Another mystery in the already bizarre Russo-Ukraine War has unfolded. The Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines that link Russian natural gas to Germany and the rest of Europe via the Baltic Sea suffered several mysterious, underwater detonations at key points. It is a horrific ecological disaster. What’s more, the mystery surrounding it has sparked a raging debate on both sides of the Atlantic.
Who did this? As with so many mysteries, we must first ask, “Cui bono?”
Some observers, such as Stephen Bryen and his wife, Shoshana, speculate that it might have been poor Russian management of the pipeline—a workplace accident, in other words—that caused the problem. After all, Russia is the same country that brought us such disasters as Chernobyl. Since we do not know for certain what has occurred (and likely never will), it’s easy to theorize about what may have happened.
Members of the New Right, such as Tucker Carlson, argue that it had to have been U.S. intelligence, acting in conjunction with European allies, such as Poland, Denmark, or Sweden (or all of them). The former right-wing Polish Prime Minister, Radek Sikorski, who rarely agrees with Tucker Carlson or the New Right, publicly applauded on Twitter what he claimed was a covert U.S. intelligence operation to destroy the pipeline. Interestingly, Sikorski deleted the tweet soon thereafter. Meanwhile, social media accounts have started sharing strange tidbits of information related to covert U.S. Navy movements in the Baltic Sea that might underscore this bizarre claim.
Still others I know in Europe and who share affiliations with Europe’s right-leaning political parties insist that only a secret NATO operation could carry out such an act. Why, they ask with incredulity, would the Russians blow up their own pipeline?
It’s the Russians
While it is easy to assume that the Russians would never blow up a pipeline from which they benefit from and which they control, it remains that the Western alliance does not benefit from the destruction of the pipeline. That basic question born of understandable incredulity—“Why would the Russians do this?”—is the ultimate tell. Engaging in what seems like self-destructive behavior is part of the fine Russian art of provokatsiya, or provocation.
Yes, the Russians easily could have turned off the taps that provide Europe with essential natural gas as we enter the cooler months of fall and what is expected to be a record-setting frigid winter. But, by blasting their own pipeline, the Russians create an air of mystery that encourages people prone to distrust notoriously corrupt Western elites immediately to conclude those elites are to blame.
Moscow seeks to sow doubt and breed discontent among Russia’s targets—in this case Western audiences and leaders. This leads to dissension in the West and among the Western partners whose unity is required to sustain the herculean defense of Ukraine from Russian aggression.
And severing Western support for Ukraine is essential as Russia, despite having lost the initial phases of their war of choice in Ukraine, must attempt to change the conditions on the ground there and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. So long as Western military aid continues unabated into Ukraine, however, the flailing Putin regime has no chance of achieving their strategic aim of conquering even the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine.
By weakening the Euro-American bond through a coming “winter of discontent”—during which most Europeans are set to endure the consequences of the energy sanctions the West imposed on Russia as well as the countermoves by Russia to cut Europe off from their cheap natural gas sources—Moscow believes it can finally strangle Ukraine and force a negotiated settlement from Kiev. Unfortunately for Putin, however, there are no guarantees that the discomfort caused from Europe’s lack of access to heating sources during the coming winter months will lead to the kind of strategic untethering from the United States Russia hopes to cause.
If the election of the pro-NATO and pro-Ukrainian right-leaning Giorgia Meloni is any indication, Vladimir Putin’s dreams of sweeping aside the neoliberal order in Europe and replacing it with something more amenable to his grand strategy will not pan out as he believes it will. The Europeans will likely endure the coming winter of discontent. No deals will be made. This will (at least as Putin understands things), give him the excuse he needs to escalate against the West—especially if the Europeans do not break with the Americans over Ukraine in order to regain access to Russian natural gas. For Putin, the very survival of his regime is at risk. If the experts in Washington believe that Putin will simply “take” getting his ass kicked by tiny Ukraine without exhausting all measures of war, they are deluding themselves.
More Provocations on the Way
Already, the British Royal Navy is warning that the critical undersea communications cables linking Europe to the United States are under increased threat from the Russian Navy—and the Western alliance lacks adequate resources to properly defend those critical telecommunications systems.
Speaking of which, Russia seeks to deprive the Americans of access to space in the event of war and—likely after they’ve damaged those essential undersea cables—will target America’s vital-yet-vulnerable satellite constellations. We can probably expect America’s important infrastructure to be targeted by Russian cyberattacks as well.
Biden Would Never Risk Hurting the Environment—Even to Help Ukraine
Lastly, the idea that U.S. intelligence would blow up the pipeline in an attempt to force Europe to more fully depend on American sources of energy rather than Russia’s is absurd because that’s not even a possible outcome. We are no longer living during the Trump Administration when America’s domestic fossil fuel production was at record highs. Since President Joe Biden took charge two years ago, he has systematically cut America’s domestic energy production to the point that our producers are struggling just to meet America’s present demand let alone expanding their capabilities to meet an increased demand from European markets.
This is to say nothing of the radical environmental policies held by both the Biden Administration and most European governments. Because of these facts, it is highly unlikely that Washington or Brussels would authorize such a crafty operation to sabotage Russia’s natural gas pipeline into Europe.
Thus, the more probable explanation involves the Russians being at fault. Either through wilful malice or the Bryen theory that the pipeline exploded as a result of either Russian incompetence.
From Europe’s “Winter of Discontent” to the World’s “Season of Death”
In the end, the destruction of the pipeline makes it possible for Russia to attempt its last stratagem—freezing Europe to force them to break with Washington—before it escalates directly against the United States and NATO. It has also had the important effect of dividing the West further against itself.
The off-ramps to this intractable conflict are closing. The next phase of this terrible war is underway. And the endgame, at this point, is very bleak—not just for Ukraine and Europe, but for the United States and Russia, too.