Damage to Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 in the Baltic Sea on Tuesday night has raised alarm among European leaders, many of whom suspect Moscow of “sabotage”.
If this is true, this means Russia’s aggression, which started in Ukraine, may be moving west, as its troops struggle against Kyiv’s strong counteroffensive.
Here’s what you need to know.
So, what happened?
The two Baltic Sea gas pipelines – Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 – running between Russian and Europe started leaking on Tuesday.
The leaks began after three explosions were reported near the pipelines by seismologists. Pressure soon fell in the gas streams. Then, natural gas leaked into the Baltic Sea.
Natural gas is primarily made of methane, which just partially dissolves in water – it’s not toxic. In small quantities, it’s not hazardous to inhale.
However, it does contribute to global warming as it is a greenhouse gas.
The fractures in the pipelines occurred near the Danish island of Bornholm, although there’s been no confirmation from scientists that the breaks stemmed from the explosions detected.
What is Nord Stream 1 and 2?
Both pipelines carry natural gas to Germany, from Russia. Nord Stream 1, in particular, provided a significant chunk of Europe’s energy supplies up until the war started in February this year.
Nord Stream 2, which was never quite up and running, was cancelled by the German chancellor Olaf Scholz following Russia’s invasion.
No gas has flowed through either pipeline since the start of September.
Why is Russia being blamed?
Russia has been using its exported gas supply to Europe as a means of leverage ever since it invaded Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin threatened to “freeze” all energy exports to the continent only earlier this month.
As security and defence analyst professor Michael Clarke also told Sky News: “It’s clearly an act of sabotage – these were three explosions near the seabed, and you need a submarine to do that, so this is not some casual terrorist act.
“It has to be a government. The only government that could possibly gain from this in a rather peculiar way is Russia, none of the European governments would want to do it.”
While the damage to the pipelines may have shown up some of Europe’s vulnerabilities, Clarke said it will not have helped Russia in the long-run.
“That’s a strategic own goal – although it increases the sense of isolation [for the continent], that there will be no Russian gas for Europe this winter, it actually destroys Russia’s credibility completely with European customers for the next couple of generations.”
Clarke speculated that Moscow did it to “create insecurity” that European supplies from outside of Russia is now under threat.
Adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Mykhailo Podolyak, also tweeted that the gas leaks were “an act of aggression towards the EU” to destabilise the continent ahead of the winter.
Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen also said they were “deliberate acts”, and said it was clearly not “an accident”, while Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said it probably marks “the next step of escalation of the situation in Ukraine”.
Similarly, US has expressed its solidarity with its allies, although Sweden has only gone so far as to admit there were “detonations”.
And, as Bjorn Lund, director of the Swedish National Seismic Network, also told Associated Press: “There’s no doubt, this is not an earthquake.”
How could this change Russia’s war against Ukraine?
If Russia really was responsible for the damage to the pipelines, this could mean there is now a new front in the war developing in the Baltic.
Nato – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – could subsequently be roped into the war directly, rather than indirectly supporting Ukraine through weaponry and investment. Nato has been trying to stay out of the war, so as not to stoke nuclear tensions between the West and Moscow.
“As Putin gets more desperate, it’s opening up a new insecurity. So Nato, I think will have to start being very careful about maritime security in the Baltic,” Clarke said.
The expert also said it was difficult to see what the EU could actually do in response, other than tighten sanctions – and said the “real response” has to come from Nato, which needs to protect the Baltic and the seabed.
What has been Russia’s response?
Russia has not admitted anything about the leaks.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said the news was “very concerning” and that “no option can be ruled out right now”.
But, Russia has denied most accusations about its behaviour ever since it launched the invasion of Ukraine, from claims that Moscow committed war crimes against civilians to refusing to call the war a war (the Kremlin just calls it it “a special military operation”).
What happens next?
Nato has not yet outlined a clear path of action, but discussions about what to do next have already begun.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has spoken to Denmark, the country nearest to the damaged parts of the Nord Stream pipelines, and reiterated the need for “the protection of critical infrastructure in Nato countries.”
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has also threatened the “strongest possible response” if there is any deliberate disruption to the energy supply.
She has called for an urgent investigation on the “events and why”.
A five-mile exclusion zone for shipping has been established around the Danish island, too, and any flights dropping below 1,000 metres banned.
As energy and commodities commentator for Bloomberg, Javier Blas, pointed out, it’s likely Europe will start ramping up its protection against cyberattacks and North Sea gas fields.