Sabotage was behind underwater explosions that spewed gas from two major pipelines connecting Europe and Russia, Western leaders agreed on Wednesday. The question now is whether the mystery could signal Moscow’s intention to intensify its energy conflict with the continent as it escalates its military efforts in Ukraine.
The top European Union diplomat said the leaks from the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines under the Baltic Sea were caused by a “deliberate act”, although he failed to charge anyone directly.
It remained unclear who or what was behind the leaks, with the Kremlin rejecting suggestions it was blamed as “predictably and also predictably stupid.”
But while neither pipeline had supplied natural gas to Europe, the continent’s standoff with Russia and the looming energy crisis over the winter meant alarm bells were ringing.
“All available information indicates that those leaks are the result of an intentional act,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s head of foreign policy, said in a statement on behalf of the bloc’s 27 members. “Any intentional disruption to Europe’s energy infrastructure is completely unacceptable and will be met with a strong and united response.”
State Secretary Antony Blinken spoke to his Danish counterpart on Wednesday “about the apparent sabotage,” said a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The United States remains united with our allies and partners in our commitment to advance European energy security,” the spokesperson added.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he discussed the “sabotage” of the pipelines during a meeting with the Danish defense minister in Brussels.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak previously directly blamed Russiaaccusing the country of an “act of aggression” and an attempt to “destabilize the economic situation in Europe and create panic before winter”.
Latvia also suggested that it had no doubts about the cause of the leaks. “It looks like we are entering a new phase of hybrid war,” Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said on Twitter.
The incident has set the region on edge months after fears of a Russian military threat to the Baltic states dissipated in the wake of the army’s battle in Ukraine. After meeting Stoltenberg, Denmark’s defense chief called for greater security.
“Russia has a significant military presence in the Baltic Sea region and we expect them to continue their saber-clattering,” Morten Bodskov said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Swedish Public Prosecutor’s Office said it had opened an investigation into the explosions.
Seismologists in Denmark and Sweden said they registered two powerful blasts on Monday near the leaks, which were spotted off the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea.
European officials, including the Swedish prime minister, have said the pattern of damage to the pipelines strongly points to a coordinated explosion.
The two pipelines have been a major focus of tensions over Russia’s war in Ukraine. Western capitals have accused the Kremlin of arming energy supplies to fuel a crisis that has sent prices soaring and threatened to undermine political support for Kiev.
In light of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to call up military reservists, annex occupied territories and issue renewed nuclear threats after a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive, analysts said the pipeline explosion could be seen as a timely signal that the conflict over energy could also escalate.
“For now, we don’t even know what happened,” Jakub Godzimirski, a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs who focuses on Russia’s foreign and security policy, told NBC News.
“The big question is who might be interested in inflicting such damage and what the purpose of such action might be,” he said. “For Russia, it could be something they did to send a signal that the gas link between Russia and Germany will be cut very clearly.”
“At the same time, it is also something that could be repeated in other places,” Godzimirski added, saying it could signal to NATO members about other gas pipelines in the region.
On Tuesday, a new Baltic pipeline was commissioned to supply gas from Norway via Denmark to Poland.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the explosions as a cause for concern, calling the incidents “a major problem for us” and for Europe. In recent weeks, Moscow has increasingly framed the war as not only with Ukraine, but with its Western backers.
“There is also the specific dimension that this can be used to further escalate the conflict between Russia and the West,” Godzimirski said.
“If Russia, especially NATO, starts to accuse of conducting these kinds of operations against Russian infrastructure, it could be something that could reinforce the image that Russia is at war not only with Ukraine, but also with NATO.”
Reuters and Abigail Williams contributed.