Nord Stream saboteur will probably get away with it
“An investigation is currently underway. We can’t say more right now.”
Various calls to the police and intelligence agencies do not reveal new information about what actually happened with the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines at the bottom of the Baltic Sea on 26 September. All we know for sure is what we could glean from the recent press conference about the sabotage. At the conference, it was stated that Copenhagen Police is leading an investigation into the case in collaboration with relevant authorities and international partners, including German and Swedish ones. In addition, the Danish Maritime Authority established no sail zones around the leakages, which were and still are forbidden to approach by air or sea.
The announcement that an investigation is underway inspires hope for a speedy resolution. But even if the police really succeed in uncovering more details about the explosions, it will be difficult and perhaps even impossible for them to identify the culprit. That is the opinion of André Ken Jakobsson, who as an assistant professor at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark researches hybrid warfare and conflicts between great powers.
He says that Russia has a recurring strategy of covering up its misdeeds. Once the police begin to investigate what happened, they will find 117 possible explanations that the Russians have all brought into play.
“Right now, the police may expect to be able to figure out what happened. But as the investigation progresses, there is a risk that we will have to face the fact that the culprit will never be identified. And if we can’t agree on what happened, then the Russians have won. Russia is really good at muddying the waters,” André Ken Jakobsson says.
The art of making oneself invisible
As long as the ruptures in the Nord Stream gas pipelines on the bottom of the Baltic Sea are not further investigated, we can only stick to what Björn Lund, Swedish associate professor in seismology and director of the Swedish National Seismic Network (SNSN), recently stated to the Swedish TV station SVT.
“There is no doubt that these are explosions,” he said and stated that the first explosion triggered a tremor that measured 1.9 on the Richter scale, while the second explosion measured 2.3 on the same scale.
Both explosions were registered at 30 different monitoring stations spread over several countries. These explosions were certainly triggered by explosives, he said, after which he quickly made the reservation that the explosions did not take place with 100 percent certainty in exactly the places that the authorities have indicated for the leakages. However, it is certain and proven that such large explosions are extremely rare in that area, as it is not used for military purposes.
André Ken Jakobsson emphasizes that there is no doubt that it was a powerful explosion, equivalent to several hundred kilos of TNT. On the other hand, it hard to say anything definitive about how the explosive had been planted.
“All in all, it could have happened in many ways. It could have been planted with small, unmanned drones. It may have been planted by professional divers and remotely triggered, and it may have been placed there a long time ago or planted very recently to time it with the Baltic Pipe’s inauguration,” André Ken Jakobsson says.
He estimates that the saboteur has had plenty of time to carry out the attacks, as the authorities do not have the necessary overview of the Baltic Sea to be able to discover that the attacks were in the making.
“We cannot monitor everything. We have admitted time and again that we do not have the necessary overview of the Baltic Sea—nor of the Danish Commonwealth in general. To a large extent, we lack a better picture of the situation,” he says.
Russians are betting on mini submarines
It is well known that Russia is capable of moving through the Baltic Sea unnoticed. NATO has warned several times that Russia is expanding its fleet of smaller submarines which can carry out operations in secret, i.e. without attracting attention. This has been described by several international media outlets, including The Washington Post and USNI News.
“Russia has recently built new and smaller underwater systems that they can use for, for example, sabotage—this also includes unmanned underwater drones that function in the same way as drones in the air,” he says.
If NATO has warned about Russia’s new submarine ventures in the past, is it not rather foolish to lay large parts of the Baltic Pipe unprotected on the seabed?
“The Baltic Pipe is just one of many parts of our critical infrastructure on the seabed. All the other parts of it that are out there are equally exposed. And there are so many of them that one may be inclined to give up in advance. Because if we really have to protect all that equipment against sabotage, it will be extremely expensive. So, we also have to consider what is worth protecting and where we should concentrate our efforts,” he says and mentions that it is necessary to determine whether we want to deter the enemy from sabotage or instead want to protect every single system.
“Even if we secured the pipeline, Russia would be able to sabotage it. Regardless of how well we do it. Because it is a state. After all, that is what states are able to do. We cannot adequately protect ourselves from it. We simply can't do that,” André Ken Jakobsson says.
Could we not have just decided not to build the Baltic Pipe?
“The Baltic Pipe has been built as a defence against Putin’s use of Russian gas as a weapon. And although the Russian threat has been clear to us for a long time, it has politically been difficult to take it seriously enough to imagine that Danish territory could be exposed to Russian terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure. It has not been at the top of the political agenda. And that is why these projects have been carried out,” he says and adds that he himself believes that this consideration would not have changed the decision to build the pipeline.
It is simply difficult to find a good alternative.
“The alternative to building the Baltic Pipe would have been to hold on to gas supply from Russia to Poland. And if we weigh the two risks against each other—that there may be sabotage on NATO territory, or that a significant part of Poland’s dependence on Russian gas could be alleviated—then we risk the act of terrorism rather than Putin continuing to have the power to simply shut the supply down,” he says.
What does Russia get out of destroying the pipelines?
“The sabotage is a message to Europe that energy supply is now quite concretely part of the conflict between Russia and the West. The battlefield is being moved further into Europe,” he says and continues that Russia would like the war to be fought in Ukraine and, in a figurative sense, also in Europe, since it will not be with conventional weapons; at least not right now.
On the verge
That agenda, of course, goes against what the West wants, namely that the war should remain limited to Ukraine as much as possible and end as soon as possible. In addition, the West wants to minimize the damage of the ongoing hybrid war, where the aggressor—Russia—is using all its tools of power to drag a heated conflict right to the verge of a conventional war.
“With the assassinations, Russia probably also hopes to be able to put pressure on the EU to start negotiations about easing some of the many sanctions,” he says and points out that this form of blackmail is also a commonly used Russian method. It was the very same method that was used when Russia shut down Nord Stream 1 earlier this year, arguing that there was a turbine problem. In order to receive the repaired turbine, the Russians believed that it was necessary to lift some of the sanctions against the country—a claim that the turbine manufacturers were quick to deny.
“There was a lot of evidence that it was a false story that was fabricated for the occasion, so that they could shut down the gas and then try to blackmail the West into easing the sanctions. These acts of sabotage on Nord Stream 1 and 2 serve the same purpose. And now we can follow what will happen as Nord Stream AG has reported that the damage can be repaired. But we must also expect a story about how it will be difficult and require lifting some sanctions,” he says.
Is the crisis turning into World War 3?
“We are in a hybrid war because we are exposed to hybrid attacks. We know that there are thousands of cyberattacks on our energy supply and critical infrastructure every day. It’s about trying and trying and trying until they succeed. So, we are on the verge of it becoming really dangerous,” André Ken Jakobsson says.
He reminds that Denmark is already compromised.
“Russia—and probably also a number of other countries—is capable of attacking our critical infrastructure to a certain degree, which will have far-reaching consequences, regardless of whether it is a cyberattack or a physical attack. That’s the situation we’re in. And if that happens, we’ll be closer to World War III becoming more likely.”