Murder in the Baltic Sea

"I sometimes wonder if our leaders actually want to drive Russia into an angry, sullen isolation...the next European war will be fought with gas and oil and pipelines, and it is pretty clear Russia controls more of those things than we do." Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday, 6th April 2008

Since the Ukrainian conflict heated up again earlier this year, Russia has had an ace up their sleeve in their negotiations with the European Union: natural gas.


Most of Europe currently depends on Russia for their energy, especially for heating. As western Europe in particular has cut their mining and use of coal in favour of renewable alternatives, the need for gas to fill in the gaps in their supply has only grown.


With the EU deciding to side with the United States, they have largely cut themselves off from Russian gas since the 'special military operation' began earlier this year. Russia made this cut official a few months ago, and there has since been a stand-off between the two over who would blink first.


Russia could do with the money supplied through their continued exports, and with winter looming, the rest of Europe is trying to avoid having their citizens freeze to death, but for them to make a deal with Russia would be to undermine the collective western response to Russia's SMO and now partial mobilisation and annexation of eastern Ukraine.


Even so, reality is already biting for many Europeans, as the weather is getting colder and energy bills are skyrocketing. Just a few days ago, a protest was held in the German town of Lubmin, which demanded the opening of Nord Stream 2. Nord Stream 1 & 2 are pipelines supplying gas into Germany via the Baltic Sea, as opposed to other pipelines which go through Ukraine, Poland, Romania and other eastern European countries.


Lubmin is a town on the Baltic Sea, and is where the NS2 pipeline enters Germany. The protestors appeared to want peace in the east for the sake of their economic and personal security, given Germany's dependence on Russian gas for not just heating, but also for much of their industrial success.

Gas bubbles from the Nord Stream 2 leak reaching the surface of the Baltic Sea. (Image: Danish Defence Command/Handout via Reuters)

A day after this protest, explosions in the Baltic Sea destroyed the Nord Stream pipelines. A day after that, the Baltic Line - which transports gas from Norway through to Poland - was opened. It will be some time before investigators can examine the explosion sites closely, but some early estimates suggest the pipelines may never return to operational status (though while NS2 was completed, it never delivered gas due to the war).


It also seems clear to all concerned that this cannot have been an accident. There were separate, simultaneous explosions large enough to cause small earthquakes, now affecting four different pipelines.


So, the question for us to answer is this: whodunit?


Put on your detective hat, get out the magnifying glass and light up your tobacco pipe, we're going to be doing a bit of deduction. Hopefully, we'll learn something about how to understand international relations in the process.


Means and motive

If we're going to play detective, we need to focus on two things: did anyone have the means, and did anyone have a motive? (The third part of the investigative equation, opportunity, is not something we generally have access to when it comes to the movements of military actors).


As far as means go, we're looking for a party which would have access to underwater vehicles, most likely drones rather than submarines, and also a large amount of explosives (recent reports indicate the explosions was most likely TNT) and the ability to evade or for some other reason escape detection by local military forces.

This is you, looking at the Baltic Sea. Where's the evidence taking you?

As far as motive goes, we're dealing with one of the oldest questions in the book: cui bono?


That very question has been asked by Finland's president Sauli Niinistö, as quoted in a Finnish media outlet: “It’s hard to assess; does anybody benefit? That is why this is a mystery so far.”


If actions, especially crimes, are taken, they are usually taken because they are of benefit to someone at the cost of another. Cicero attributed this question to Lucius Cassius, a judge in the Roman Republic whom he called "most honest and most wise," and indeed, cui bono analyses tend to point one in the right direction in investigations such as these, or at the very least, prevent you from going in the wrong direction - provided someone isn't trying to misdirect you.


With this in mind, let's examine our suspects.


Suspect 1: Russia

Since the conflict in Ukraine heated up in March of this year, the temptation has been for every hostile action to take place against the west to be blamed on the Russian Federation, and this is no different. While there's a broad acknowledgement that there is an air of mystery as to who blew up the Nord Streams, most media investigations (surface level though they are for now) explicitly or implicitly tend to assume that the only reasonable answer to the mystery is that Russia did it.


It's certainly true that Russia has the means for such an action. Given the structural integrity of the pipelines, it is almost certain that it would take the work of underwater drones to complete the task, and there are not a great number of states with access to the technology and the location to do it. It also would not be too difficult to back a protest or two in relevant towns to make it appear as though there is German support for peace with Russia, just as the west backed the Euromaidan protests in Kiev in 2014.


However, it is also illogical for Russia to take such an action. Russia has continually held out hope that they could negotiate with Germany (the de facto leaders of the EU) for the sake of mutual economic benefits, thereby also splitting them away from the US orbit. Natural gas has been their trump card, and the Nord Stream is central to providing that gas. While they have other pipelines that reach Germany, they are all significantly more expensive for Gazprom to run than Nord Stream 1, and Nord Stream 2 was going to further increase supply and bring down costs.


