Warning shot across the Baltic

Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and 2 have four pipelines between them.

Three of them were the other day destroyed by underwater explosions, producing kilometre-wide seabed craters, while releasing $2 billion’s worth of gas and 200,000 tons of methane into the Baltic.

This incident raises many questions, which can be answered within the realm of probability. Certainty can only come after a thorough forensic investigation, and no one knows when that’ll be conducted – and, more relevant, by whom.

Since the explosions were obviously pre-planned and carefully timed, the first questions are the lapidary ‘cui bono?’ and its follow-up, ‘whodunit?’. The Kremlin answered both with certainty: America.

Isn’t that self-evident? Because, by cutting Europe off from Russian gas, America makes the continent wholly dependent on her own liquefied gas. Those Yanks will do anything for money, we all know that.

By way of prima facie evidence the Russians played an early February video of Biden threatening to “bring an end” to Nord Stream 2 should the Russians invade the Ukraine.

Clearly, that dyed-in-the-wool enemy of Russia and everything else that’s good in this life could mean only one thing: blowing up the newly completed pipeline. Send a few frogmen in, or perhaps a sub or two – and kaboom! Europe becomes a slave to American oil companies.

The Kremlin’s line was dutifully echoed by Donald Trump, and I’d desperately love to see the hymn sheet providing the lyrics. He saw fit to replay the same video, adding a verbal endorsement of Putin’s claim: “Wow, what a statement. World War III anyone?”

So Putin and Trump agree that terrorism is exactly what Biden had in mind. You, on the other hand, I hope will agree with me that this version of events doesn’t tally with Biden’s making good on his threat.

This was his instant response to the Russian invasion: “Today, I have directed my administration to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG and its corporate officers. These steps are another piece of our initial tranche of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate.”

“As I have made clear” is a reference to Biden’s threat to “bring an end to Nord Stream 2”. To suggest otherwise betokens, putting it kindly, bad faith.

Nord Stream 2 was, as it were, already dead in the water. Sanctions against it are so comprehensive that it’s inconceivable that the project will ever be reactivated, or at least not within years. Hence the US can’t derive any profit from its alleged plot.

As for Nord Stream 1, the Russians themselves have stopped pumping gas through it, hoping to freeze Europe into submission this winter. That indeed may benefit the American hydrocarbon industry, but it will have Putin to thank for it, not Biden.

The Ukraine isn’t a likely suspect either. The only countries potentially suffering from this terrorist act are her allies in Europe. Even though they aren’t getting Putin’s gas now, those supplies may resume should the Russian regime change. Now the pipelines are out of commission for years, probably for ever.

Barring a sudden pandemic of madness breaking out in the Ukrainian government, this leaves only one possibility: Russia herself. But why would Putin want to destroy the pipeline that almost singlehandedly has been keeping the Russian economy afloat? What is his bono?

The esteemed émigré Russian expert on the hydrocarbon market, Mikhail Krutikhin, offers an answer I find unconvincing.

By failing to supply the stipulated amount of gas to Europe, he says, Russia is in default of ironclad contracts. That means fines to the tune of tens of billions of euros. Yet having destroyed the pipelines, Gazprom can now claim force majeure, thereby avoiding huge lawsuits – especially if no hard evidence of Russian terrorism is found.

This doesn’t quite work for me. First, the Russians had already violated every conceivable contract even before the explosions.

Second, the country is in a war mode, and the war it’s waging is against the world, especially its western part. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine Putin (de jure owner of a big chunk of Gazprom and de facto owner of the whole company) being overly concerned with legal niceties. If he is capable of threatening the world with nuclear annihilation, he is certainly capable of telling Europe what to do with those contracts.

To digress for a second, the nuclear threat has finally elicited a response from that great Putinversteher, Angela Merkel. Having been a major force behind Russia’s growing power in Europe, she had kept stoically silent until yesterday.

However, sensing that her Freund Vlad needed some extra weight behind his threats, Angie had to come to his aid. “You must take his words seriously,” she said. “Taking them seriously, rather than dismissing them as a bluff, is by no means a sign of weakness. It is a sign of political wisdom that helps protect room for manoeuvre.”

