Evidence continues to mount regarding the underwater explosions that tore huge holes in two gas pipelines from Russia to Germany on September 27, and the circumstances all point to what an official NATO statement has qualified as “deliberate” sabotage. Sweden and Denmark officially notified the UN Security Council that there had been “at least two detonations” using “several hundred kilograms” of explosives. This is the kind of capability usually used by a state actor, even if NATO has not officially said what everyone unofficially suspects: the author of this strike against the stability and security of Europe was Russia. Today, the United States and its allies face a new challenge: threats to critical infrastructure as they prepare to go through the winter without Russian oil and gas.
Intelligence sources had predicted this and, indeed, the Ukrainian government warned. Getting the right answer starts with understanding why Russian President Vladimir Putin might have chosen to strike where and when he did. In some ways, the pipelines – known as Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 – were attractive targets precisely because the short-term damage to Europe’s economy would be relatively limited. Neither carried much gasoline. Russia cut off the flow in Nord Stream 1, apparently for routine maintenance, more than a month ago, and the German government canceled the planned opening of Nord Stream 2 in response to Russian aggression. against Ukraine. Moreover, the explosions took place in international waters of the Baltic Sea, which means that they cannot be interpreted as a direct attack on a NATO member, which could have triggered the mutual defense agreement. of the covenant. As for the timing, the attack came the day a new undersea gas pipeline was opened between a NATO member bordering Russia, Norway, and another, Poland, which the latter had presented as a quantum leap for its energy security.
Put it all together and the attack looks very much like an attempt to exact revenge on the countries that backed Ukraine – a signal to them that more costly energy supply disruptions could be happening – while preserving plausible deniability.
The West has long been aware of Russia’s ability to disrupt critical energy and communications infrastructure through cyberattacks and disinformation. In April, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, along with the FBI and the National Security Agency, issued a joint warning about the cyber threat to critical infrastructure such as energy and utilities. And so far, Ukraine and its supporters have kept cyber damage to a minimum. The gas pipeline sabotage shows that Russia could use more prosaic “kinetic” tools – high explosives – to achieve the same goals. In fact, Norway suspects that the Russian Navy damaged its undersea fiber optic cables earlier this year.
NATO was wise not to assign blame without ironclad evidence, while warning that it would react forcefully against known culprits. What must come next, however, is enhanced air and naval surveillance of the world’s network of pipelines and submarine cables, greater accumulation of energy reserves for the winter, and assurance that the repair services of existing pipelines – they already exist in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea – can act quickly if necessary. In critical infrastructure protection, resilience is an essential element of deterrence.
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