Update: This article was published on 28 September but has been updated to reflect further events. On Thursday 29 September Sweden reported finding another leak in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This makes it the fourth major leak in the pipelines to be discovered this week. Russia continues to dismiss accusations that it has attacked its own pipelines.
BERLIN – Who killed Nord Stream? Three leaks in the twin undersea pipelines linking Russia and Germany, which several European governments have said could only have resulted from deliberate sabotage, have been spewing natural gas into the Baltic Sea since 26 September. Several governments immediately turned their focus on Russia, accusing the Kremlin of escalating its energy war against Europe.
The Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said in a press conference on 27 September that the leaks were the result of “deliberate actions, not an accident”. German and Swedish officials concurred. Videos released by the Danish and Swedish militaries showed huge areas of bubbling gas at the sea’s surface, including one around a kilometre wide.
Leaks in undersea pipelines are rare. Nord Stream is built from steel pipes 4.1 centimetres thick and coated with steel-reinforced concrete 11cm thick. Accordingly, the explosions blamed for causing the leaks in the controversial cylinders were substantial. Swedish and Norwegian seismologists estimated that one was equivalent to 100 kilograms of TNT.
Nord Stream 1 has been shut off since August and Nord Stream 2 never came onstream. However, the enormous pipes were filled with gas, even though they were not delivering energy to Germany.
With blame for the explosions difficult to attribute, many countries were quick to blame Russia for the leaks, without providing evidence for the claim. The Polish foreign minister Marcin Przydacz said: “Sadly our eastern partner [Russia] is constantly pursuing an aggressive political course. If it is capable of an aggressive military course in Ukraine, then it’s apparent that acts of provocations in western Europe also cannot be ruled out.” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, called the leaks “a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression towards [the] EU”.
For its part, the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel Berlin speculated that “according to initial speculation, Ukrainian or Ukrainian-related forces could be responsible,” which would force Russia to deliver gas via its remaining pipelines through Poland and Ukraine. Perhaps most surprising was the response by the former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, who captioned a photo of the leak on Twitter with the message, “Thank you, USA.”
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, said news of the leaks was “very concerning”, adding that “no option can be ruled out” regarding their causes. He later strongly denied that Russia might be responsible for them.
If Russia is responsible for the attacks, the rationale might have been to turn its rapidly diminishing leverage over the EU – which has become increasingly confident of its capacity to withstand a winter without Russian gas – into an advantage by demonstrating its ability to cripple essential components of Europe’s energy infrastructure. Several pipelines link the EU to major gas suppliers, including Russia, Norway and Algeria. The EU’s strategy to wean itself off Russian energy relies on increased imports from alternative suppliers, including by pipeline. Other undersea infrastructure, such as communication cables, could also be vulnerable.
Timothy Ash, an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House think tank, said that Russia’s policy of energy strangulation “is about pressuring the Europeans to make the Ukrainians take a deal. [The Russian president Vladimir] Putin knows he is losing. He wants a deal where he keeps what he has at the moment – the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The problem is that the Europeans don’t have a huge amount of leverage as long as the Ukrainians are willing to fight and the Americans are willing to arm them.”
Experts are unsure about the environmental impact of the leaks. Natural gas is composed largely of methane, a greenhouse gas that is the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Nord Stream 2 was believed to have held about 300 million cubic metres of natural gas. If released in its entirety, according to a calculation by Reuters, that volume of gas would be equivalent to the release of about 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over a century, the same as a mid-sized city emits every year. The amount of gas held in Nord Stream 1 is less certain.
However, environmental experts say leaks of gas are much less harmful than oil spills to the immediate marine environment. The gas from the leak bubbles to the surface of the sea and dissipates into the atmosphere, posing a limited threat to plant and animal life in the surrounding area.
Although the Nord Stream leaks will not directly affect Europe’s current gas supply, they highlight the vulnerability of much of the continent’s critical infrastructure – including that very infrastructure on which the bloc’s plan to get through the winter relies on.