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The energy crisis in Europe seems to be entering a dangerous new phase.
If suspicions were confirmed – or simply heightened – that Russia was behind the explosions that caused three leaks on the two Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea on Monday, the security implications for the continent would be far-reaching. The idea that the EU’s undersea energy and communications infrastructure was now a Russian target would force the European military to prepare for a largely unexpected new front in the war in Ukraine that could bring them into direct confrontation with the Russian Navy.
Britain has long feared that Russian submarines in the Atlantic and other northern waters may seek to hit crucial internet undersea cables. This week’s explosions make those fears less fanciful and bring back memories of the height of the Cold War, when NATO and Soviet fleets – and especially their submarines – played cat-and-mouse games. high stakes in the Baltic.
In a sign that countries are rushing to take extra precautions, Norway’s Oil and Energy Minister Terje Aasland told national broadcaster NRK on Tuesday evening that “steps would be taken to improve preparedness” around the oil and gas infrastructure following discussions between government, military, police and operators.
The Nord Stream gas leaks came a day after Norwegian authorities urged vigilance after sightings of unidentified drones near oil and gas platforms. In July, Britain’s Royal Navy released an unusually accurate statement that it had tracked Russian submarines along the Norwegian coast.
Investigations into the gas pipeline leaks are underway in Denmark and Sweden, the countries whose territories are closest to the incident sites. Danish Premier Mette Frederiksen called the explosions a deliberate and “as serious as possible” attack, but did not identify the culprit. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson also said it was “probably a deliberate act, that is to say it is probably an act of sabotage”.
Other European leaders seemed to have already decided who to blame.
“Today we faced an act of sabotage,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Tuesday. Without explicitly naming Russia, he alluded to it, adding: “We don’t know all the details of what happened, but we clearly see that it was an act of sabotage, linked to the next step in the escalation of the situation in Ukraine. ”
Ukraine was less reluctant to name names. Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the President of Ukraine, called the incidents “a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression against [the EU].”
Robert Habeck, German Vice-Chancellor and Economics Minister, was quick to point out the seriousness of the defensive measures that might be needed.
“We are, of course, in a situation in Europe and Germany where critical infrastructure – and energy supply can be counted among them as a whole – are potential targets. Germany is a country that knows how to defend itself, and Europe is a continent that can protect its energy infrastructure,” he said.
As the continent awaits answers, some are already weighing the message Russia was seeking to send should this turn out to be an act of deliberate sabotage.
Morawiecki and Frederiksen appeared together in Goleniów, Poland, at the opening ceremony of another gas pipeline – the Baltic Pipe from Norway to Poland – which is due to start flowing on Saturday.
If it was Russia that was behind the Nord Stream leaks, the timing may well have been deliberate, said Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank specializing in EU energy and climate policy.
“The Baltic Pipe was a main avenue for Poland to diversify away from Russia…it could be a symbolic thing,” he said, suggesting that Russia could also eliminate Poland’s alternative supply line. .
But the key implication for Europe goes far beyond pure symbolism, he added.
“Europe should now understand that energy infrastructure poses security risks,” Tagliapietra said. “If something like this happens to our pipe to Norway or to Algeria this winter, we’ll be in serious trouble. We must intensify our security activities on our critical energy infrastructures, because hostile actors could reproduce this type of action.
With EU diplomats expected to discuss the incidents in Brussels on Wednesday, Danish and Swedish authorities are racing to establish precisely what happened.
The key question is why the Russians would sabotage their own pipelines, lifelines that until very recently pumped lucrative gas exports to Europe. However, with Nord Stream 2 not yet online and Nord Stream 1 effectively shut down by Russia earlier in September, the real implications of these incidents on gas supply for Europe – and the financial cost to Gazprom and Russia – are effectively zero.
An act of sabotage would also fit into the Kremlin’s playbook of covert acts of aggression designed to intimidate and disrupt, such as the Salisbury poisonings in the UK in 2018; the explosion of the Czech arms depot in 2014; and a series of explosions at arms depots in Bulgaria, the last in July this year.
The Kremlin itself has called the Baltic Sea gas leaks “worrying”. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We cannot exclude any possibility at the moment. Obviously there is some kind of destruction of the pipe. Before the results of the investigation, it is impossible to exclude any option .”
Two of the leaks occurred near the Nord Stream 1 twin pipeline, northeast of the Danish island of Bornholm, and one leak was reported near the Nord Stream 2 pipeline off the island’s southeast coast , the Danish Maritime Authority announced on Tuesday. A Danish Defense Command spokesman said two of the leaks occurred in a sea area that is part of Denmark’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (but not in coastal territorial waters) and one in Sweden’s EEZ .
Sweden’s national seismic network detected two separate explosions in the area on Monday, one at 2:03 a.m. and the second at 7:04 p.m., national broadcaster SVT reported. The Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland said it recorded two “trembling” events matching the timing of the reported gas leaks. The seismographic signals of the two events “do not resemble the signals of earthquakes. They resemble the signals typically recorded during explosions,” the organization said.
A 5-nautical-mile no-go zone has been established around each of the sites, which are at a likely depth of 60 to 70 meters, Baltic shipping agencies said.
The Danish military has released images of clouds of gas bubbles rolling on the surface of the sea.
Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told national broadcaster Sveriges Radio on Tuesday that his government was now focusing “intensely on gathering information”.
“The mere fact that there is such a leak is serious, in our view,” Hultqvist said. “Because there are different types of scenarios [which could be behind the leak] we must consider this carefully and seriously.
Karl Mathiesen and Hans von der Burchard provided additional information.
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