Suspected sabotage this week on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines from Russia to Europe has sparked an environmental disaster and finger-pointing.
Though no one knows for certain how the pipelines were ruptured, spilling methane into the North Sea, many pointed to Russia, which has benefited from spiking natural gas prices as well as the fear factor while escalating its war on Ukraine.
For its part, Russia cast suspicion on the United States.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pointed at U.S. President Joe Biden, citing a statement he made on February 7.
On Telegram, Zakharova wrote:
“U.S. President Joe Biden must answer whether the United States acted on its threat on September 25 and 26, 2022, when an incident occurred on three branches of Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, preliminarily qualified as pipeline ruptures, possibly as a result of explosions.”
Problem is, that puts Biden’s words, spoken at a news conference before Russia attacked Ukraine, in a false context.
The European Commission blamed the pipeline ruptures on sabotage based on seismic readings that suggested explosions. Danish and Swedish prime ministers cited “deliberate action.”
The undersea pipelines are 745 and 767 miles long. Russia hasn’t been pumping gas into Nord Stream 1, citing repairs. Germany had frozen completion of the newer Nord Stream 2 project just days before Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
But it was weeks before then that Biden, at the White House with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, was asked if Germany would “pull the plug” on Nord Stream 2 “if Russia invades Ukraine.”
In that event, Biden said, “There will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.”
Scholz added, “[W]e have intensively prepared everything to be ready with the necessary sanctions if there is a military aggression against Ukraine.”
So, the context was about whether Germany and the U.S. would block the project to bring economic pressure to bear on Russia, which prior to the war provided half of Germany’s natural gas (and 40 percent of Europe’s, much of it transiting Ukraine).
Pulling the plug is entirely different from blowing things up.
On February 23, after Russia’s “recognition of independence” of two breakaway Ukrainian regions in Donbas, Germany halted the licensing and certification of Nord Stream 2, and the U.S. announced new sanctions on the pipeline and its partners.
As Biden promised, that shut down the project.
U.S. officials have called the suggestion that the United States or allies damaged the pipelines “absurd.”
On September 28, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said about Zakharova’s representation of Biden’s comment:
“So, look, the President said that [Nord Stream 2] wouldn’t become operational and we would work with Germany on that. And he was right, because Germany took the step in February to freeze it, which was widely reported by all of you. And so that is what the President was talking about at that time.”
On September 28, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “The idea that the United States was in any way involved in the apparent sabotage of these pipelines is preposterous.”
On September 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Turkish leader Recep Erdogan, that the "unprecedented sabotage" of the pipelines was "an act of international terrorism," and that Russia intends to call an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the situation, Russia's TASS news agency reported.
The next day, Putin went inched further toward specifically blaming the United States and Western allies. During a speech announcing that Russia would annex areas of Ukraine it has partially occupied based on rigged referendums, Putin said:
"Sanctions were not enough for the Anglo-Saxons: They moved on to sabotage. It is hard to believe but it is a fact that they organized the blasts on the Nord Stream international gas pipelines, which run along the bottom of the Baltic Sea ... It is clear to everyone who benefits from this," Reuters reported.
With Russian gas supplies off the table, European Union countries have been scrambling to stockpile and find replacement supplies ahead of winter. A goal is to cut consumption by 15 percent by year’s end, in part by turning down thermostats and turning off the lights.
Though Russia isn’t pumping natural gas to Europe, high prices thanks to its war have helped the majority state-owned Gazprom, which posted record revenues and profits in August.
Why might Russia sabotage pipelines that aren’t even in use but could be an avenue for putting pressure on a freezing Germany this winter? Analysis abounds.
Writing in Time on September 29, European energy analyst Suriya Jayanti said:
“Natural gas prices did jump on news of the explosions … but beyond that very short-term consequence there is little leverage to be gained by the sabotage. That lack of logic is the single factor making anyone pause before attributing the explosions to Russia – they just don’t make much strategic or tactical sense….
“That pause is brief, however, given that Russia has been blowing up or shelling energy targets across Ukraine, too. … Given the targeting of energy infrastructure in Ukraine, just one incidence of which plunged five million Ukrainians into darkness, it seems likely that Putin bombed Nord Stream 1 and 2 simply to terrorize Europe."
Calling Russia the "chief suspect," analysts at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank said on September 29:
“In recent years, Russian activity around undersea Euro-Atlantic infrastructure has increased. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as NATO, have issued particular warning of Russian submarine presence near undersea cables in the North Atlantic Ocean. ...
“However, the Kremlin’s motives for conducting an attack on its own pipelines are not fully clear. Russia may be warning and signaling to Europe and the West that it is willing to target civilian infrastructure. Attacks on gas pipelines today could foreshadow attacks on undersea data cables tomorrow.
“Additionally, by severing the pipelines carrying Russian gas to Europe, Russia could be signaling to Europe that it is Russia, not Europe, that has decided to cut energy ties and decouple and that there is no going back. This would seem to contradict the conventional wisdom that Russia was hoping Europe will buckle this winter due to rising energy costs and will seek to pull back from sanctions and pressure Ukraine to negotiate. But Putin may have realized that such hopes were fanciful — especially as Europe has found ways to restock its gas supply for the winter — and is now resorting to new tactics."