Putin, Russia prime suspects in pipeline sabotage mystery

Russia is the prime suspect in the apparent sabotage of pipelines transporting natural gas to Europe, which has left foul methane gas spewing into the Baltic Sea.

Experts say damage to the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines is a cynical use of a “gray zone” aggression that leaves few good options for retribution. 

“We have war-gamed this for years, we’ve always been a bit afraid that this is something that the Russians could do if they wanted to,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration. 

“I think all of us have got to know that Putin has other cards that he can play besides conventional or nuclear, he’s got something in between — this critical infrastructure that can be a target.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday about protecting critical infrastructure in the wake of the “apparent sabotage” of the pipelines.

Explosions on the pipelines, which were not in use, released the trapped gas, first discovered in Danish waters early Monday.  

Top European and NATO officials are bluntly assigning sabotage, even as they stop short of directly blaming Putin ahead of an investigation.  

“The sabotage of the Nordstream pipelines is of deep concern. NATO is committed to deter and defend against hybrid attacks,” Stoltenberg earlier tweeted. 

“Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”

Russia has worked to cast blame on the U.S. by circulating out-of-context clips of President Biden lambasting the Nord Stream pipelines — which were opposed by the Obama and Trump administrations. Moscow held up a since-deleted tweet from a Polish politician, Radek Sikorski, that appeared to sarcastically thank the U.S. over the pipeline attack.

Sikorski, a former Polish minister of defense and foreign affairs, is a well-known, outspoken Kremlin critic who for years has railed against European politicians that pursued construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. He traveled to Washington to urge former President Trump to impose sanctions to halt the pipeline’s construction. 

“I was surprised, of all people, that Radek Sikorski was to hint it was the U.S.,” Townsend said. “I think he could have been trying to be clever and he came across as being stupid.”

Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called Sikorski’s tweet — which he later deleted — “extremely foolish.” 

“He clearly meant to be sarcastic or ironic, but that completely misfired and has fed Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories,” she said. 

“In a situation like this, even more than in previous months and years, citizens have to be extremely careful about what they share on social media, they have to try and verify,” Braw continued. 

“Because that gives the Russians the upper hand in this sort of influence game, and they manage to steer attention away on things they have done and cast doubt on America, or whoever their target happens to be.”

A Russian request to hold an urgent Security Council meeting to determine the culprit behind the pipeline attacks was rejected by the French, who hold the presidency of the United Nations Security Council for the month of September.

“French Presidency of the Security Council did not find an opportunity to accommodate our urgent request for convening today a UNSC meeting regarding subversive activities at the NordStream pipeline,” Russia’s mission to the U.N. tweeted. “We are truly disappointed by this decision.”  

Western nations on Friday focused on their rejection of Putin’s move to annex four regions of Ukraine despite Moscow holding a tenuous military occupation on only some of the territory.  

Europe and the U.S. are unlikely to take any action against Russia related to the pipeline sabotage absent the conclusion of an investigation. 

“They’re going to be doing a forensic investigation, presumably, trying to ascertain what caused” the damage to the pipelines, said Scott Savitz, senior engineer at the RAND Corporation.

The time needed to carry out the investigation depends on sea conditions and the human and machine resources needed and available to collect what Savitz said should be “incontrovertible” evidence. 

“This is substantial, [the explosions] occurred in multiple locations, which will make it that much harder. Divers and specialized gear will need to be addressing multiple problems at once,” he said. 

Savitz, who based his analysis on media reports, said the attack on the pipeline appeared to be “relatively straight forward,” with explosives placed near the pipe — an action that could be as simple as pushing mines off a ship or enlisting human divers or an uncrewed undersea vehicle.

“These are heavily trafficked waters in which a ship, pushing a heavy object, or multiple, over the side would not be terribly difficult and all it would need to have is a simple setting in that it detonates after a certain time period. That’s trivially easy. That’s technology from a century ago, if not more,” he said.

“Conceivably based on the evidence we’ve seen thus far, it’s not 100 percent the case that it was Russia, but it looks very probable.” 

If Russia is determined to be behind the attack, the problem for the international community is how to respond. 

“I don’t think we’re wading into Article V territory,” Braw said, referring to NATO treaty text that provides for collective defense, that an attack on one member is an attack on all. 

“It will have to be more sanctions, even though we are running short of entities and people to sanction. That is the one area where we can do something without escalating and risking a situation where then Russia would escalate back, and that would be extremely dangerous.”

Townsend, who is also an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, said NATO should at least send some of its naval units as a show of support to the Danes. 

“They’re not big battle ships. That might be, at least initially, what NATO might do, just to tell the Danes and others in the Baltic that NATO is there, NATO knows this is happening.”

Townsend added that the episode is a stark reminder that while Russia is hemorrhaging its military, economic and human resources in Ukraine, it retains the ability to keep its global adversaries in the crosshairs. 

“We cannot just say, ‘Well, we don’t have to worry about Russia, they are just incompetent,’” he said.

“Well, things haven’t gone very well for them, but I wouldn’t call it incompetent, I’d call it evil geniuses. And what will we see next? We’ve got to be aware of that and be ready to deal with it.”

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