It's not as though Russia needed to blow up these pipelines in order to stop providing gas to Europe, thereby putting the squeeze on their governments to give in. They'd already stopped providing gas via Nord Stream in August. Losing the pipelines would actually be a disaster for Russia's strategy in splitting the German-dominated west from the US-dominated west, because they would lose virtually all leverage. Pipelines that are functional but not delivering gas are useful. Pipelines that are non-functional are pointless.

Vladimir Putin denounced accusations against Russia, and blamed the explosions on "Anglo-Saxons". (Image: Gavriil Grigorov/Sputink/AFP)

We could argue (as some have) that Russia desired to threaten Europe by showing them how easily their gas supplies could be turned off. For one thing, this seems rather like shooting yourself in the face with a revolver to prove that it has ability to fire bullets. But even ignoring the absurdity, virtually any other pipeline would make more sense to attack than Nord Stream to achieve this goal. If the intention is to minimise capacity and bring Europe to the table by threatening to completely freeze them, then starting off by exploding the largest, most direct and most expensive projects, one of which hasn't actually delivered any return yet, would be a strange place to start compared to, say, the pipelines going through Ukraine.


Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the European Union to lift their sanctions and open up NS2 only ten days before the explosions. For a man who is consistent and slow-moving in his international relations, it would be quite the U-turn to go from opening up the NS2 to blowing it up in the space of a week. Last week, Russia also announced it had thwarted an attack on its Turkstream pipeline, which is hard to see as a sign that it would then wilfully attack another of its pipelines.


The other option, of course, is that Putin is busy playing interdimensional 4D chess and/or is a certified lunatic, and has deliberately taken an action that flies in the face of natural logic. While an amusing piece of propaganda, history has shown that, as mentioned above, Putin (and Russian foreign policy in general over the last three decades) is actually rather consistent with his public statements, and hesitates to take decisive action quickly, let alone do an about-face in a matter of weeks.


It is scarcely coincidental that those most likely to conclude that Russia is responsible for this action are those who already believe that hostile actions are Russian until proven otherwise, in which case it's worth noting that US officials were quoted in the New York Times a few days ago when it stated that "it had been tempting to blame just about every attack on Russia, sometimes wrongly. In July, there was a widespread assumption in Washington that a major cyberattack on Albania was a Russian effort to undermine a NATO ally; this month, officials said an investigation had concluded the culprit was Iran."


Suspect 2: Ukraine

Given that Ukraine and Russia are at odds right now, it's fair to say that whatever is Russia's loss is likely Ukraine's gain. Ukraine has been increasingly concerned that the west (aside from the United States) is wavering on long-term commitment to fighting in their war, which is understandable given that the west has, in many ways, been the guiding force on their side of the war, providing Ukraine with weapons, intelligence and strategic assistance (and also a not insignificant number of mercenaries).


If the west is wavering over energy supplies, then what better way to stop them from giving in than to take away Russia's main bargaining chip? Consider as well that this has left Russia reliant on sending gas through pipelines that, bar one, go through Ukraine.

Volodomyr Zelensky immediately accused Russia of the crime. (Image: Getty Images)

There are a couple of problems here though. For one thing, Ukraine has no sea access on the Baltic, and wouldn't be able to send anything around from the Black Sea without someone noticing (and stopping them). Even then, it seems unlikely they would have the capabilities to create those explosions. If they did, it would be with western munitions and vehicles - which they would need to inform the west about.


Furthermore, removing their allies' main gas supply line seems like a great way to get their allies' off-side. Even if their governments knew about it in advance, there is no guarantee that the people they govern would be particularly happy about Ukraine destroying their gas supplies and sending their energy prices through the roof. Having said that, there is a certain belligerence among the western Ukrainian leadership that seems to expect that their allies will stick with them no matter what.


Still, the logistical difficulty of such a manoeuvre makes it unlikely, especially when the government is a little distracted by their stalled counter-attack.


Suspect 3: Poland/Baltic States

Equally as bellicose as western Ukraine are Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. The latter three became members of NATO in 2004, much to the consternation of Russia, and they have since been particularly gleeful in their prodding of their former rulers. Also unlike Ukraine, these states have access to the Baltic Sea.


However, much like Ukraine, it is difficult to see how any of them would have the capacity to take out this infrastructure in the way that it has been done, and if they did, the likely response from their NATO allies would be negative - potentially leaving them vulnerable if NATO decides they are more trouble than they are worth. It seems much more likely that, while they consider this even a good thing, these states would not risk doing it themselves.

Suspect 4: Nordic States

At the other end of the scale we have the Nordic states of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Each of them has an interest in this event. For Finland, they are on Russia's border, and their tone has been not dissimilar to their Baltic neighbours in recent months. For Norway, the Baltic Line transports their gas, which means they stand to benefit hugely from its opening, especially now that the Nord Streams are no longer potential competition.


And for Denmark and Sweden, these explosions took place in their territory, rather than in international waters as had been initially claimed. Is it possible that a hostile power would have been able to take such an action in their waters without them being aware, especially as Denmark are a NATO member and Sweden have applied to be one?

