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Probe Into Nord Stream Pipeline Damage Faces Hurdles at Sea, Ashore

The Wall Street Journal. 10/1/2022 Benjamin Katz
© /Associated Press

When Bjorn Lund’s team at the Swedish National Seismic Network first recorded tremors in the Baltic Sea, it didn’t initially notice anything unusual.

The area, off the coasts of Denmark and Sweden, is used for naval exercises by both countries. The institute, part of Uppsala University, regularly records the impact of explosive blasts there.

But after Swedish and Danish authorities later reported leaks in the same area, along the undersea Nord Stream natural-gas pipelines, Mr. Lund’s team took a deeper look. It was the beginning of what has now grown into a high-stakes, multinational investigation into what happened to those pipes.

Denmark and Sweden, which are leading the probe, have said explosions caused at least four leaks and that they were likely deliberate acts. Some Western officials have pointed the finger at Russia. Moscow has said it also believes the leaks were the result of sabotage, but said it had nothing to do with them.

The Nord Stream lines have been the focal point of a long-simmering energy standoff between Russia and Europe, part of a broader economic war running parallel to the ground war in Ukraine. The possibility of sabotage in the Baltic threatens to greatly expand the military theater. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said earlier this week it was prepared to respond to any deliberate act and was committed to protecting against any further attack.

Germany said it would deploy naval assets to assist in the investigation. The U.S. has said it would work with NATO allies to investigate the incident and protect other critical infrastructure.

Such a high-profile probe of the seabed is rare. The physical barriers to reaching the scene of the incident are daunting: The pipes are resting on the ocean’s floor some 300 feet below the surface, miles away from shore.

Analysts said authorities could first use diving robots to survey the situation. To fix the pipeline, authorities would need a specialized ship to replace the damaged section. The operator of one of the affected lines, Nord Stream AG, said it was mobilizing resources for a survey campaign to assess the damages in cooperation with local authorities. It said it wasn’t currently possible to estimate a time frame.

The operator of the other line, Nord Stream 2 AG, is a Swiss subsidiary of Russian state gas giant Gazprom. The unit is the target of Western sanctions put in place in retaliation against Moscow’s invasion. Sanctions could complicate attempts to engage some specialist companies whose expertise or technology could be required to fix the pipelines, analysts said.

Mr. Lund, director of the seismic network, which advises the Swedish government, said his team identified two explosive events on Monday: one recorded shortly after 2 a.m. local time and a second around 7 p.m. The teams ruled out earthquakes; only four quakes in the area have been recorded in the past 20 years, according to Mr. Lund. The frequency of the reverberations also didn’t match that of a natural event.

The institute compared the seismic data against recorded blasts from Swedish and Danish naval exercises, concluding the magnitude of the explosions corresponded to some 100 to 200 kilos of TNT. The team is now working with the Swedish Armed Forces and the crisis-management arm of the Swedish government in the probe.

Denmark and Sweden say the blasts have led to four leaks. The leaks have created circular plumes of gas rising from the lines to the surface, where natural gas bubbles into the atmosphere. The biggest of these plumes, resembling the water of a giant, swirling Jacuzzi in the middle of the ocean, is some 2,000 yards across.

The big question for investigators: Who could pull off such an act, and why? Western analysts say that if Russia was to blame, Moscow could be signaling a willingness to take the fight outside of Ukraine’s borders to energy and other critical infrastructure in Europe, among other possible motivations.

“They can deny it, they can deflect and deny,” said Bill Hamblet, a former U.S. Navy attaché in Moscow in the mid-2000s. “But at a nation-state level, intel community to intel community, this could be sending a very clear message that, ‘Hey, we still have tricks up our sleeve.’”

Russia backers, meanwhile, have suggested Western incentives for an attack including a desire to create a false-flag incident to justify escalating the war. Russian officials have pointed out that without the Nord Stream lines, Europe would rely more on U.S. liquefied natural-gas shipments, at the expense of Russian exports.

“We see the huge profits of the U.S. suppliers of liquefied natural gas, who increased their supplies manyfold to the European continent,” Reuters reported Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling a press conference in Moscow this week after being asked about the leaks. The U.S. has denied Russian suggestions of involvement.

Whatever the motivation, the sort of sabotage operation being suggested by both sides could be complex.

“It would take a lot of professionalism, not only in terms of military knowledge, but also in understanding international laws of the sea,” said Trine Villumsen Berling, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, who specializes in energy security and the Nord Stream pipeline. The explosions occurred just outside of Danish and Swedish territorial waters, inside which sabotage could constitute an act of war, she said.

Naval and subsea infrastructure specialists have long laid out scenarios in which underwater explosives could be used by outside actors to disable infrastructure.

The most straightforward theory involves operatives diving to the bottom of the relatively shallow seabed from a surface vessel, according to Christian Bueger, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, who specializes in international relations and maritime security. Mr. Bueger said the operation could have been conducted from a disguised ship—a fishing vessel or a private yacht.

Once in position, divers could reach the exterior of the pipeline wall and place explosives that could be detonated later. Alternatively, a relatively low-technology submarine, or unmanned submarine, could have been deployed from a surface vessel to lay mines.

“The subsea lends itself to these brazen attacks,” said Mr. Bueger.

Earlier this year, he was asked by the European Parliament to outline risks to critical underwater infrastructure following Russia’s invasion. In addition to energy infrastructure, electricity and internet cabling crisscross international waters.

A second, common scenario would involve a more complex submarine operation, according to Mr. Hamblet, the former naval attaché. He said a subsea operation, with manned or unmanned submarines, could be more easily pulled off without detection than a surface operation. But that requires more hardware and expertise.

“Not every navy in the world has that capability,” he said.

Write to Benjamin Katz at ben.katz@wsj.com

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