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Russia May Use Nord Stream Aftermath to Cause More Trouble

An investigation of the leaks may cause a standoff with Russia.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Gas emanates from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Gas emanates from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Gas emanates from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28. Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images

One favorite twist in any murder mystery playbook is when the detective turns out to be the murderer. That old scenario may be playing out in the Baltic Sea right now. Explosions in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines last Monday were serious acts of aggression—falling just below the threshold of military violence. But the chief suspect is also the main detective.

Precisely because the sabotage was not a military attack, the act has not yet been officially attributed to a person or country, and the pipelines are ultimately Russian-owned, the Kremlin is dispatching naval vessels to join Nord Stream investigators at the leak sites. That means Russian government vessels are in Sweden’s and Denmark’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs), where Swedish and Danish maritime experts will, of course, be investigating too. Activity around the leaks pose a serious risk of escalation.

Four leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines are bubbling away off the Danish Baltic Sea island of Bornholm, located around 23 miles from Sweden and 105 miles from mainland Denmark. Two of them are located in Denmark’s exclusive economic zone, and the other two are in Sweden’s. The gas is poisoning the sea, and its high methane content makes it far more harmful to the atmosphere than regular carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, the leaks may already have reached the equivalent of 40 percent of Sweden’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

One favorite twist in any murder mystery playbook is when the detective turns out to be the murderer. That old scenario may be playing out in the Baltic Sea right now. Explosions in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines last Monday were serious acts of aggression—falling just below the threshold of military violence. But the chief suspect is also the main detective.

Precisely because the sabotage was not a military attack, the act has not yet been officially attributed to a person or country, and the pipelines are ultimately Russian-owned, the Kremlin is dispatching naval vessels to join Nord Stream investigators at the leak sites. That means Russian government vessels are in Sweden’s and Denmark’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs), where Swedish and Danish maritime experts will, of course, be investigating too. Activity around the leaks pose a serious risk of escalation.

Four leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines are bubbling away off the Danish Baltic Sea island of Bornholm, located around 23 miles from Sweden and 105 miles from mainland Denmark. Two of them are located in Denmark’s exclusive economic zone, and the other two are in Sweden’s. The gas is poisoning the sea, and its high methane content makes it far more harmful to the atmosphere than regular carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, the leaks may already have reached the equivalent of 40 percent of Sweden’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Because the gas is highly flammable, repair teams were only able to begin assessing the holes on Oct. 3. Indeed, it was impossible to access the sites until the erupting gas volumes subside. Danish authorities announced on Sunday that the leaks in its EEZ had stopped, while one of the Swedish EEZ’s leaks subsided (the other one has increased in volume). On-site investigations began on Oct. 3. The Swedish and Danish governments have already informed the United Nations Security Council that the explosions were likely caused by hundreds of kilos of explosives.

Enter the Kremlin. “This looks like an act of terrorism, possibly on a state level,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Sept. 29. Needless to say, an act of terrorism—especially on a state level—needs to be investigated by the affected country. And that country is not just Sweden and Denmark but Russia as well because the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines are the property of Gazprom International Projects, a subsidiary of Russia’s PJSC Gazprom.

“Nord Stream AG intends to start assessing the damage to the pipeline as soon as it receives necessary official permits,” Nord Stream explained in a Sept. 29 press release. “Access to the area of incidents may be allowed only after the pressure in the gas pipeline has stabilised and the gas leakage has stopped. Until the completion of the damage assessment, it is not possible to predict the timeframe for restoration of the gas transmission infrastructure.”

Because the pipelines are ultimately Russian-owned, this gives the Russian government the opportunity to send personnel too. But because the leaks occurred in Sweden’s and Denmark’s exclusive economic zones, the two countries will dispatch maritime investigators too. The Swedish Security Service announced on Sunday that it’s investigating with Swedish government prosecutors and being assisted by the Swedish Coast Guard, which is (in turn) being assisted by the Swedish Navy. The Swedish Coast Guard and Swedish Navy arrived at the Swedish EEZ’s leak site in the morning of Oct. 3. “The fact that the leaks are in Swedish and Danish EEZs but not in their territorial waters means they can’t prevent access to whichever Russian crews arrive,” a recently retired senior officer in the Swedish Navy told FP. “If the Russians go there, there’s nothing the Swedish or [Royal] Danish Navy can do. The trouble is that they can then remove the evidence Swedish and Danish investigators are looking for.”

Added retired Rear Adm. Nils Christian Wang, a former chief of the Royal Danish Navy: “Everyone wants an answer as to who committed the sabotage. And everyone is entitled to try to provide an answer. The Russians are within their rights to investigate. If it had been Western-owned pipelines, the owners and Western governments would jointly investigate.” Indeed, a further twist is the fact that Nord Stream is minority-owned by German, French, and Dutch firms, which means that they—and their home governments—could claim a right to investigate too.

The sequence of events likely to take place within the next few days, retired Rear Adm. Anders Grenstad, a former chief of the Swedish Navy, told FP, began with the Swedish Coast Guard asking the Swedish Navy for assistance in investigating the leaks as it lacks the underwater equipment required, which is precisely what appears to have happened in the days leading up to their arrival on Oct. 3. In Denmark, the navy also handles coast-guarding duties. “And then the Russians will arrive,” Grenstad said. “Legally, this is an extremely tricky situation because both Sweden, Denmark, and Russia have the right to investigate, which is why there’s a real risk of escalation.”

“We’re likely to see Russian warships at the sites of the leaks. We’ll see Swedish warships, Danish warships, and of course ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] that will travel underwater to document the damage,” Wang said. “We may see Swedish and Danish ROVs on the seabed, then surfacing with various pieces of evidence, but we’re also likely to see Russian ROVs surfacing with other pieces of evidence that the Russians would then say point to U.S. espionage.”

Although Swedish and Danish navy vessels wouldn’t harass Nord Stream investigators, Russia could point to the risk of such harassment as a reason to have navy vessels accompany the investigators, and there’s of course a real risk that Russian military vessels would interfere with the work of Swedish and Danish investigators. In 2015, a Russian Navy vessel harassed a civilian crew from the engineering firm ABB that was laying the NordBalt cable between Lithuania and Sweden. “As soon as you have warships patrolling in the same area, you always have the risk of escalation,” Wang said. “These leaks are a brilliant example of the complexity of tackling hybrid aggression.” Every country with seabed or undersea infrastructure—that is, most countries—should start thinking about how they would handle the situation now facing Sweden and Denmark.

In January 2021, I hosted a conversation between Rear Adm. Ewa Skoog Haslum, chief of the Swedish Navy, and retired Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, then-commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, focusing on the risk of maritime gray zone aggression. The two admirals turned out to be prophetic. Although they couldn’t have predicted the sabotage of gas pipelines, they highlighted the risk of disruption to other civilian activities in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic—and how difficult it is for navies to deter such aggression that, while causing significant harm, is not of a military nature.

Now, Skoog Haslum faces Europe’s most delicate gray zone encounter to date: keeping Swedish investigators in Sweden’s EEZ safe while avoiding military confrontation with the Russian outfits likely intent on provoking Swedish sailors. It’s a good thing that Skoog Haslum has, over the years, already given so much thought to the seemingly unthinkable.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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