Sauli Niinistö saw no way for anyone to benefit from the leaks. (Image: Mauri Ratilainen/PAP/EPA)

But we might well ask the reverse - do any of these states actually have the motive and means? Yes, Norway benefits financially from the Baltic Line, but they would have benefited just as much for the moment without the Nord Streams being blown up. Sure, Denmark and Sweden should have known what was going on in their territory, but that doesn't mean that they are the ones to have taken this action.


Like their neighbours above, they do not have the capabilities, and even if they did, it's doesn't fit with their usual methodology. It would be extremely out of character for these nations to take a dangerous action, especially for those concerned about the effects of methane on the environment to the extent that some of their governments are.


Suspect 5: Germany

Here's an especially cynical take: the German government blowing up the pipelines directed towards itself, so that protestors could no longer demonstrate against the government's position on NS2 and the war in Ukraine.


Germany is in an awkward position. They are the de facto leaders of the European Union. They have the second largest population in Europe behind Russia, and the strongest economy. The Eurozone is run to their benefit.


However, they have two needs. Economically, they need energy and raw materials from Russia. Politically and military, they need the protection of the United States via NATO. Since the end of the Cold War, they have stuck with the winners over the losers - the US over Russia - and that's been a fairly safe bet. Even though they were beaten in two world wars by the side that contained the US and Russia/USSR, they have turned the tables on the latter by joining the former, as the latest battle in their long fight for dominance over Europe.


Russia believes it can sway Germany to their side through economic reality, getting it to detach from the United States to create a 'united, peaceful Europe'. The United States believes that Germany is crucial to keeping NATO and the European Union within its orbit. Germany wants to lead an independent EU superpower, but relies on the aforementioned powers to keep its leading position within the bloc.


The question, then, is what could the German government even afford to do? Blowing up the Nord Streams seems like a great way to aggravate Russia, infuriate its own people, and become overly reliant on the USA. Furthermore, it's not clear that Germany would have the capacity to take such action anyway, at least without assistance from other NATO powers, though they would certainly be more capable than any other EU member.


Suspect 6: United States

The biggest issue so far, then, has been means. While there are plenty of nations that might have a motive, none other than Russia have demonstrated they have the means to cause rock the seabed - but Russia has, if anything, only a motive not to blow up its biggest negotiation trick.


This brings us to the United States, a country which definitely has the capability to pull this off, more than even Russia would. US warships are allowed in Baltic Sea through NATO agreements, and NATO was even using underwater drones and had navy divers present in recent months off the island of Bornholm (which may or may not have been over the precise locations of the explosions). These would primarily be US drones and divers, with perhaps assistance from the United Kingdom.

Neither Anthony Blinken nor Joe Biden have pointed the finger of blame at Russia. (Image: Stefani Reynolds/Getty)

But does the US have any motive? Compared to Russia, there are a number of potential motives. For one thing, the US is not negatively affected by the destruction of these pipelines, being based on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and all. The US is also a supplier of LNG, something Europe could do with right now. Economically, the United States has been and will continue to be a beneficiary of Europe's need for gas.


As far as the political side of things goes, the United States has also been the primary driver of the west's Ukrainian intervention. It cannot afford to let Germany waver from its leadership position in Europe, through which support for Ukraine has been coming. Therefore, removing a potential obstacle towards continued German opposition to Russia can only be good for the United States' current foreign policy positions.


There is also more circumstantial evidence swirling around the US than around any other suspect. Der Spiegel has reported that the CIA warned Germany of an impending attack on Nord Stream a few weeks ago, and it would certainly be easier to warn someone of your own impending attack. Public statements of Victoria Nuland and Joe Biden about Nord Stream have also been shared on social media. Nuland's comments are the more interesting of the two, given her recorded involvement with the Euromaidan overthrow of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine in 2014, which directly led to the mess there today.


If anything, though, this all seems a little too obvious. The US has both the means and the motive, and even the opportunity, but is this a move they would really risk doing? If there was ever going to be a set-up against the US to turn their allies against them (unless they were all working together to make their own lives more difficult), wouldn't it look something like this?


Suspect 7: Someone else

The only other state with the obvious capability of causing this event is China, but it is difficult to see a) how they would have gotten it done or b) why they would even bother to do so. They have been aligning themselves closer with Russia since early this year, as a response to the United States freezing Russia out of international politics. It hardly makes sense for them to undertake a move that would seriously annoy Russia and hurt their reputation internationally, as the west would have no problems with pinning it on them either.


In any case, the rest of the world is doing a perfectly good job of tearing itself apart without the assistance of the Chinese Communist Party.


Early on, there was also some theorising that this could all be the work of a non-state actor, perhaps of a rival gas company to Gazprom. But it is extremely unlikely any business large enough to pull off such a move would risk their reputation with major world governments by engaging in what would be terrorist activity.


And that's it. You have your suspects, detective.


So tell us. Who did it?