How the Baltic Sea became the ideal setting for a war secret

After the blasts, Poland and Ukraine openly blamed Russia, but provided no evidence. In an interview, Daniel Stenling, Sweden’s top counterintelligence official, refused to speculate on a perpetrator. But he placed the Nord Stream attack squarely in the context of increasingly brazen Russian espionage.

“In the broader context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s very interesting and very serious,” he said of the blasts, repeatedly emphasizing the growing threat of Russian espionage and cyberattacks.

“We’ve been seeing increased action from Russia for a long time,” he said.

Russia, for its part, has accused Britain, also without evidence.

Russia has long used energy to exert influence and has an interest in breaking up alliances within Europe. But the theory that Russia carried out the blasts, often repeated by Western officials, has only gotten more complicated.

In recent weeks, Nord Stream AG, majority-owned by a Kremlin-controlled company, has begun calculating the cost of repairing the pipe and restoring gas flow, according to a person briefed on the work and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about it. A repair estimate starts at about $500 million, the person said. Consultants for Russia are also studying how long the damaged pipes can withstand salt water. The investigations raise the question of why Russia, if it bombed its own pipelines, would start the expensive repairs.

A Russian construction worker talks to a mobile phone April 9, 2010 during a ceremony to mark the start of construction of the Nord Stream pipeline in Portovaya Bay, some 170 km northwest of St. Petersburg, Russia.

A Russian construction worker talks to a mobile phone April 9, 2010 during a ceremony to mark the start of construction of the Nord Stream pipeline in Portovaya Bay, some 170 km northwest of St. Petersburg, Russia.Credit:AP

But like any good mystery story, Sabotage has layers of intrigue and multiple players with different motives and abilities. Even the Swedish government’s decision to keep details of its investigation secret from Western allies has prompted whispered speculation that investigators may have cracked the case and are strategically silent.

Not true, said Stenling. “We don’t have any concrete evidence,” he said. “But hopefully we will.”

Commenting on his administration’s decision to keep the maps closed, Stenling said, “The entire investigation is unusual.”

Nord Stream comprises two projects, each a pair of concrete-coated steel pipes nearly 4 feet in diameter and more than 700 miles in length.

A painting on a container in Lubmin, Germany, depicts the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

A painting on a container in Lubmin, Germany, depicts the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.Credit:AP

The first pair, Nord Stream I, went online in 2011. Germany wanted cheap, reliable gas, and Russia wanted to reduce its reliance on gas pipelines through Ukraine, a country with which it had a contentious relationship well before this year’s invasion.

Almost everyone else in Europe, along with the United States, protested. A senior Polish official even compared the pipeline deal to the pre-WWII pact between Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin that partitioned Poland.

Sweden rejected part of the project, which was planned near the coast, arguing that it could allow Russian surveillance.


The biggest argument, however, was that Nord Stream would make Europe too dependent on Russian gas and give Moscow leverage over the European Union with its ability to halt supplies.

Shortly after Nord Stream I came online, the Kremlin began pushing for another set of pipes. This second pipeline, known as Nord Stream II, was even more controversial as most of the European Union and the United States – under both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump – opposed it.

Construction was completed in September 2021, and as Russian soldiers gathered at the border with Ukraine, Ukrainian officials viewed the pipeline as a security threat. If Russian gas suppliers could continue to bypass Ukraine, the argument went, the Kremlin would have no reason not to bomb Ukraine’s infrastructure.

Last year, Ukraine’s energy regulators sent a 13-page letter to Poland as part of a coordinated effort to prevent the new pipeline from going live. Nord Stream II “will have negative implications for the national security of Ukraine,” according to the letter obtained by The New York Times. The letter also warned of economic consequences for Ukraine, as Russian companies still pay to send gas through Ukrainian pipelines.


Even after Russia invaded, a document from the Ukrainian government was preserved Times shows that Ukraine is expected to continue to bill Russian companies, including state-owned Gazprom and Rosneft, for gas transportation in the first half of 2022. Under its contract, Ukraine receives an average of $1 billion a year in transit fees.

So there is no shortage of opponents for the pipelines.

But sabotaging a key piece of energy infrastructure could be viewed as an act of war. Implementation by a member of the European Union or NATO would have serious consequences and would shake confidence in two of the most important Western partnerships. And while attacking the pipeline may have made financial sense for Ukraine, especially in wartime, its ability to pull off such a feat is unclear. Ukraine has no Baltic port, and its only known submarine was captured by Russia in 2014.

Many European governments and experts see Moscow as the most likely saboteur. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used gas as a political lever in the past, and there is evidence he viewed Europe as vulnerable.

At a Gazprom meeting, an executive dismissed the idea that Europe could keep Nord Stream II shut down. “Wait for a cold winter and they will beg for our gas,” an official told colleagues at a meeting with Russian politicians and businessmen last year, according to an attendee. The participant spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak about the meeting.

But Germany blocked the launch of Nord Stream II.

As European countries stockpiled natural gas this year, the Kremlin’s behavior changed. Russia shut down Nord Stream I at the end of August, blaming mechanical problems. In early September, the Kremlin said the pipeline would be closed indefinitely. The explosions happened a few weeks later, on September 26th. They severed both strands of Nord Stream I and one of the pipes of Nord Stream II.

The blast does not necessarily benefit Russia. It still has to pay transit fees to Ukraine, it cannot easily separate Germany from its European allies on promises of cheap gas, and it faces high repair costs.

But the sabotage guarantees that gas prices will be uncomfortably high for Europeans by spring. And it creates an incentive for EU countries to press Ukraine to negotiate a quick end as war threatens the land-based pipelines that bring gas west. The fact that one of the Nord Stream II pipes remains intact also means that in an energy crisis, Germany could reverse course and allow that pipe to pump gas.

The Nord Stream sabotage also creates uncertainty about what other infrastructure might be attacked. In addition to damaging the pipeline, the explosion came dangerously close to damaging a power cable from Sweden to Poland. “You’re sending a signal,” said Martin Kragh, deputy director of the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies at the nonprofit Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “It signals, ‘We can do this, and we can do this elsewhere.'”

The fact that the pipeline was not carrying any gas at the time of the explosions has contributed to this speculation.

“We are less certain that functional damage was the primary concern here because the Nord Stream gas pipeline was not in operation at the time,” said Kjell Engelbrekt, who teaches political science at Sweden’s Defense University.

(The lack of gas at the time of the explosion also casts serious doubt on a theory that a bomb was sent through the pipe using an inspection device known as a PIG, or pipeline inspection gauge. “Nonsense,” said Stephan Harmsen, the designer of that PIG for Nord Stream I. These devices require gas flow to function, he said.)

Swedish investigators recovered explosive residue from the site of the explosion. But they experienced the Baltic Sea as a difficult environment. Underwater photos showed little. Monitoring such a huge pipeline would have been incredibly expensive and was never a priority for European intelligence agencies. The best underwater surveillance in the area, security experts say, is provided by Russian sonar sensors along the pipeline. Western investigators do not have access to this data.

With scant evidence from the seabed, a breakthrough may rest on wiretapping by intelligence agencies and human sources. But so far, American and European intelligence agencies have not publicly shared any data they may have collected.

“It’s very fascinating, but also very complex,” Engelbrekt said. “And without access to some of these data points, it’s very difficult to begin eliminating actors and motives.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. How the Baltic Sea became the ideal setting for a war secret

Callan Tansill

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