Sabotage of gas pipelines a wake-up call for Europe, officials warn

The sabotage of two gas pipelines between Russia and Europe should serve as a wake-up call to the continent to protect its critical infrastructure, European officials have warned.

Norway — which replaced Russia as the biggest gas exporter to the EU in the wake of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine — is deploying the military to oil and gas installations as the Scandinavian country raised its preparedness level.

The EU vowed “a robust and united response” to what it said was a “deliberate act” while Nato and a growing number of European governments said they believed the leaks were a case of sabotage.

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of the military alliance, met Denmark’s defence minister Morten Bødskov on Wednesday and said he had “addressed the protection of critical infrastructure in Nato countries”.

“Russia has a significant military presence in the Baltic Sea region and we expect them to continue their sabre-rattling,” added Bødskov.

US officials said the leaks appeared to have been caused by sabotage. “We’re absolutely not involved,” a senior US military official said in response to a question asking whether they could rule out US responsibility of any kind.

“Many of our partners, I think, have determined or believe it is sabotage. I’m not at the point where I can tell you one way or the other,” the official added. 

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Danish counterpart to offer support for probes into the leaks. The military official said the US has not yet been asked to help with the investigation and noted it is one of several countries with the capability to do so.

The three leaks in the two Nord Stream pipelines, which took place in international waters just off the Danish island of Bornholm, are expected to last until Sunday, according to the country’s energy authority. It added the total climate impact would be equivalent to a third of Denmark’s annual emissions.

Map showing leaks in Nord Stream pipelines near Bornholm island in the Baltic Sea

A new pipeline from Norway to Poland that also flows past Bornholm was officially opened on Tuesday, just hours after the explosions.

“These incidents show that energy infrastructure is not safe . . . It can be interpreted as a warning” as the new pipeline opened, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, speaker of Lithuania’s parliament, told local radio on Wednesday.

One of Norway’s leading military officers warned the Scandinavian country needed to take the threat to its infrastructure seriously, with gas pipelines leading to the UK, Germany, France, Belgium and now Poland.

“Norway’s gas supply is probably the biggest and most strategically important target for sabotage in all of Europe right now,” Lieutenant Colonel Geir Hågen Karlsen told state broadcaster NRK.

Norway’s prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre said there was “no specific threat” against his country. But he said the military would be “more present, and more visible” in the areas around Norway’s oil and gas installations as a consequence of the leaks and increased drone activity close to rigs in the North Sea.

The pipeline leaks come as Europe struggles to find enough gas to replace Russian sources ahead of what is expected to be a difficult winter for the continent.

Neither of the Nord Stream pipelines were in operation after Russia stopped flows through one of them earlier this month. Germany halted the approval process of the other in February before it was due to open.

Late on Tuesday, Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas producer, indicated it could make further reductions in gas supplies to Europe, threatening the supplies that still transit through Ukraine.

The Russian company threatened to take action against Ukraine’s state gas company Naftogaz if it continued arbitration proceedings against Gazprom in Switzerland, a move analysts said would probably lead to the cut-off of flows.

“That would make into reality the worst-case scenario that European governments have been preparing for all summer — a European gas market without Russian gas,” said Natasha Fielding at Argus.

The prime ministers of Denmark, Sweden and Norway all refused to speculate on possible motives or who could be responsible for the Nord Stream leaks but urged a thorough investigation.

“Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Andriy Kobolyev, former chief executive of the Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz, pointed the finger of blame squarely at Moscow. “By disabling the pipelines, Russia is protecting Gazprom from legal claims over its non-delivery of gas to its European customers,” he said. “It allows the company to trigger force majeure clauses in its contracts.”

The suggestion that Russia could be involved was “quite predictably stupid and absurd”, Dmitry Peskov, president Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, was quoted as saying by Interfax on Wednesday. Russia had no reason to sabotage the pipelines, he added.

Writing on Telegram, Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said Russia would call a UN security council meeting over the pipeline “provocations”.

European gas prices have jumped more than 15 per cent in the past two days to about €205 per megawatt hour, the highest level in almost two weeks.

Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at the Bruegel think-tank, said the leaks “marked a new level of hybrid warfare” in Russia’s energy war against Europe.

“This marks a new level of the game,” Tagliapietra said. “We should not play down the risk of seeing hybrid attacks on our own energy infrastructure, be that physical or cyber attacks . . . We need to learn and adjust very quickly.”

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga

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