NATO Doubles Naval Presence in Baltic, North Seas After Pipeline Sabotage

Russia’s suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines has brought a flood of Western naval assets into the region.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The Royal Norwegian Navy is aboard a ship in the Baltic Sea.
The Royal Norwegian Navy is aboard a ship in the Baltic Sea.
A sailor in the Royal Norwegian Navy is pictured onboard a Skjold-class ship during a military exercise on the Baltic Sea on June 6. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Western countries have ramped up their military presence in the Baltic and North Seas in response to suspected Russian sabotage of undersea gas pipelines while top NATO officials issued fresh warnings to Moscow against targeting critical infrastructure in Europe, the latest sign of spiking tensions between the West and Russia over its war in Ukraine.

NATO countries have doubled their maritime presence in the Baltic and North Seas to more than 30 ships, top alliance officials said, after they accused the Kremlin of sabotaging Russian-built gas pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea to Germany. Allied countries have also expanded undersea and overflight monitoring of the Baltic and North Seas with submarine patrols and flights from maritime patrol aircraft, according to current and former Western officials.

The attack on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which shipped huge amounts of natural gas from Russia to Germany and the rest of Europe, was a direct shot across the bow from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has vowed to make Europe’s sanctions on his energy exports costly for everyone. The suspected sabotage, Western officials say, align with Russia’s plan to freeze out Europe from its oil and gas reserves ahead of winter in a bid to weaken Western resolve for supporting Ukraine. It also led to massive methane leaks and untold environmental damage.

Western countries have ramped up their military presence in the Baltic and North Seas in response to suspected Russian sabotage of undersea gas pipelines while top NATO officials issued fresh warnings to Moscow against targeting critical infrastructure in Europe, the latest sign of spiking tensions between the West and Russia over its war in Ukraine.

NATO countries have doubled their maritime presence in the Baltic and North Seas to more than 30 ships, top alliance officials said, after they accused the Kremlin of sabotaging Russian-built gas pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea to Germany. Allied countries have also expanded undersea and overflight monitoring of the Baltic and North Seas with submarine patrols and flights from maritime patrol aircraft, according to current and former Western officials.

The attack on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which shipped huge amounts of natural gas from Russia to Germany and the rest of Europe, was a direct shot across the bow from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has vowed to make Europe’s sanctions on his energy exports costly for everyone. The suspected sabotage, Western officials say, align with Russia’s plan to freeze out Europe from its oil and gas reserves ahead of winter in a bid to weaken Western resolve for supporting Ukraine. It also led to massive methane leaks and untold environmental damage.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday warned Russia against any future attacks on NATO critical infrastructure. “Allies are also increasing security around key installations and stepping up intelligence and intelligence-sharing,” he said ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. “We will take further steps to strengthen our resilience and protect our critical infrastructure. Any deliberate attack against allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”

The balance of power in the Baltic Sea region is expected to shift decisively in NATO’s favor when Finland and Sweden formally join the alliance. The two countries, which have long remained nonaligned militarily, moved to join NATO shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February. NATO defense planners have since begun referring to the Baltic Sea as a “NATO lake,” though defense analysts say the alliance can’t rule out further threats from Russia’s navy in the region.

“Recent events prove that NATO does need to maintain, even increase, NATO maritime presence in the North Sea and in the Baltic Sea,” said Steven Horrell, a former U.S. Naval intelligence officer and expert on defense issues at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “These are clearly now contested waters. Russia’s made it clear they’re not just packing up their Baltic Fleet and going home.”

For years, Western defense officials have raised alarm bells of increased Russian activity around undersea infrastructure, including gas pipelines and undersea fiberoptic cables that carry a bulk of the world’s international data. In early 2022, the head of the British Armed Forces, Adm. Tony Radakin, warned that Russian submarines tracked near undersea cables could threaten the global communications system and said any attempt to damage those cables could be construed as an “act of war.”

The risk of these acts of indirect aggression from Russia, something that Western defense analysts refer to as “hybrid warfare,” might only increase as the war in Ukraine drags on and the Kremlin seeks new ways to indirectly lash out at the West to try and counter its battlefield losses. Russia has begun a bombing campaign on Ukrainian cities after being beaten badly on the battlefield in the last six weeks.

“This is a form of hybrid warfare,” said Rachel Rizzo, an expert on European security at the Atlantic Council think tank, of the suspected Russian sabotage on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. “It’s especially significant because it’s effectively Russia telling Europe and Germany that it doesn’t need their business.”

On the economic front, the United States and its NATO allies have worked to ramp up sanctions and export controls on Russia as well as halt oil and gas imports to Europe to squeeze the Russian economy. That included a price cap on Russian oil exports, which incensed OPEC members so much that they decided to throw their hats in the ring with Putin for fear that oil consumers, rather than Putin, might get the upper hand.

Putin has, in turn, accelerated the cutoff of energy exports to Europe in a bid to weaken Western resolve for unfettered support of Ukraine ahead of a cold winter, when the European continent’s energy usage will spike. Western officials blame Russia for orchestrating the undersea blasts on the two pipelines while Russia, in turn, hinted that Western countries, which have spent months trying to supply Europe with energy, sabotaged the pipelines in apparent “terrorist attacks.” The White House has referred to Russia’s counteraccusations as “disinformation.”

Swedish investigators concluded that the suspected sabotage was caused by subsea detonations, and they are coordinating next steps in the investigation with Germany and Denmark. In recent weeks, the Russian government sent a letter to Sweden demanding its own authorities and officials at the state-run gas giant, Gazprom, be allowed to join the investigation of the pipeline explosions. Sweden rejected those demands.

Western officials believe Putin could expand attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets as well as ramp up indirect showdowns with NATO countries in the coming months if Ukraine racks up more battlefield wins.

“President Putin is failing in Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said. “His attempted annexations, partial mobilization, and reckless nuclear rhetoric represent the most significant escalation since the start of the war. And they show that this war is not going as planned.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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