Large leaks that suddenly erupted in the Nord Stream gas pipelines, which run from Russia to Europe under the Baltic Sea, have spawned many theories but few clear answers as to who or what caused the damage.
Here’s what we know and what’s been said so far:
Who is accused?
So far, Western governments and officials have avoided directly pointing the finger while Russia blamed the West.
European Union states say they believe the damage was caused by sabotage but have stopped naming anyone. Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, said it was “very obvious” who was behind it, but didn’t say who it was.
The Kremlin said the accusations of Russian responsibility were “stupid,” and Russian officials said Washington had a motive as it wants to sell more liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe.
President Vladimir Putin said Friday the United States and its allies blew up Nord Stream. “The sanctions were not enough for the Anglo-Saxons: they resorted to sabotage,” he said.
In previous comments, the White House has denied accusations that it was responsible. US President Joe Biden said Friday the damage to the Nord Stream was a deliberate act of sabotage.
WHY SABOTS A PIPELINE?
German naval chief Jan Christian Kaack told German daily Die Welt in Monday’s edition on the day the leaks were found, although he appeared to have spoken beforehand: “Russia has also built up considerable capacity underwater. On the bottom of the Baltic Sea, but also in the Atlantic, there is some critical infrastructure such as pipelines or submarine cables for IT.”
A new pipeline has been built alongside Nord Stream between gas-producing Norway and Poland, which is trying to end its dependence on Russian energy, making the region very sensitive to Europe’s energy security.
“(Russia) can intimidate Europeans with an act of sabotage. Because if they’re able to blow up those pipelines on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, they could do the same with the new pipeline,” said Kristine Berzina, Senior Fellow for Security and Defense at the German Marshall Fund.
However, when it was an act of sabotage, pipelines built by Kremlin-controlled Gazprom and its European partners were damaged, at a cost in the billions.
The damage also means Russia is losing an element of leverage it still had over Europe, which has been scrambling to find other gas supplies for the winter, even if the Nord Stream pipelines were not pumping gas when the leaks were discovered, say analysts.
Whoever or whatever is to blame, Ukraine can also be a beneficiary. Kyiv has long urged Europe to halt all purchases of Russian fuel — though some gas still flows to Europe via its territory. The disruption to Nord Stream brings Kiev’s call for a full embargo on Russian fuel closer to reality.
HOW COULD NORD STREAM BE DAMAGED?
Experts say the extent of the damage and the fact that the leaks in two different pipelines are widely spaced suggest the act was premeditated and well-orchestrated.
Seismologists in Denmark and Sweden said they detected two powerful blasts near the leaks on Monday, and the blasts were in the water, not under the seabed.
A UK defense source told Sky News the attack was likely deliberately planned and detonated remotely using underwater mines or other explosives.
“Something big caused these explosions, which means … Russia could do it. In theory, the United States could do it too, but I don’t really see the motivation there,” Oliver Alexander, an open-source intelligence analyst, told Reuters.
The United States has long urged Europe to end its reliance on Russian gas, he said, but Washington has little apparent motivation to act now because Nord Stream was no longer pumping gas to Europe at the time the leaks were found, although the pipelines did have gas under pressure in them.
“They have already managed to stop Nord Stream 2. It was already dead in the water, it wasn’t going anywhere,” he said.
Analysts say it’s possible the damage was caused by devices available in the commercial market, but given the scope and precision it was more likely to have been caused by an actor with access to more sophisticated technology.
US news channel CNN, citing three sources, reported that European security officials observed Russian Navy supply ships and submarines near the sites of the Nord Stream leaks. Asked about the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was a much larger NATO presence in the region.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
At Russia’s request, the UN Security Council will meet on Friday to discuss the damage to the pipelines while the Europeans press ahead with their investigations.
For now, however, a more direct finger-pointing between Russia and the West could exacerbate tensions that have already been heating up over the war in Ukraine, said Marek Swierczynski, a defense analyst at Polish think tank Polityka Insight.