Taking Putin’s words seriously, thereby displaying political wisdom, can in this context only mean forcing the Ukraine to capitulate. Has Freund Vlad issued a personal guarantee to Freundin Angie that he would then desist from further conquests? If so, she shouldn’t be bashful about sharing this with us.

But back to Nord Stream. What does Putin stand to gain from destroying it? Isn’t that a case of cutting off his gas nose to spite his economic face?

One critical thing to understand here is that neither Putin nor his acolytes care about the Russian economy or indeed the Russian people. If they did, they wouldn’t be spending trillions for the privilege of turning those people into cannon fodder.

They do care about their personal economies, but after the first 20 billion sitting in an offshore bank such concerns lose urgency. However, to hold on to those billions they have to win this war – or at least not to be seen to have lost it.

They specify, with commendable honesty that they are fighting not just the Ukraine but above all the West, so it’s the West that has to be vanquished. Since it’s clear to everyone that a military victory over the West is beyond Russia’s capabilities (they can’t even defeat a weak Eastern European country getting but a tiny fraction of the West’s arsenal), they have only one way out: scaring the West into submission.

This can be done with a nuclear threat, but the Russians have gone to that well so often for so many years that the West has stiffened its spine, which even recently was still tilting forward.

US Secretary of State Blinken (seen as an anti-Putin hawk) and National Security Adviser Sullivan (historically a Putinista dove) delivered two speeches speaking in one voice: any use of any nuclear weapons will have deadly consequences for Russia and, more important, Putin personally.

Assuming that Putin takes them at their word, that leaves only one arrow in his quiver of threats: one aimed at Europe’s infrastructure, much of which criss-crosses the seabed. By blowing up their own pipeline, which was already barely functional anyway, Putin may be sending a signal to Nato, most immediately to Britain.

If you persist in your foolhardy resistance to his aggressive designs, he has the will and the means to destroy the intricate network of undersea cables and pipes, those vessels through which blood flows into the body of British energy grids, industry, banking, financial services, communications.

Running parallel to Nord Stream are two pipelines connecting Norway to Britain, through which we get a third of our gas. Much of our own hydrocarbon production is also close to Norwegian waters. All these facilities are under threat, and the terrorist act committed by Russia – as you must have surmised, I don’t doubt that it’s Russia that committed it – is a reminder of the danger.

This is either a replacement of Putin’s nuclear blackmail or a complement to it. One way or the other, I hope he’ll be told in no uncertain terms that, whichever threat he acts on, the consequences will be equally cataclysmic.

If destroying a country’s vital infrastructure isn’t a casus belli, I don’t know what is.

6 thoughts on “Warning shot across the Baltic”

  1. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Some fingers are being pointed at the U.S. and some at Russia. But we must ask ourselves, with neither pipeline being in use what is the point of the attack? What has changed in the past week that could have led to this? The two major events of the week were my daughter’s birthday and the election of a new prime minister in Italy. I can guarantee my daughter has neither the resources nor the knowledge to pull off such an attack, but the Italians…

      1. Thank you. She is majoring in architecture, so she is more concerned with building than with destroying. Of course, the way California is headed, they may soon outlaw construction. She may end up designing international pipelines.

  2. Bottom sea mines prepositioned in advance. Can remain dormant for some time then activated when needed and detonated on command. A number of nations have them. As to WHO that is the question and may never be known with absolute certainty.

  3. The sabotage of the two pipelines does eliminate a bargaining chip Russia might have used to erode Europe’s support for Ukraine, no? “Germany, lessen your support for Ukraine (or promote a negotiated settlement of the war that we can accept) and Russia will provide gas this winter for your constituents who are demanding it.” That consideration, viewed by itself, would argue against Russian involvement.

    1. But it’s not by itself, that’s the whole thing. Nord Stream 2 was as good as buried by sanctions anyway, and the Russians themselves had stopped the flow of gas through NS 1. Hence their value as bargaining chips, or rather blackmail weapons, was nil. The threat of undersea terrorism, on the other hand, is much more serious. That gesture shows that Putin doesn’t think it’ll ever be business as usual.

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