Things are getting kinetic in the Baltic Sea.
On Monday, two underwater explosions caused three leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines carrying natural gas from Russia to Europe. The explosions and leaks occurred to the northeast and southeast of the Danish island of Bornholm.
According to SVT, strong underwater explosions were recorded in the area on Monday, which were measured at as many as 30 measuring stations in southern Sweden.
According to SVT, the first explosion was measured at 2:02 Monday morning and the second at 19:04 on Monday evening.
“There’s no doubt that there was an explosion,” says Björn Lund, who is a seismologist at Uppsala University and part of the Swedish seismological network, SNSN, which monitors the Swedish underground.
According to the Danish authorities, there is no danger to the residents of Bornholm and Ertholmene.
In connection with the three leaks, the Danish Energy Agency has raised preparedness to the second highest level. This means, among other things, that utility companies must pay extra attention to the safety around the facilities.
(I’m especially grateful there’s no danger to the residents of Bornholm because Youngest is in the middle of a week-long study trip to Bornholm.)
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen held a brief press conference last night, along with a trio of government ministers.
Her statement made it clear that the government is operating on the assumption that the leaks were caused by the explosions and that the explosions were deliberate actions undertaken by an as-yet unidentified party. And yet:
Mette Frederiksen was asked during the press conference whether the authorities consider the gas leak an act of war. She emphasized that the leaks took place in international waters and were therefore not an attack on Denmark. That’s why she does not believe it was an act of war.
“When we look at it with such great seriousness, it’s because it happened so close to Denmark and Sweden,” she says.
It may not have been an act of war, but state actors don’t blow up infrastructure as acts of peace.
Most of the governments commenting on the episode are playing down its military and security aspects. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was never activated, and the Nord Stream 1 pipeline was “shut down for repairs” by Russia a few weeks ago. (Not emptied, just not pumping. What’s bubbling up into the Baltic right now is all the gas the pipe contained at the time it was turned off.)
The gas leak aside—and that’s no small thing—this was largely a symbolic gesture.
Interpreted as a symbol, the timing is also interesting. From Politico.eu:
While the Continent awaits answers, some are already weighing what message Russia was seeking to send should this prove to be an act of deliberate sabotage.
(Polish Prime Minister) Morawiecki and Frederiksen appeared together in Goleniów, Poland, at the opening ceremony of another gas pipeline—the Baltic Pipe from Norway to Poland—which is due to start flowing on Saturday.
If it were Russia behind the Nord Stream leaks, then the timing may well have been deliberate, said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank specializing in EU energy and climate policy.
“The Baltic Pipe was a main avenue for Poland to diversify away from Russia … this could be a symbolic thing,” he said, with the suggestion being that Russia could also knock out Poland’s alternative supply line.
Weirdly, though, the sabotage of the pipelines is something that serves both Russian and Ukrainian interests: the Russians would see it as retaliation for European sanctions (and perhaps as a warning that no other Baltic pipelines were beyond their reach), the Ukrainians to make absolutely sure Russia loses all prospects of income from the Russian pipelines.
Asked by reporters whether it could be an act of sabotage, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that at the moment “it is impossible to exclude any options.”
Ukraine, however, pointed the finger directly at Moscow, saying the incident was “nothing more than a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression towards the EU.”
Whoever did it was very careful to do it close enough to Denmark to make their point, but in international waters where it could not be interpreted as an attack on Denmark (and NATO).
The Russians have been diddling around with the gas supply to Europe ever since the run-up to the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainians themselves have threatened to blow up Russian gas pipelines passing through their territory en route to Europe (I wrote about one such threat in May). Another nation that’s threatened to “end” Russian pipelines into western Europe is the United States:
“We will bring an end to (the Nord Stream pipeline),” says the president (at about 3:55). “I promise you, we’ll be able to do it.”
In case you didn’t watch the video, that’s President Joe Biden telling the press back in January that should Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine with tanks and troops, the United States would “end” the pipeline (that Donald Trump had tried to block with sanctions that Joe Biden lifted within hours of taking office).
Russia, Ukraine, the United States… It’s even conceivable (if unlikely) that a third-party power might have done the deed for their own strategic reasons: restive Germans can no longer pressure their government to resume taking gas from Russia now that it’s no longer physically possible.
Frankly, I’m surprised no one has pointed a finger at Donald Trump or Giorgia Meloni. We all know what they’re capable of. Amber Heard, maybe? Borat?
Regardless of who’s responsible, this represents an expansion of the Russia-Ukraine conflict: it’s the first time a target outside of those countries has been struck. Whoever did it had to know this would be an escalation—and an environmental catastrophe, to boot.
The usual question when a big crime lacks a definite suspect is: who benefits?
Well, as we’ve already noted, Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and Germany—among others. There are plenty of reasons for all of those countries to want the Nord Stream pipelines shut down for ever.
We’re facing an Orient Express scenario: one victim and an entire trainload of suspects with motive.
We lack only a mustachioed Belgian with the little gray cells necessary to get to the bottom of this.
Anyone who’s already read or seen Murder on the Orient Express knows that the solution of that mystery won’t be at all analogous to this one, however.
That much said, what comes next?
What are we supposed to do, for example, if we determine that it was in fact Russia that did this?
The options are so awful that I suspect we will never “determine” that it was Russia, because that would demand a response, and nobody wants to respond because that would be an “escalation.” A “provocation.”
You know, the way we couldn’t actually do anything about Russia’s massing of troops on the Ukraine border last winter, because it might have been considered “provocative,” and Russia might have done something insane like actually invade Ukraine. In this day and age! Fortunately we had sanctions in place, so as long as we didn’t offend Russia to egregiously we knew there’d be no invasion.
Similarly, we can’t “determine” it was Ukraine, because that would just ruin the whole narrative (and make Ukraine an enemy of the climate: while writing this I got a Danish news alert on my phone informing me that the gas leak has released as much CO2 as the entire nation of Danmark normally releases over eight months).
Western opinion would turn on Ukraine in a heartbeat: not entirely, but enough that the virtually unanimous support of the west enjoyed by Europe’s most corrupt nation would end abruptly—and with dire consequences for Ukraine.
And of course, if it were the United States then the entire west would have a vested interest in keeping its mouth shut because the United States has clearly chosen not to acknowledge authorship and no one in western Europe is going to want to tattle on their most important ally.
My best guess is therefore that Russia will blame Ukraine and Ukraine and the US will blame Russia, but we’ll never see a smoking gun because it’s not in anyone’s interest for the fingerprints to be identified.
It’s just a guess, but I certainly hope it’s correct because it was an escalation. So if the party responsible is positively identified, the question moves from “whodunnit” to “whattayagonnadoaboutit?”
And that’s a question with even fewer good answers.
So thanks anyway, Monsieur Poirot, but why not let Captain Hastings handle this one?