Russia has been accused of blowing up two of its own gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea with the aim of destabilising Europe in the midst of its energy war.
The pipelines were torn open by apparent underwater explosions as strong as a minor earthquake, leading to three large gas leaks east of the Danish island of Bornholm. The blasts occurred in international waters, just beyond the territories of Denmark and Norway, and shockwaves were detected as far as 800 miles away.
Both pipes are leaking gas into the Baltic Sea after suffering severe damage, scuppering any remaining hopes of Nord Stream 1 returning to service this winter.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said last night that the leaks were caused by sabotage and warned of the “strongest possible response” should active European energy infrastructure be attacked.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, echoed Von der Leyen’s statement this morning, adding: “All available information indicates those leaks are the result of a deliberate act.
“Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response,” he said.
Danish, German and Swedish officials said an act of sabotage was the only plausible explanation for the “unprecedented” damage to the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, which cost £21 billion and are Russia’s only direct routes for exporting gas to Germany.
Denmark’s defence minister said on Wednesday there was cause to be concerned about security in the region following a meeting with Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, in Brussels.
“Despite the war efforts in Ukraine, Russia has a significant military presence in the Baltic Sea region and we expect them to continue their sabre-rattling,” said Morten Bodskov in a statement.
He added that it could take a week or more before the gas leaks subsided, calming the seas enough to allow full investigations into the causes.
Ukraine and Poland had earlier blamed Moscow without providing evidence or explaining what the Kremlin stood to gain. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, did not directly accuse Russia — but said it would be in “no one’s interest” if the leaks were caused deliberately.
Professor Michael Clarke, a security and defence analyst, said that the blasts could mark an escalation of Moscow’s conflict in Ukraine.
“This is not some casual terrorist act, it has to be a government,” he said. “Privately, everyone is convinced this is a Kremlin-inspired piece of sabotage … It opens up a new front in the war. It means the Ukrainian war is now going to the Baltic.”
Some security experts speculated that Russia might have wrecked the Nord Stream project to demonstrate its capabilities hours before the opening of a new gas pipeline from Norway to Poland. Norway put its offshore rigs on alert for a possible attack.
Der Spiegel reported last night that the CIA had warned Germany about a possible Russian attack on the pipelines in the summer. It is unclear whether Germany acted on the intelligence or shared it with the countries through whose territorial waters the Nord Stream route passes, such as Denmark or Sweden.
Professor Clarke said that although the Russians may wish to “create insecurity” and pressure gas supplies, “this is a strategic own goal because although it increases the sense of isolation that there will be no Russian gas for Europe this winter, it actually destroys Russia’s credibility completely with European customers for the next couple of generations”.
The first sign of the leaks came in the early hours of Monday, when Swedish seismographs recorded shockwaves of magnitude 2.3. Ships passing east of Bornholm then noticed bubbles rising in the sea.
Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, said last night: “It is now the clear assessment by authorities that these are deliberate actions.”
Russia said it was mystified by the incident. “No option can be ruled out,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, said.
The immediate economic effects of the explosions were limited. Russia halted flows to Germany through Nord Stream 1 late last month, while the newly constructed Nord Stream 2 pipeline was prevented from starting up shortly before President Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Gas prices soared still higher last night on growing fears that Russia may be preparing to cut off one of the last two operational gas pipeline links to Europe, which passes through Ukraine, as Gazprom escalated a dispute with the Ukrainian energy company Naftogaz.
The European authorities were still investigating the causes of the Nord Stream leaks last night, but the Swedish national seismology centre detected powerful subsea blasts in the areas of the leaks on Monday, according to the Swedish broadcaster SVT. The outgoing Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson said “there have been detonations”.
Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said: “We see clearly that it’s an act of sabotage, related to the next step of escalation of the situation in Ukraine.”
The leaks were detected before the ceremonial launch yesterday of the new Baltic Pipe carrying gas from Norway to Poland via Denmark, part of efforts to diversify away from Russian supplies. Both the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were full of pressurised gas, clearly visible as it bubbled to the surface in the Baltic.
The Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy, said: “The multiple undersea leaks mean neither pipeline will likely deliver any gas to the EU over the coming winter, irrespective of political developments in the Ukraine war.”
Tom Marzec-Manser, at Icis, the price reporting agency, said: “The fact that both Nord Streams have been damaged miles apart, as well as surrounding events such as the start of a new Denmark-to-Poland pipe opening today which crosses their path, suggests these leaks are no coincidence.”
Frederiksen said: “We are talking about three leaks with some distance between them, and that’s why it is hard to imagine that it is a coincidence.”
The apparent sabotage will also increase fears over the security of energy infrastructure, not least for the newly opened Baltic Pipe from Norway. Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority has urged oil companies to be vigilant about the risk of attacks. Kristoffer Bottzauw, head of Denmark’s Energy Agency, said it could take a week for gas to stop draining out, adding: “The sea surface is full of methane. There is an increased risk of explosions.”