The Nord Stream pipeline attack shows what Russia can do, Western officials say, even if they can't prove Russia did it
After months of investigation, Western officials can't prove Russia blew up the Nord Stream pipelines.
While they can't name Russia as the culprit, officials say the attacks illustrate what Russia can do.
The vulnerability of undersea infrastructure, like pipelines and data cables, is a growing concern.
After explosions ruptured the Nord Stream pipelines and set the Baltic Sea boiling with leaking methane gas, US and European officials were quick to blame Russia.
Four months on, investigators are unable to prove Moscow was behind the attack, but officials say the explosions illustrate the threat malign actors — especially Russia — pose to vital undersea infrastructure.
After the explosions in late September, skeptics argued that Russia had little to gain in severing pipelines that gave it leverage over European energy supplies, but numerous officials said Russia was the likely culprit, citing Moscow's reliance on unconventional warfare and rising tensions with its European neighbors.
As of late December, however, there was "no evidence at this point that Russia was behind the sabotage," a European official told The Washington Post, echoing the views of nearly two dozen diplomatic and intelligence officials from nine countries.
Investigators have confirmed the blasts were deliberate, but the admiral in charge of the Office of Naval Intelligence acknowledged this month that there are "still some unknowns," including the perpetrator.
"Obviously, we have a number of investigations underway with different countries taking a look at it," Rear Adm. Michael Studeman said at an Intelligence and National Security Alliance event on January 11.
"The sabotage is confirmed based on what we know so far, but we haven't ruled out any guilty party at this stage of the game," Studeman added. "So we're going to have to wait and see what the evidence and where this investigation or series of investigations go, so stand by right now, but we don't know enough to make any conclusions."
Despite the uncertainty, the attack has only added to concern about threats to undersea infrastructure, particularly cables and pipelines, that connects continents and powers economies.
"There is a vulnerability around anything that sits upon the seabed, whether that's gas pipelines, whether that's data cables," Adm. Sir Ben Key, first sea lord and chief of the British naval staff, said aboard British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth just days after the blast.
That vulnerability is a longstanding British concern. In 2015, the chief of the UK defense staff described threats to cables and pipelines as "a new risk to our way of life." In a 2017 report, Rishi Sunak, then a member of British parliament, described undersea internet cables as "indispensable yet insecure" — a theme Sunak revisited in November in his first major foreign-policy speech as prime minister.
Russia is seen as uniquely capable of interfering with that infrastructure. It has a number of submarines with special-mission capabilities, including the ability to deploy smaller submersibles to tap cables or meddle with pipelines.
US military officials say they have seen worrying increases in Russian activity around that infrastructure, and Washington has imposed sanctions to counter Russian investment in such activity.
The September explosions have also left an impression on Norway and Sweden, which have extensive undersea and offshore infrastructure that could be targeted.
"Just look at the incident with the pipeline, and when we think of that, you have, I think, around 6,000 miles of pipeline in that area. How do we come up with a [way to] take care of that?" Capt. Egil Vasstrand, naval attaché at Norway's Embassy in Washington DC, said during an event at the Surface Navy Association's national conference this month.
"I think we don't only need the navy capabilities. We need also to play together with the companies here, the offshore companies," Vasstrand said in response to a question from Insider. "They also have equipment that can monitor and surveil that part. We don't have enough ships to cover that big area and to secure it."
Norway has experience with damaged undersea cables. In September 2021, more than 2.5 miles of cable off of northern Norway disappeared, and in January 2022 a fiber-optic cable between Norway and Svalbard was cut.
Both incidents were attributed to human activity, but a perpetrator has not been named. (Norway, which borders major Russian military bases, has accused Moscow of other kinds of interference.)
Following the pipeline blasts, Norway and its neighbors called on NATO to coordinate protection of undersea infrastructure, but with plans for more cables in the region and as tensions with Russia remain high, countries need to prepare for both "gray-zone activity" between peace and war and "high-intensity warfighting" like that in Ukraine, Col. Henrik Rosén, naval attaché at Sweden's Embassy, said during the same event.
The Russians are "really proficient in operating in the gray zone, but they will always also be able to go to war," Rosén said, "so we'll have to address them in both those logics, and we cannot so say it's either-or. It has to be both."
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