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Commentary: Is Vladimir Putin fully weaponising the Nord Stream gas pipelines?

Three gas pipeline leaks in a single day suggest Russia may be sabotaging energy infrastructure, says Bloomberg Opinion's Javier Blas.

Commentary: Is Vladimir Putin fully weaponising the Nord Stream gas pipelines?
File photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Sputnik/AFP/Mikhail Klimentyev)

LONDON: As Ian Fleming, the British author who created James Bond, wrote: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

One does not need to be an avid reader of Cold War novels to see echoes of the adventures of 007 in the real-life events around the Nord Stream gas twin pipelines this week. In a single day, the conduits, which link Russia with Germany under the Baltic Sea, have suffered not one, not two, but three separate major leaks. The word sabotage springs to mind.

Like Fleming’s fictional spook, real Western spies in the Soviet Union operated under a set of principles known as “Moscow Rules” to stay alive under constant harassment from the Kremlin and the KGB. A key one was that “if it feels wrong, it is wrong.” Three leaks in one day feels very, very wrong.

A NEW FRONT ON RUSSIA’S ENERGY WAR AGAINST EUROPE

Put aside the fact that neither the Nord Stream 1 nor the Nord Stream 2 pipelines is operational right now. The leaks are more likely a message: Russia is opening a new front on its energy war against Europe.

First, it weaponised gas supply, halting shipments, including via the Nord Stream pipeline. Now, it may be attacking the energy infrastructure it once used to ship its energy.

The first step in the militarisation of power supplies could have been easily reversed; it just needs a political decision to re-start the flow of gas.

The second stage, though, is longer-term and, perhaps, even permanent. If anyone in Europe was expecting Germany would get any gas via the Nord Stream pipelines in 2023, this apparent attack ends those hopes.

“The destruction that happened within one day at three lines of the Nord Stream pipeline system is unprecedented,” the operator of the pipeline said Tuesday (Sep 27) in a statement. “It’s impossible now to estimate the timeframe for restoring operations.”
File photo of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. (Photo: AFP/John MacDougall)

Can it be an accident? Maybe. An underwater mudslide could explain the breakage. Yet, geological institutes haven’t detected any earthquakes nearby recently, suggesting the problem is man-made.

In the past, fishing nets from trawlers have damaged submarine cables, disrupting phone and Internet services. But the depth of Nord Stream pipelines and their size compared to telecom cables make that possibility remote.

A submarine could have collided with the sea-bottom, hitting the pipeline. But collide three times, in three different places? Unlikely, unless done on purpose. Foul play is the most likely explanation.

WHO BENEFITS FROM SHUTTING DOWN PIPELINES FOR GOOD?

Who benefits? On social media, many quickly pointed out that United States President Joe Biden had promised to “bring an end” to the pipeline. “I promise you, we will be able to do that,” he said earlier this year in a clip widely shared on Tuesday.

Conspiracy theorists always see the hand of the CIA in everything. But that’s nonsense. The clear beneficiary of shutting down the Nord Stream pipelines for good is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pipeline leaks happened in Danish waters, and the country’s energy authority quickly grasped the truth: Accidents like this simply don’t happen.

“Breakage of gas pipelines is extremely rare, and therefore we see reason to raise the preparedness level,” Kristoffer Botzauw, the head of the Danish Energy Agency, said Tuesday in a statement. “We want to ensure thorough monitoring of Denmark's critical infrastructure in order to strengthen security of supply going forward.”

RISK OF CYBERATTACKS ON ENERGY NETWORK

Denmark’s European neighbors should follow suit and put their energy infrastructure on high alert. Inside the energy industry, policy makers and executives privately whisper that their concerns about the coming winter aren’t restricted to just gas supplies, but also encompass cyberattacks and sabotage against the energy distribution network.

For months, officials and executives have discussed the risk in private. Now, the nightmare appears to be coming true.

Europe is crisscrossed by a web of thousands of miles of gas and oil pipelines, and even longer overhead electricity lines, linking hundreds of pumping stations, storage sites and power transformers. Hit one, either via cyberattack or physical sabotage, and the impact would reverberate across the continent.

History suggests the risk of disruption from cyberattacks is real — and previous incidents suggests the energy network is far more vulnerable than governments acknowledge. 

In May 2021, a cyberattack forced the Colonial pipeline, the most important conduit to ship gasoline, diesel and jet fuel in the US, to shut down, severely disrupting supply to the American East Coast. At the time, the White House said the attack was carried out by a group working from Russia, which sought and obtained a monetary ransom.

Earlier this year, a cyberattack against loading facilities in the key European oil hub of Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp caused chaos in the refined products market. More than a dozen oil terminals were affected, and local shortages emerged.

This likely new chapter in the energy war may signal growing desperation in the Kremlin, given how badly its war against Ukraine is going. But it’s also very effective.

European gas prices immediately jumped, with the market adjusting its forward gas prices for the summer of 2023, and the 2023 to 2024 winter. Traders who’d been betting that Nord Stream might reopen in a few months, resulting in lower gas prices, have closed those positions.

The lesson is clear: The energy war is ongoing, winter is about to start, and Putin will continue to play dirty.

Source: Bloomberg/ch
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