Russia’s war on Ukraine has expanded to attacks on energy infrastructure outside of the combat zone. On September 26, seismologists based in Denmark and Sweden detected underwater explosions in the vicinity of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. Shortly after those explosions occurred, leaks were detected in both pipelines. While the Russian government blamed the United States for the explosions and others have speculated on whether Ukraine or another European country could have carried out the sabotage, there is almost no doubt that the attacks were conducted by Russia. Coupled with Moscow’s mobilization of additional soldiers, the sham referenda that led to the illegal incorporation of four provinces of Ukrainian territory into the Russian federation, and threats of the potential use of nuclear weapons, Russian President Putin is attempting to achieve through intimidation what he is not currently able to do on the battlefield.
The deliberate destruction of energy infrastructure outside of Ukraine is a new Russian tactic whereas the other recent moves are amplifications of steps tried before. They are signals designed to coerce the Ukrainian government into coming to the negotiating table while simultaneously intimidating European and U.S. governments into lessening or ceasing their political, economic, and particularly conventional military support for the government in Kyiv. While each of these moves has echoes from previous phases of the war, they are more concerning as Russia continues to lose territory that it held previously in Ukraine as well as front-line troops and advanced equipment.
The most concerning, of course, is President Putin’s increasing invocation of the possibility that he may resort to the use of nuclear weapons to preserve or advance Russia’s interests in Ukraine. While it is impossible to predict whether, when, or how he might choose to use nuclear weapons, Russia’s actions against the pipelines indicate that it still is trying to give itself time and diplomatic room to escalate in a deliberate, stepwise fashion.
The pipelines that were attacked are owned primarily by Gazprom. While some question the wisdom of Moscow destroying its own pipelines when it could just as easily deprive Western Europe of gas by turning off the flow (as it has done intermittently since February in an attempt at leverage), the purpose was to demonstrate capability to target a variety of energy-related infrastructure in and around Europe. The purpose also was to conduct attacks that stayed on one side of a line and allowed escalation in the future. The attacks were on Russian economic assets, and they took place in international waters. In other words, Putin chose not to cross a potential red line of attacking a NATO state’s territory or infrastructure even in its territorial waters. He did, however, demonstrate Russian capabilities at attacking underwater infrastructure, something that U.S. and other NATO military analysts have been concerned about for some time.
If Putin’s new version of nuclear saber-rattling or his attempts at increasing conventional force capabilities do not pan out, he then has other steps he can take against European energy infrastructure as the weather turns colder, particularly that in the maritime domain where deniability may be easier. Obvious targets include the Norwegian-Polish gas pipeline that just began operations over the weekend and/or LNG tankers or floating LNG terminals in and around Europe. All of these energy infrastructure elements are critical for Europe to make it through the winter with little to no Russian gas. They remain lucrative targets for Russia, and may hope to be able to attack them without crossing a line that would make NATO and/or NATO countries respond militarily and directly against Russia.