The Nord Stream Pipeline Blasts: A Growing Type of Economic Warfare


Oliver Smith examines the increasingly destructive and disruptive consequences of economic warfare, in the light of the recent NordStream sabotage.

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Image by Jürgen Mangelsdorf

By Oliver Smith

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed numerous flaws in Europe’s policy-making process, but none more so than that of its energy management. It is important, however, to note that this exposé reaches far further than sanction packages and trade disputes. The suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines highlights the significance of economic warfare and its future, alongside the growing vulnerability of Western critical infrastructure.

On 26th September 2022, four leaks were located East of the island of Bornholm, with one being just over 10km away from the island. Neither of the pipelines were transporting gas due to disagreements between Europe and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, however, they did contain pressurised methane, a toxic greenhouse gas. While the methane is no longer leaking, Nord Stream AG have said it is impossible to predict when full repairs can be made. This comes as German authorities warn that, unless repairs are made soon, sea corrosion could condemn the pipelines to permanent closure.

While authorities have not yet confirmed the cause of the leaks, current evidence points to sabotage. The Geological Survey of Denmark has said that “the signals are not similar to the signals of earthquakes. They resemble instead the signals usually registered by explosions”, and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has said that “we have Swedish intelligence, but we have also received information in our contacts with Denmark, and based on this concluded that this is probably a deliberate act. It is probably a matter of sabotage.”

The incident signals a growing vulnerability surrounding international critical infrastructure to more diverse types of economic warfare. The growth of 21st century technology, such as increasing cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and greater means for perpetrators to protect their identity has transformed sabotage into an effective weapon for economic harm. A cloak of deniability and secrecy makes such acts of sabotage possible and without the prospect of an economic or military response, unlike that of a direct trade war or a sanction package.

Power grids, water plants, and communication centres have been primary targets for the Kremlin, and after the suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, Brussels has reason to believe this form of economic warfare will extend beyond Ukraine’s borders. This has prompted Estonia’s minister for defence, Hanno Pevkur, to urge Western countries to increase their own security measures. Mr Pevkur said: “what we can see from the Russian war against Ukraine is that critical infrastructure of all kinds is a valuable target for the aggressor — from roads to bridges, to hospitals, to supply lines of all kinds. “That is why every country of NATO has to keep a close eye on the learning moments from this war, so all critical infrastructure that needs protection is definitely under our heightened attention.”

Russia’s recently announced Arkturus submarine indicates a shift towards stealth-based weaponry. The nuclear powered submarine boasts an angled outer hull and passive-sonar stealth, increasing its ability to scour the seas undetected. It places further pressure on security measures for international critical infrastructure, which will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile naval activity. Russian submarines and support ships were spotted near the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines just days before the leaks were found.

Signs of an increased use of sabotage have been present before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, too. In 2018, the United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency reported on a Russian hacking campaign on the country’s critical infrastructure. The report said that “since at least March 2016, Russian government cyber actors—hereafter referred to as “threat actors”—targeted government entities and multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors.” The report later said that “the threat actors appear to have deliberately chosen the organisations they targeted, rather than pursuing them as targets of opportunity.”

In response, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm sent a letter to energy executives last year, urging them to “prepare to the highest level possible” for attempted Russian cyber-attacks. The United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency also released another report last year, giving cybersecurity advice to companies managing the country’s gas, water, and communications networks. Similar preparations have been made in Europe. Only last year, the United Kingdom’s Spending Review announced an additional £750 million of funding for cybersecurity.

Many countries will already be struggling with energy security this winter due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and struggling supply chains following the COVID-19 pandemic. Rising energy prices are predicted to cripple small businesses and household incomes in the United Kingdom, and governments on the European continent are having to enforce power cuts to reduce energy usage. As reliance on critical infrastructure increases, so too will its vulnerability to exploitation.

While trade wars and sanctions will remain as a significant form of warfare, the growing capabilities of cyber-warfare and the increased dependence on international critical infrastructure has developed a shift among hostile states towards intentional, but deniable, sabotage. As we move further into the 21st century, this shift may become a significant problem for the energy, water, and communications security of Western countries.