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Nord Stream pipeline “sabotage” sets up new crisis between NATO and Russia

As the West and Russia remain mired in soaring tensions over Russia’s war in Ukraine, increasingly apparent signs of sabotage that struck twin gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea have emerged as another, dangerous front in the crisis between NATO and the Kremlin.

Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin has explicitly blamed the attack on an “Anglo-Saxon” plot, further raising the stakes.

NATO, for its part, has not yet publicly discussed putting forth any specific military response, nor has it publicly attributed blame for the leaks. But the alliance’s North Atlantic Council said Thursday that “all currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage” in comments referred to Newsweek.

“We, as Allies, have committed to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and non-state actors,” the statement said. “Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”

Three leaks first detected Monday—and a fourth reported Thursday—along the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, both inactive yet containing gas at the time, have spiraled into an international incident, with all eyes on the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia over Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Germany froze the Nord Stream 2 project shortly before Russia launched the conflict in February and ensuing Western sanctions led Moscow to cut off gas through Nord Stream 1 earlier this month.

Noting the NATO response, Phillip Cornell, a former senior fellow, department director and faculty member at the NATO school, told Newsweek that “they did not provide details of either their investigation, nor the legal basis, nor type of response.”

Cornell, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and a fellow at the Colorado School of Mines’ Payne Institute, also made reference to an earlier statement published Tuesday by the European Council, which warned that “any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response.”

And though he said it was still “too early for details,” he said that “we can safely say that this incident has severely ramped up tensions and likely fundamentally changed any future for EU-Russia energy trade.”

“Big implications for both sides,” Cornell added.

A photo provided by the Swedish Coast Guard shows the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on September 27, 2022, in the Baltic Sea.
Swedish Coast Guard/Getty Images

Substantive evidence has yet to emerge as to the perpetrator of the incident or what exactly has convinced NATO allies that foul play was involved, other than the suspicious nature and sequence of the incidents.

After German Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber asserted Wednesday that “everything points to an act of sabotage” and that Berlin was in close contact with allies, a German official emphasized this message to Newsweek, saying “we coordinate closely with our partners in the U.S. and NATO and the European Union.”

Russian officials had openly floated suspicions that the incident might be the work of saboteurs, specifically those aligned with a foreign government. On Friday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “such an unprecedented act of, one might say, state terrorism, cannot and should not go without a serious international investigation,” according to the state-run TASS Russian News Agency.

That same day, Putin issued an explicit accusation against the West during an address to mark the internationally unrecognized accession of four occupied Ukrainian territories—Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia—into the Russian Federation following a controversial series of referendums earlier this week.

“Sanctions are not enough for the Anglo-Saxons, they switched to sabotage— unbelievable, but true—having organized explosions on the international gas pipelines of the Nord Stream, which run along the bottom of the Baltic Sea,” Putin said, “they actually began to destroy the pan-European energy infrastructure.”

While U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that it would be in “no one’s interest” to see the pipelines attacked, Putin said Friday that “it is clear to everyone that the one who benefits from this, did this, of course.”

And, also on Friday, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev countered Western suspicions toward Moscow’s potential role in the incidents by specifically saying it was the U.S. that would benefit most from the pipeline’s destruction during a meeting with intelligence and security chiefs of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a nine-nation bloc of former Soviet states.

“More and more often, serious questions are being asked of the organizers of these smear campaigns,” Patrushev said, according to TASS. “For instance, literally from the very first minutes after the reports about explosions at the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines had emerged, the West embarked on a vigorous campaign to find the culprits. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the main beneficiary, first and foremost, economically, is the U.S.”

The U.S. has long been opposed to the Nord Stream project and President Joe Biden vowed in April to see to its demise. In the wake of the leaks, however, the State Department has denied any involvement by Washington.

Responding to a high-profile tweet in which former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski appeared to “thank” the U.S. in the wake of the pipeline incidents, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Wednesday that “the idea that the United States was in any way involved in the apparent sabotage of these pipelines is preposterous” and called the notion “nothing more than a function of Russian disinformation.”

The following day, Price responded to another potentially consequential question—whether the incidents could be used to activate NATO’s Article 5 collective defense clause.

“Any sort of apparent sabotage on key infrastructure entities would of course be of serious concern,” Price said. “But I’ll reiterate that we have been in touch with our European allies and partners about the apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline. We are supporting European efforts to investigate this.”

To date, Article 5 has been activated only once in the six-decade history of the alliance. The measure was taken in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. and saw allied support for the burgeoning “War on Terror” still being waged by Washington today.

The fact that the Nord Stream incidents took place in international waters complicates the situation, however, and Stefano Pontecorvo, a former Italian diplomat who has served in a number of capacities including as NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan and deputy head of Italy’s mission in Moscow, told Newsweek that the answer to whether Article 5 could apply “is not so obvious, first of all, as Art. 5 applies in principle only to territorial waters.

“Having said that,” he added, “NATO has made it clear that the protection of critical energy infrastructures is a security priority for the Alliance.”

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