Ukraine quickly declared the explosions that caused the leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines to be an operation by Russia, aimed at worsening the EU economy and adding to panic over winter gas prices, while Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish defence and foreign minister, thanks the US for what he described as “a special maintenance operation”.
The governments of Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, the most closely affected countries, while all stating that they believe the explosions were the result of a deliberate attack, have so far been careful not to point fingers at anyone.
So what are the theories raging over who might be behind the attack?
The Russian hybrid warfare theory
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said on Twitter that the damage to Nord Stream 1 and 2 was “a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression against the EU”.
"Gas leak" from NS-1 is nothing more that a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression towards EU. 🇷🇺 wants to destabilize economic situation in Europe and cause pre-winter panic. The best response and security investment — tanks for 🇺🇦. Especially German ones…
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) September 27, 2022
Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, also pointed the finger at Russia.
“It was probably an act of sabotage, so it is most likely a signal from Russia, because we are waiting for these circumstances to be confirmed, and it is something very disturbing,” he said. “This is something that shows what means and mechanisms the Russians can resort to in order to destabilise Europe even more.”
This line was echoed by Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at the Bruegel think-tank, who wrote on Twitter that the sabotage showed Russia escalating its use of the energy weapon to hybrid war.
Today, Russia brought its energy weaponisation against Europe to the next level: from economic to hybrid war. Need to adjust our response and preparedness accordingly. #Nordstream
— Simone Tagliapietra (@Tagliapietra_S) September 27, 2022
Brigadier General Carsten Rasmussen, who was Denmark’s Defence Attaché in Moscow until June, laid out the argument for why Russia might want to blow up the own pipeline in a series of Tweets in Danish.
He said that the sabotage “creates fear” about whether Europe can get gas this winter, and also over the vulnerability of other infrastructure in Europe. He said the sabotage would lead markets to react, pushing up gas prices by 12 percent. He said the attack would “threaten Western unity”, pointing to Sikorski’s tweet. Finally, he said the attack was a distraction from Russia’s referendums annexing new areas conquered in its invasion.
“Who might be interested in provoking the four effects mentioned?” he asks, pointing the finger at Russia. “Nothing has yet been proven – and perhaps never will be. The sabotage actions in the Baltic Sea look like a hybrid action, not aimed at Denmark, but at the West’s unity and willingness to support Ukraine.”
— Carsten Rasmussen (@carsten1960) September 28, 2022
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov dismissed such attempts to blame Russia as “quite predictable and also predictably stupid”.
“This is a big problem for us, ” he protested in a call with journalists. “Because firstly, both lines of Nord Stream 2 are filled with gas – the entire system is ready to pump gas and the gas is very expensive… Now the gas is flying off into the air.”
André Ken Jakobsson, an expert at hybrid warfare at the University of Southern Denmark, told The Local that, despite the Kremlin’s protests, he believed that Russia was the “most logical” culprit.
“I think it’s, it’s first of all strategic signalling towards the West, saying, ‘we are not above attacking civilian critical infrastructure. They’re doing it to a pipeline built by themselves, but also remember, it’s a joint project with Germany. And they’re doing it very close to the Danish territorial waters, which also is a signal towards Denmark, in my view, because Denmark was a big problem for them when they were finally laying down of the pipes, and Russia became very upset about this. So it’s an escalation towards the west, in my view.”¨
He said that Russia might also intend to use the damage to the pipeline as an instrument to get sanctions lifted at a later date.
“We saw that with Nord Stream 1 some a long time ago. There was a problem with a turbine, and Russia said, ‘in order to get that fixed, we need some of these technological sanctions lifted. And I see the same play here, saying, ‘we can fix it, of course, but then we need advanced technology, and need to lift your sanctions’.”
US strategic attack or revenge for Ukraine invasion
Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish defence and foreign minister, posted a now highly criticised tweet thanking the US for the action.
Thank you, USA. pic.twitter.com/nALlYQ1Crb
— Radek Sikorski MEP (@radeksikorski) September 27, 2022
In follow-on tweets, Sikorski explained that Nord Stream’s main purpose for Russia had been to allow it to blackmail Eastern Europe with threats to cut off the gas, without also having to cut off gas to customers in Western Europe.
“Nordstream’s only logic was for Putin to be able to blackmail or wage war on Eastern Europe with impunity,” he wrote. “All Ukrainian and Baltic sea states have opposed Nordstream’s construction for 20 years. Now $20 billion of scrap metal lies at the bottom of the sea, another cost to Russia of its criminal decision to invade Ukraine. Someone, @MFA_Russia, did a special maintenance operation.”
Backing this argument is a clip taken from a press conference US President Joe Biden held with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February, days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
“If Russia invades… then there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said. “We will bring an end to it.”
This has been tweeted thousands of times today in what some have dismissed as a Russian propaganda operation. Rather than threatening to sabotage the pipeline, Biden is more likely to have been referring to the possibility that Germany could simply block the pipeline and refuse to use it.
Germany in the end went ahead with that decision and block the newly completed Nord Stream 2, taken the decision only days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine.
Ukrainians, Poles, or Baltic States
Emma Ashford, an expert on energy politics at the Stimson Centre, a US Democrat think tank, went through the options in the an interesting thread on Twitter, and said it would “make logical sense” for the Ukrainians, Baltic States or Poles to do it, as the pipeline had long been a threat to their national security.
But she said, it was “unclear if they have the capabilities”, and questioned whether they would be willing to take the risk of being found.
2b) The Ukrainians did it. It makes logical sense – Nord Stream has always undermined Ukrainian interests, and they don't want Euro states to back down this winter. But unclear if they have the capabilities, and the risk of backlash if revealed is extreme. 6/x
— Emma Ashford (@EmmaMAshford) September 28, 2022
She concludes in the end that the perpetrator is most likely to be Russia.
“There’s no way to know, but any explanation here requires someone to make a stupid strategic choice,” she said. “My money is on Putin, who’s been making them all year.”