On Monday, Danish and Swedish authorities detected underwater explosions in the Baltic Sea that breached the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines designed to carry gas from Russia to Germany. “All available information indicates leaks are the result of a deliberate act,” said European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. So, as they say in murder mysteries, who done it?
The Kremlin, predictably, denied any responsibility and blamed the U.S. government — as it has previously done for everything from the spread of AIDS during the 1980s to the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014 by a Russian missile battery. Just as predictably, Russia’s “useful idiots” in the West, such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former president Donald Trump, echoed Moscow’s propaganda. Trump, who never criticizes Vladimir Putin, is now even offering to negotiate a deal with the Russian dictator to avoid further escalation. How convenient!
It is true that the Biden administration, just like its predecessors, opposed the Nord Stream pipelines because they would increase European dependence on Russia. But it is bizarre to think that the United States would undertake an act of sabotage that could hurt our closest allies in Europe and add to inflationary pressure at home. President Biden has done a superb job of marshaling European countries to oppose Russian aggression. He would never risk the blowback from an attack on European energy infrastructure.
The assumption among European officials is that Russia is responsible, and that makes sense. No other nation would have both the motive and the means for an attack. The means are easy: Moscow could have sent an undersea drone, as reported by the Times of London, or a submarine with Naval Spetsnaz (special forces) frogmen to plant the charges. The motive is more speculative, because it would seem counterproductive for Russia to sabotage its own pipeline.
But Russia has a long history of using gas interruptions as a geopolitical tool. Indeed, the Kremlin had already announced in early September that the Nord Stream 1 pipeline would be closed indefinitely for repairs, in a move that was widely interpreted as an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Europe to stop supporting Ukraine. (The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, completed last year, has not opened — and likely never will.)
Mark Galeotti, a British expert on Russian criminal and security affairs (subjects that are closely intertwined), argues in the Spectator that the pipeline attack was a warning shot from Putin: If the Russians could sabotage Nord Stream 1 and 2, they could do the same to the new Baltic Pipe carrying Norwegian natural gas from the North Sea to Poland or to the many underwater internet pipelines upon which the United States and Europe so heavily depend. Other Russia analysts, including Dmitri Alperovitch, agree that the Kremlin is the culprit.
Reading Galeotti’s explanation — highly plausible if admittedly speculative — I was reminded of a conversation I had last week with a senior U.S. official who warned that Putin, with “his army hurting really badly,” can escalate outside Ukraine to “intimidate the West and cause it to stop supporting Ukraine.”
This official mentioned a number of worrisome options beyond the nuclear threats that Putin has been making. These included attacks against Western satellites in space, cyberattacks against Western infrastructure, influence operations to affect Western elections, attacks against U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, missile strikes on NATO bases that are being used to supply Ukraine — and attacks against underwater cables. This official said that the Baltic republics and Finland were “nervous,” because Putin “is a wounded animal” with “his back against the wall.”
The sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines could be seen as a relatively low-risk warning shot from Putin. Both the United States and Europe need to be on high alert to protect their infrastructure, and not only energy infrastructure, from Russian sabotage. But we cannot let Putin’s hybrid warfare change our policy of supporting Ukraine’s fight for freedom.
Conveniently and suspiciously, Putin’s supporters in the West, such as Trump and former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), are now renewing their calls for cutting a deal with the Russian dictator. “Do not make matters worse with the pipeline blowup,” Trump wrote Wednesday morning on his social media site. “Be strategic, be smart (brilliant!), get a negotiated deal done NOW.” He even offered to “head up [the] group” dealing with Putin. No doubt he would be just as successful in ending the Russian invasion of Ukraine as he was in ending the North Korean nuclear program.
If Trump is suggesting it, you can be sure that this is what Putin wants. With his forces reeling on the battlefield, he might be laying the groundwork for a cease-fire offer by annexing four Ukrainian provinces via sham referendums. But if the West were to pressure Ukraine into stopping its successful counteroffensive, the Russians could simply regroup their battered forces and renew their unprovoked attacks at a later date.
Putin needs time to mobilize to make up for Russia’s heavy losses. The West must not give it to him.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.