hours of the day 26, its geological service detected two seismic peaks that would be characteristic of underwater explosions, ruling out natural events. Also at this time, the pressure of the pipelines in the German terminals dropped dramatically, indicating a rupture. During the day, a Danish air patrol and ships from both the Swedish and Danish armed forces verified the existence of large amounts of bubbles on the sea surface, attesting to the gas leak.
One of the leaks is in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline A. The other three leaks are in the same region, where the two systems fork. One in each Nord Stream 1 pipeline, plus one in the same Nord Stream 2 pipeline A. Two of the leaks are within the Danish exclusive economic zone, while two others are in the Swedish EEZ. The published images do not allow us to have a proper scale of the disaster, but the largest bubble turbulence is one kilometer in diameter. The size of the gas bubbles made the authorities of the two countries both ban maritime traffic for a radius of almost ten kilometers and impose an aerial floor of a thousand meters of altitude.
In recent days it has also become the potential environmental impact of spills is better known. According to one of the UN agencies, it could be the largest single release of methane gas ever recorded. The reason for this lies in the fact that the pipelines were full of natural gas, even when out of service. In the case of Nord Stream 2, without ever having entered commercial service, but filled in both for testing and in anticipation of the start of operations. The size of the leak makes the estimated time for more detailed inspections to be estimated in weeks.
Several authorities have spoken out stating that the leaks are the result of an act of sabotage or terrorism. Sergei Narishkin, a Russian intelligence director, said that “we have indications that point to a Western trail in the organization and implementation of these terrorist acts.” NATO called the incident “deliberate and irresponsible acts of sabotage” and that “any attack” against the alliance’s members’ infrastructure “would face a united and decisive response.” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, said it was “a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression against the EU”. The US CIA and Russian submarines have become the protagonists of journalistic articles and speculation.
Resolving what happened, however, will not be simple. We’re potentially talking about an episode that will be the subject of conspiracy theories and exchanges of blame. The locations of the spills, possibly caused by explosions, are in international waters, outside the direct jurisdiction of any country involved. Furthermore, the interests of potential perpetrators create a web of contradictions. For example, the most explicit accusation is made by various actors against Russia.
The country has the technical and military capacity to carry out the undertaking. It was indirectly benefited by the consequences of the spill, as the international price of gas rose as a consequence. Potential Russian motives for such an attack would be to expand its use of energy supplies as a bargaining tool in the current conflict and also an eventual retaliation against the opening of the Baltic Line, which links Poland to the North Sea.
At the same time, the Nord Stream pipelines are owned by a company that is majority owned by Russian state-owned Gazprom. In addition, gas pipelines that link Russia to Europe by land, such as the Yamal, would be a much more effective pressure tool. In other words, the Russians would have destroyed their own property to have marginal gains, potentially eclipsed several times by the negative repercussions of the act of sabotage itself.
It is neither a matter of affirming nor denying the possible Russian responsibility, it is a matter of verifying the uncertainty and the difficulty that the world will face in unraveling what happened. In a few weeks we may have more and more concrete information. Until then, unfortunately, the leaks will fall into the same basket as other recent episodes. They will only be exchanges of accusations between international actors, marked by deliberate disinformation and, above all, impunity.