The sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines: an act of hybrid warfare with the collaboration of a state actor | International

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Danish Army aerial image of one of the leaks caused by at least two explosions on Monday this week.HANDOUT (AFP)

The European Union and NATO have promised a "strong response" to the sabotage of the Russian gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 in the Baltic Sea. But against whom? At the moment, no organization openly blames any actor for the pipeline explosions, which have caused an environmental disaster and exposed the vulnerability of Europe's key infrastructures. But what they say (and don't say) is one thing and what they suspect is another. Experts believe that an attack of this complexity has only been carried out by a "state actor", that is, with the means and intelligence of an army or an intelligence agency. And when it comes to pointing out a country as the most likely perpetrator of the sabotage, everything points to Russia. This Thursday, Sweden and Denmark have offered new data on the sabotage: according to a letter that the two countries sent to the UN Security Council, the leaks were caused by detonations equivalent to hundreds of kilos of explosives.

Specialized analysts and European and Alliance sources agree that it could be the beginning of a new phase in the conflict between Russia and the West since the invasion of Ukraine. From a purely economic war, Moscow would have gone on to a hybrid war, with attacks on physical infrastructures that seek to destabilize and cause chaos, uncertainty and, perhaps, the disunity of its enemies. The head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, said Thursday that it is "very obvious" who is behind the leaks, but he stopped short of mentioning Russia.

While the investigation into the authorship begins, which can take weeks because the gas continues to escape through the holes in the pipes and it has not even been possible to go down to check what state they are in, the attack begins to have an effect on the side of confusion. All kinds of theories are being spread on social networks, without evidence to support them. Some fed even by MEPs. Former Polish Minister Radek Sikorski posted on his Twitter a photo of the leak on the surface of the sea with the text "Thank you, USA". She has deleted it, but it was on her profile for hours and was immediately quoted and amplified by Russian accounts, starting with the Foreign Affairs spokeswoman for the Government of Vladimir Putin, María Zajárova.

Social networks

That tweet was shared by those who believe the sabotage has been orchestrated by Washington, NATO, Ukraine, or anyone other than the Kremlin. Those who spread this hypothesis also use a video in which the US president, Joe Biden, assured last February, shortly before the invasion began, that the United States would put an end to Nord Stream 2 if Russia attacked Ukraine.

Experts warn that it may never be possible to attribute the attack with conclusive evidence, and the attacker will never admit it because his intention is to sow as much confusion as possible. “It is precisely one of the characteristics of hybrid warfare,” explains Carsten Rasmussen, a Danish brigadier general and former military attaché in Moscow: “Committing actions that it is plausible to deny.” Nor does Rasmussen ensure that Russia is to blame because "there is no evidence," he says in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS, but based on his experience, he sees "a very clear action of hybrid war whose effects point directly to the culprit."

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One of these effects is to generate in Europe the fear that the energy supply will not be enough this winter. “Although it is an irrational fear”, he assures, because neither of the two gas pipelines was pumping gas and the countries most dependent on Russian gas, such as Germany, have full tanks and an alternative supply to overcome the cold months. The attack also seeks to destabilize politically, she adds, and it would be achieving that by blaming third parties and fueling other theories. The moment is not accidental, points out Rasmussen. It coincides with the false referendums to prepare the annexation of Ukrainian territory. "Whoever came up with this has managed to distract from what's going on there with sabotage on a scale not seen since World War II," he notes.

As the pipes cannot be accessed, the information available is still scarce, but the magnitude of the explosions and the amount of gas that is coming out indicate that they are not fissures, but large holes. The pipelines run along the seabed, some 70 meters deep, on a 1,200-kilometre route that crosses the territorial waters of five countries: Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. The Nord Stream 2 pipe measures 1.1 meters in diameter and the thickness of its walls is 4.1 centimeters. German intelligence sources cited by Der Spiegel They believe that high-power explosives were used, comparable to 500 kilos of TNT.

One of the theories that are handled is that several divers were able to place the explosive charges in the two tubes of the Nord Stream 1, which began operating in 2011, and in one of the two of the Nord Stream 2, the new gas pipeline that Berlin paralyzed a few days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mini-submarines or the equipment with which gas pipeline maintenance is normally carried out could also be used. In any case, experts such as Julian Pawlak, an analyst at the German Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies (GIDS), are clear that "an attack of this type is not within the reach of non-state actors."

Authorities are now examining satellite images for suspicious boats in the area, but Pawlak says over the phone that the explosives may have been planted days, months, even years earlier. It cannot be ruled out that they were there since the construction of the Nord Stream 2, which ended in 2021, for example. The sabotage demonstrates that no matter how closely NATO guards the Baltic Sea, with constant patrols of the coastal countries, it is impossible to monitor it in its entirety 24 hours a day. The fact that suspicious military vessels have not been detected does not mean anything either, he points out. The operation could have been run from a commercial ship.

ability to attack

Like Rasmussen, Pawlak believes that the Russian hypothesis is by far the most plausible. “This is about showing the West what they are capable of. The sabotage has not had a direct consequence for energy security, but it sends the message that they have the capacity to attack other critical infrastructure,” he notes. It would be a signal to Europe, especially Germany and Poland, that it could do the same with the gas pipelines that are much more important for the continent's energy security: those that transport gas from Norway.

One of the lines — each pipeline consists of two parallel Nord Stream 2 pipes — is intact, according to the operator, Switzerland-based Nord Stream AG. Theoretically, it could pump gas again. It has an annual capacity of 27.5 billion cubic meters. Different analysts suggest that Russia could have kept that card up its sleeve to increase pressure on Germany and play it if internal unrest in the country increases due to skyrocketing energy prices. The pressure, according to this hypothesis, could force Berlin to accept Russian gas again.

With the attack, explains Johannes Peters, an expert at the Kiel Institute for Security Policies (ISPK), Moscow would be sending the message: "Do not trust that you are prepared to spend a pleasant winter and that you can offset our gas," he said. on public television, where he ruled out the thesis of an attack by the United States to, supposedly, forever prevent Germany from returning to Russian gas.

The sabotage occurred on the same day that a new pipeline between Norway and Poland, the Baltic Pipe, was inaugurated, something that analysts do not believe is accidental. Norway is now Germany's main supplier of natural gas, after Russia turned off the Nord Stream 1 tap earlier this month in retaliation for European sanctions. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, assures that the country is prepared to endure the cold season thanks to the accumulated reserves, which already exceed 90%.

In Germany they still do not dare to give a culprit. The German foreign secret service, the BND, is participating in the investigation along with Denmark and Sweden, in whose waters the attacks took place.

Brussels wants stress tests of European energy infrastructure


The European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, said this Friday that she wants the Twenty-seven to subject their energy infrastructure to stress tests “as soon as possible”. In addition, she has promised the "support" of Brussels so that the States "increase their prevention and preparation", as well as "their capacity to repair critical infrastructure in the event of an attack".

The European energy manager has also welcomed the forthcoming entry into force of an update to the European rules on resilience of the so-called "critical infrastructure", with which she hopes to have "better and more ambitious legislation" soon.

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