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NATO and the European Union said leaks in two major Russian undersea pipelines designed to deliver natural gas to Germany were caused by “sabotage” and vowed to take strong action to protect critical European infrastructures.
However, their September 28 statements refrained from blaming anyone for the incident, which caused natural gas prices to spike in Europe.
The Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, which belong to Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, have burst in several places in the exclusive economic zones of Denmark and Sweden.
None of the pipelines are currently in service amid a standoff between Moscow and Brussels over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on September 28 that he raised the “sabotage” of the pipelines during a meeting with Danish Defense Minister Morten Bodskov in Brussels.
“We have addressed the protection of critical infrastructure in NATO countries,” said the head of the Western military alliance which also includes most EU countries. said on Twitter.
The EU issued a strong warning the same day to anyone attempting to attack the energy backbones of the 27-nation bloc.
“Any deliberate disruption of Europe’s energy infrastructure is completely unacceptable and will be met with a strong and united response,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement, echoing a warning from the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
Borrell said the bloc would step up protection of its energy infrastructure following the incidents.
“We will support any investigation aimed at achieving full clarity on what happened and why, and will take additional steps to increase our energy security resilience,” he noted.
Borrell’s statements came after Swedish and Danish seismologists said they recorded powerful explosions in areas close to where evidence of leaks from Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea had been found, prompting Swedish police to open an investigation into possible sabotage.
“These incidents are no coincidence and affect us all,” Borrell said.
Neither NATO nor the EU have blamed anyone in particular for the leaks, which come as Europe tries to fill its natural gas storage before winter amid the greater energy crisis for decades.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak tweeted on September 27 that the reported gas leaks were likely the result of a “terrorist attack” carried out by Moscow.
Podolyak accused Russia of seeking to “destabilize the economic situation in Europe and cause panic before winter”.
For months, Western officials have been warning that Russia may cut its natural gas exports to Europe to pressure Brussels for support for Ukraine.
Russia accounted for around 40% of EU natural gas supplies last year, giving it huge leverage over energy prices in the bloc. Much of the natural gas, which is used to heat homes in winter, passes through Nord Stream gas pipelines.
Nord Stream 1 accounted for more than a third of Russian natural gas exports to the EU last year. Nord Stream 2 was due to enter service in 2022, but Germany blocked its launch in February in an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine.
Moscow began cutting gas flows via Nord Stream 1 earlier this year, saying Western sanctions had caused technical difficulties, driving prices to record highs and pushing the EU into recession.
It completely suspended exports along the pipeline in August as the EU imposed new sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia could face billion-dollar lawsuits from European customers if it does not resume gas flows along Nord Stream 1.
But analysts say Moscow can now try to use the explosions to declare force majeure – circumstances beyond its control due to an unforeseen event – and avoid sanctions.
On September 28, the Kremlin vehemently dismissed accusations that it was behind the two incidents, calling them “absurd and stupid”.
He pointed the finger at Washington, adding that the United States had opposed the pipelines and that American energy companies were making big profits supplying gas to Europe.
However, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden refused to stop the completion of Nord Stream 2.
The Biden administration also wants to avoid a natural gas crisis in Europe this winter, lest it weaken EU unity on Russia sanctions and support for Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the incident needed to be investigated and the timeline for repairing the damaged pipelines was unclear.
“It’s a big problem for us because, first, the two lines of Nord Stream 2 are full of gas — the whole system is ready to pump gas and the gas is very expensive… Now the gas is ‘fly in the air.’
“Are we interested? No, we are not. We have lost a gas supply route to Europe,” Peskov said.
However, Russia has been flaring large amounts of natural gas, a process known as flaring, for months amid much lower sales to Europe, analysts said.
Russia also has enough spare capacity along the pipelines that cross Ukraine to supply Europe.
The explosions came the same day as the inauguration of a long-awaited gas pipeline that will deliver Norwegian gas to Poland, which was heavily dependent on Russia for its supply.
The new system will transport Norwegian gas through Denmark and the Baltic Sea to Poland.
Anders Puck Nielsen, a research fellow at the Maritime Operations Center at the Royal Danish Defense College, was quoted by Reuters as saying the timing of the leaks was “remarkable” given the Baltic Pipe ceremony.
He said it looked like someone had been trying “to send a signal that something might be happening to Norwegian gas”.
“The arrow is pointing in the direction of Russia,” Puck Nielsen said.
“No one in the West is interested in any instability in the energy market.”