On April 28, 1986, two days after the Chernobyl disaster, Swedish scientists detected radiation emanating from the Soviet Union. After much hemming and hawing, the Western detection of radiation forced the Soviets to admit to the world what had happened in Chernobyl and retract previous statements.
History once again rhymed when on Sept. 27, 2022, seismographs near Bornholm, Denmark recorded two explosions emanating from the Nord Stream pipeline. This discredits earlier Russian statements that these are simple leaks. And don’t expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to come clean like Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev eventually did.
This is not the first time the Russians have — in my opinion — lied about energy infrastructure damage to weaponize their energy resources or geographical position as a transit country. Multiple prewar disputes with Ukraine, Finland, the Baltics, and recent attempts to hold Kazakhstan’s energy exports hostage due to its defiance regarding Ukraine, stand out as examples. In every case, the Russians obfuscated by blaming “storms,” “poor equipment,” and even a rubber duck to drum up plausible deniability.
However, the attacks on Nord Stream are more dire than anything we previously saw. This suspected act of sabotage signals a point of no return. The economic damage caused by these attacks has Europe poised to land in a recession as deep as the one in 2009.
There can now be no negotiated reopening or resumption of deliveries even if the battlefields of Ukraine instantly fall silent. The Russians have achieved their immediate goal, with Reuters reporting “Nord Stream AG said it was impossible to estimate when the gas network system’s working capability would be restored.” This winter, Europe is doomed to face the worst energy crisis since the Arab oil embargo of 1974, or worse.
European leaders have already decided this was sabotage. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described the presumed attack as the “next step of escalation of the situation in Ukraine” while the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called them “deliberate acts.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised “the strongest possible response to attacks on European energy infrastructure.” Norway responded by deploying its armed forces to guard pipelines from any further “accidents.”
One may be tempted to ask why would the Russians bother with sabotage and denial? After all, hostility toward Ukraine and Europe is neither novel nor secret. The shutoff of gas from sabotage does not fundamentally change Russia’s stated aims or enacted strategy. The answer lies in the strength of Western financial institutions, Russia’s lack of leverage or soft power, and the devastating impacts sanctions are having against Russia. If Nord Stream is shut down suddenly through “force majeure,” a sudden uncontrollable stop that is the fault of neither party, then Russia can void its obligations toward European stakeholders without legally breaking contracts, thus dodging the many penalties in doing so.
The other great reason Putin is expending so much effort in pursuit of such a transparent strategy lies in his domestic vulnerability. By ending all possible routes for gas delivery resumption with the West and making rapprochement more difficult, Russian oligarchs who have not yet fallen out of a window, but may still be wavering in their dedication to Putin, have no choice to acquiesce to his leadership.
While there is a desperate rationale in Putin’s strategy, it is unlikely to work. The shutdown of Nord Stream 2 was already a grievous symbolic and economic blow against Russia by Europe. While Europe did depend on Russia for many of its energy needs, Europe is not only already diversifying its energy sources, especially with a recent Polish-Norwegian gas pipeline, that opened one day before the Nord Stream explosions, but Russia’s dependency on imported manufactured products is unlikely to change in the immediate future. While Europe did rely on Russian gas, Russia’s reliance on European capital and technology was far higher.
We are right to be vigilant against Russian attacks on energy infrastructure in the West, but we should also recognize that this move is not a sign of strength, but of desperation. Russia’s economy is faltering, its military is subpar, and Putin’s grip on power may weaken in months, if not weeks. Russian men are voting with their feet – hundreds of thousands of them.
The underwater attack on Nord Stream shows Russia’s desperation and an attempt to make Europe kneel. The best thing the West can do now with Nord Stream attacks is to deny force majeure and do everything in its power to penalize Gazprom and other relevant Russian businesses and their partners relevant to those contracts. Europe must also recognize this act of aggression as signaling the end of current and future purchases of Russian energy and expedite alternative gas pipeline construction, including from Spain and Portugal to France, and look elsewhere for gas supplies going forward.