Analysis | Nord Stream Sabotage Mystery Leaves All Infrastructure More Vulnerable


Last September’s explosions on three out of four threads of Russia-Germany gas pipelines, Nord Stream 1 and 2, are turning into conspiracy theory generators akin to the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks or, more recently, the Havana Syndrome that has afflicted diplomats from the US and Canada. As reports surface blaming the US government or a “pro-Ukrainian group”  that used a rented pleasure boat to lay hundreds of kilograms of explosives 80 meters deep in the Baltic Sea, clarity seems even further away than directly after the blasts.

It might be useful, then, to try to make a case for and against each of the three main versions, if only to understand once again how little information we have almost six months on — and how important it is to find out the truth and defend against further attacks. The destruction of the pipelines remains a scary precedent for an undersea infrastructure that includes, apart from various oil and gas pipes and power lines, a 1.3-million kilometer network of cables that transmit data on $10 trillion a day in financial transactions alone.Version 1: The Russians Did ItContrary to the obvious argument that Russia had no reason to destroy the most powerful blackmail tool it had against Europe in general and Germany in particular, Russia did have both plausible motives and the means to blow up the pipelines.

By the time the blasts rocked the sea bottom near Denmark, Russia had already stopped pumping gas via Nord Stream 1, claiming it was out of commission due to delays in equipment repairs caused by Western sanctions. Even if some of Vladimir Putin’s most optimistic allies hoped that Europe would freeze during the winter and crawl to Russia begging for more gas, the Kremlin, which was about to declare a mobilization, clearly knew that the war in Ukraine would not end soon and that US allies in Europe would not capitulate just to lower energy prices. Blowing up Nord Stream 1 would stop the bickering about equipment repairs but not completely destroy the prospect of resuming gas supplies at some point after the war: The repairs would only take about a year. The pipelines were ruptured at some of their deepest points, which would make it easier to pump out the seawater when it came to that.At the same time, the blackmail tool — or the carrot to proffer — remained in the form of the intact Nord Stream 2 string, with the not-insignificant capacity of 27.5 billion cubic meters a year, a pipeline that the German government had decisively blocked even before Russia invaded Ukraine. Starting flows through it, as Putin proposed at the time, would have justified the (recoverable and temporary) loss of Nord Stream 1.  If it worked, it would have had the brilliance of a chess sacrifice. As for the cost of the necessary repairs, they would arguably be desirable, given the well-supported theory that Gazprom, the main Russian gas supplier, is run for its contractors — many of them long-time Putin cronies — rather than its shareholders. Paying enormous amounts of money to pipeline-building companies owned by the likes of Gennady Timchenko and the Rotenberg brothers may even be the giant company’s true raison d’etre.

Other explanations of why Russia might have blown the pipelines are somewhat more contrived. For example, Danish military analyst Anders Puck Nielsen recently suggested that one possible motive would have been to drive home to Europeans their vulnerability: If Russia could destroy Nord Stream, it could do the same to the Baltic Pipe from Norway to Poland or to undersea power cables. Clearly, an attack on any non-Russian infrastructure could have been a step too far, and risk drawing NATO into a military response, so self-harm could have been the most effective way to deliver that kind of message. But Russia’s adversaries understand anyway that it has ample capacity for non-conventional attacks, including at sea — it has a large navy and a bigger merchant marine, the submarines and skilled divers needed to place explosives. The Russian government could even conceivably use the “pro-Ukrainian group” of recent reports for a false-flag operation to undermine Western support for Ukraine.

The main argument against an evil Russian plan is its obvious short-sightedness. With the Nord Streams gone, Germany was forced to find alternative gas suppliers — and did so, mostly in Norway, now the country’s biggest supplier, but also in the Netherlands and Belgium (and not, contrary to a widespread perception, the US, since Germany still lacks the requisite LNG terminals). It wasn’t even that difficult, given the existing production and delivery capacity — just a bit more expensive. Markets are easier to lose than to regain, and Putin knows that as well as the next person; a chess sacrifice that fails as spectacularly as this one is a humiliating blunder. Putin made some tragic mistakes last year — but even within his rather exotic worldview, this one would have been unnecessary and certainly unforced.

Version 2: The Ukrainians Did ItThis is the version emerging in recent weeks, driven by a New York Times report from an unnamed US intelligence source and by leaks from the German authorities’ investigation that traced explosives used in the attack to a 15-meter yacht out of Rostock that could be rented for about 3,000 euros a week at the time of the blasts. The German leaks suggest that professionally faked Ukrainian passports were used and that the boat, the Andromeda, was hired through a firm run by Ukrainians in Poland.

Ukraine has been rather loosely governed in the best of times, and while its anarchic society lately has been united by the common purpose of defeating the Russian invasion, different groups of Ukrainian actors, state and non-state ones, see different ways of achieving that goal. It’s not clear whether any branch of the Ukrainian government was behind last year’s bomb attack on the Kerch Bridge or increasingly frequent fires at Russian military factories and warehouses. Ukraine has no shortage of extremely wealthy and resourceful patriots, and its own trained divers, too. Some of them could have planned a private operation aimed at weaning Germany off Russian gas, thus making it easier for the German government to support Ukraine.It’s just as easy to imagine the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy doing the same — especially given its acrimonious history with recent German governments, always accused of being too hesitant and too slow to support the Ukrainian cause. 

