Sabotaged Pipelines and a Mystery: Who Did It? (Was it Russia?)

BERLIN (AP) — Two days after a pair of explosions under the Baltic Sea apparently ruptured giant natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany, consensus hardened Wednesday that it was an act of sabotage, as the European Union and several European governments called it an attack. and demanded an investigation.

Experts said it could take months to assess and repair the damage to the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which have been used as leverage in the West’s confrontation with Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The news of a possible attack on the lines added to already intense fears of a painful power shortage in Europe during the winter.

But the central mystery remains: Who did it?

“All available information indicates that these leaks are the result of a deliberate act,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles said in a statement on Wednesday. “We will support any investigation aimed at gaining full clarity on what happened and why.”

Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to President Biden, called the episode “apparent sabotage.”

But with little evidence to go on — US officials said explosive gas leaking from the ruptured pipes made it too dangerous to approach the breach — the United States and most of its European allies stopped short of publicly naming any suspects. Still, some officials speculated on the many ways Russia could win, even though the pipeline carries its gas.

Poland and Ukraine openly blamed Russia, which pointed the finger at the United States, and both Moscow and Washington issued indignant denials. US officials and outside experts also speculated whether Ukraine or one of the Baltic states, which has long opposed the pipelines, might have had an interest in seeing them disabled and sending a message.

When the war began, Germany prevented the recently completed Nord Stream 2 from entering service, and Russia then cut off flow through Nord Stream 1, sparking a frantic effort in Europe to secure enough fuel to heat homes, generate electricity and power. business

Some European and US officials warned Wednesday that it would be premature to conclude that Russia was behind the apparent attacks on Nord Streams, each of which is actually two pipelines. President Vladimir V. Putin likes to show that he has his finger on the gas valve, they noted, but exercising that power could mean keeping the pipelines, whose main owner is the Russian state-controlled energy company Gazprom, in good shape. of operation.

But others noted that one of the two Nord Stream 2 pipelines was undamaged, leaving Putin the ability to use it as leverage if winter turns particularly cold.

Many Western officials and analysts said the sabotage would fit neatly into Putin’s broader Russian strategy of waging war on multiple fronts, using economic and political tools, as well as weapons, to undermine Ukraine’s allies and weaken their resolve and unity. . He demonstrates to an already nervous Europe how vulnerable its vital infrastructure is, including other pipelines and undersea power and telecommunications cables.

“This is classic hybrid warfare,” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, head of the defense committee in Germany’s parliament, who stressed that for now she had no evidence Russia was behind the attack but believed it was to blame. more “plausible”.

“Putin is going to use every hybrid measure at his disposal to make Europeans nervous, from food to refugees to energy,” he said.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said accusing Russia was “predictably stupid and absurd.” He said US natural gas suppliers were making “huge profits” from increased sales to Europe, suggesting the United States is to blame.

“Of course not,” said Adrienne Watson, the White House National Security Council spokeswoman, in a rare official denial. “We all know that Russia has a long history of spreading disinformation and is doing it again here.”

The Russian media picked up the Kremlin accusation and reproduced snippets of Mr. Biden’s promise on February 7 that if the Russians invaded, “then there will be no more Nord Stream 2. We will put an end to it.” US officials said he was referring to diplomatic and economic action, noting that Biden was proven right when Germany halted the project.

A former Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, a vociferous critic of Moscow, seemed to support his interpretation of events with a cheep saying, “Thank you, USA.” above a photo of a chunk of the Baltic Sea churned by rising methane bubbles.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Sikorski declined to give details of his position, but noted that the Nord Stream projects had bypassed Poland, which has strained relations with Moscow, while deepening Western Europe’s dependence on Russia. “Successive Polish governments have been breaking their wrists to stop Nordstream,” he said.

“Why shouldn’t I be full of joy?” he added she. “I would prefer to think that they were rather our allies than our enemies.”

The pipelines were damaged at a critical point in the seven-month war. Kyiv is making unexpected gains on the battlefield, Moscow has defied Ukraine’s Western supporters with thinly veiled threats of nuclear retaliation, Russia appears poised to annex much of Ukraine, and Putin’s order to recruit hundreds of thousands of men for the army is meeting widespread resistance.

At first glance, it seems counterintuitive that the Kremlin would damage its own multibillion-dollar assets. But there is value for Moscow in fueling European fear, which drives up prices on the gas market.

And in the short term, analysts say, it is unclear what Putin stands to lose, as he has largely cut gas deliveries to European countries in recent months.

With both Nord Streams already inactive, the damage in the Baltic Sea has no immediate effect on the European energy supply. Some officials said it might not be a coincidence that a gas pipeline from Norway to Poland known as the Baltic Pipe opened on Tuesday. It was conceived to alleviate Warsaw’s dependence on Russia and passes near the area where the leaks occurred.

In recent months, Europe has reduced its gas consumption, found alternative suppliers and increased its stock, albeit at a high price.

“The bad news, from the Kremlin’s perspective, is that the militarization of gas supply is not working as a political strategy,” said Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst at Raymond James, a US investment bank. “Through its own actions, Gazprom lost almost all of its market share in Europe.”

On Wednesday, swirling streams of gas continued to escape from the three broken pipes, churning the sea surface near the Danish island of Bornholm. Danish authorities said they had launched a criminal investigation to determine the exact cause of the leaks. The United States government offered its help.

While some European officials were quick to speculate about Russia’s involvement, US officials were more cautious, pointing to a lack of available evidence.

For all their harsh criticism of Putin and his government, US officials said it had been tempting to blame almost all the attacks on Russia, sometimes wrongly. In July, there was a widespread assumption in Washington that a major cyberattack in Albania was a Russian effort to undermine a NATO ally; this month, authorities said an investigation had concluded the culprit was Iran.

Several officials in Washington pointed out that non-governmental actors could have carried out the pipeline sabotage. Others said the two detonations recorded by seismometers in the region pointed to explosives placed by a submersible or launched from a plane or ship, suggesting a state was involved.

“It is difficult to evaluate; Does anyone benefit? Finnish President Sauli Niinistö told news outlet Helsingin Sanomat. “That’s why this is a mystery until now.”

katrin benhold reported from Berlin, and David E Sanger from washington steven erganger contributed reporting from Athens.