For Ukraine, the Russian undersea pipelines have always been an irritant. Both Ukrainians and their Polish allies are on record condemning the Nord Stream projects. Blowing them up would have ensured that any Russian gas that would start flowing to Europe after the war would mainly flow through Ukraine, providing resources for its rebuilding. There’s also a strong incentive for Ukrainians, whether linked to the Zelenskiy administration or not, to undermine Russia’s energy revenues, which fund the invasion. And if the destruction of the pipelines was a bold Ukrainian operation, it would be worthy of Zelenskiy’s role model in this war — Israel, a country able to hold off much bigger enemies through ingenuity rather than brute force.If Ukrainians did it, they could count on Western intelligence services and politicians to cover for them — and a recent report in the Times of London suggested they did just that. Western governments have invested a lot of political capital in supporting Ukraine; to turn around and start blaming Ukraine for a terror attack on undersea infrastructure would be hard. 

But fear that any such cover-up wouldn’t last would have been a powerful counter-argument for any Ukrainians planning to blow up the pipelines. Western publics — especially the pacifist, hesitant German public, a third of which says Ukraine is getting too many weapons and a majority of which considers Germany’s diplomatic efforts to end the war in insufficient — wouldn’t make the fine distinction between “Ukrainian” and “pro-Ukrainian.” The idea of any Ukrainians, government-employed or freelance, blowing up vital civilian infrastructure in Europe will not engender sympathy for the Ukrainian cause. It won’t drum up donations or increase military aid, and it’s potent enough to be used by anti-Ukrainian political forces seeking to be elected.In other words, while Ukrainians had the motives and means to blow up Nord Stream, the political risk of such an attack could outweigh its relatively short-term benefits. And some of the recently uncovered details speak against a Ukrainian trail, too: For example, it would have been much easier for Ukrainians to find a boat in friendly Poland, and to deliver explosives there, than to operate in Germany, where locals might get suspicious and the authorities would not take kindly to such use of their territory. Version 3: The US and Its Allies Did ItOf all the parties, the US had the most powerful political and economic motives to want the Russian pipelines out of commission. The Biden administration’s efforts to ensure a military victory for Ukraine depend on Western unity, and removing the temptation of cheap Russian gas helps to cement it. The explosions also would benefit Poland, a crucial ally that has fought long and hard against the Nord Stream projects and that now controls Ukraine’s military supply logistics to a greater degree than Ukraine itself. And disrupting the pipelines would undermine Russia’s ability to fund the war.

Economically, the removal of Russian gas supplies from the European market would speed the construction of more LNG terminals; already in January through November 2022, the US exported twice as much gas to the European Union — if not yet to Germany — than in all of 2021. While the war is on and repairing the pipelines remains out of the question, US suppliers are gaining valuable time to expand in Europe and become hard to displace. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that the Norwegian military helped the US to sabotage the Russian pipelines — and Norway, of course, is another big beneficiary of Russia’s removal from the European gas market.

Finally, it’s important for US credibility that its threats never appear empty. US officials have spoken out many times against the Russian pipeline projects in Europe, and no one should be surprised if actions followed the strong words.

There’s almost no downside to an act of sabotage for the US. Even if it were confirmed that the explosions are its doing, no European country would quit NATO.  Aware that the US security guarantee is its best defense against a marauding Russia, Germany would have to swallow its pride, reasoning that its erstwhile energy dependence on Gazprom was a big mistake and the US was finally forced to correct it. But then, US involvement probably cannot be proven beyond doubt — and those who try will always be easy to discredit as Russian stooges or useful idiots. Just look at Hersh, who didn’t help his case by readily airing it on Russian propaganda TV. Besides, US intelligence is capable of sending the hounds in different directions — and recent stories suggesting Ukrainian involvement do so without pinning the attacks definitively on Ukraine.

There are, however, arguments against the possible US involvement, too. For example, the failure to blow up all four Nord Stream strings is hard to explain if US professionals set up the charges. If they had the cooperation of NATO allies Norway and Denmark, they would have had all the time in the world to do it right; they could have finished the job even if they’d failed the first time. There’s also President Joe Biden’s oft-demonstrated reluctance to drag the US into the war as a belligerent party or to escalate in such a way as to provoke a disproportionate Russian response, perhaps even a nuclear one. For a leader in this frame of mind, a bold move like blowing up a gas pipeline is not easy to make.

Modern war — or at least modern war as fought in and around Ukraine — doesn’t have any exemptions for civilian infrastructure. Belligerents who can get away with destroying it, be they state or non-state actors, will do so. That’s why it’s important to go beyond cui prodest discussions and vague trails and establish what really happened in September 2022, near the Danish island of Bornholm. That should provide pointers on other potential targets and perhaps suggest methods of safeguarding them. If a non-government actor blew up the Russian pipelines, it’s an uncomfortable thought that extremely sensitive infrastructure is relatively easy to destroy; if a government did it, defending against such attacks should be a national security priority for every country that relies on undersea cables or pipelines.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• We May Never Get the Truth about Nord Stream or a Covid Lab Leak: Andreas Kluth

• Georgia Is a New Front in Russia’s Hybrid War: Therese Raphael

• Europe Is Winning the Energy War, Only to Face Recession: Lionel Laurent

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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