Unprecedented damage to Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea may be the work of sabotage, German officials believe.
National daily Tagesspiegel reported on Tuesday that government sources suspect leaks that turned ships away from the affected areas could have been inflicted deliberately, though it would take days if not weeks for deep sea divers to verify.
Suspicion centered around whether the damage might have been carried out as part of a false flag operation by Russia, potentially set before September, to destabilise markets and drive gas prices higher, according to the paper. Another theory suggests it was conducted by operatives linked to Ukraine that sought to put the two pipelines out of commission and force gas to run across Polish and Ukrainian territory to Russia-friendly European countries like Serbia.
The three leaks were discovered in Swedish and Danish territorial waters, with one located near the island of Bornholm. This also happens to be the area where a new, EU-backed gas transit line called Baltic Pipe runs, due to go into partial operation on Saturday.
“Even in our imagination we cannot think of a single situation, in which this wasn’t a planned attack,” the daily newspaper quoted one source briefed on the government’s thinking. “Everything speaks against this being a coincidence.”
Sweden’s Maritime Authority issued a warning about two leaks in the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, shortly after a leak on the nearby Nord Stream 2 pipeline was discovered by Danish authorities, prompting officials to restrict shipping in a five nautical mile radius.
Marine vessels can lose buoyancy if they enter the area and the gas could also ignite in the air over the water. “There is the risk of a very large explosion if the gas comes into contact with a spark. Moreover it’s poisonous for man and beast,” said Simon Pedersen, a lecturer at the University of Aalborg.
The German interior ministry did not immediately provide comment when reached by Fortune. Russia had already stopped gas shipments completely through Nord Stream 1, while Nord Stream 2, despite being full of gas, was never put into operation.
Before stopping all shipments through Nord Stream 1, Russian state energy group Gazprom had cut the amount of gas it was sending Germany to about 20% of the pipeline’s annual 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) capacity, citing the need to accommodate maintenance work. At the start of September, it ceased all further supplies due to what it claimed was a mechanical failure.
Moscow offered to pipe in fresh gas through Nord Stream 2, which Germany had mothballed before it could be brought into operation due to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The news of the leaks to the pipeline was “very disturbing”, said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Putin.
“This is a completely unprecedented situation that requires urgent investigation,” he told the state-run TASS news agency on Tuesday.
According to Danish media, domestic military aircraft spotted gas bubbling up to the water’s surface after pressure in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline dropped to 7 bar from 105 previously.
The head of the Danish energy agency, Kristoffer Bottzauw, said “breaches of gas pipelines happen extremely rarely.”
A spokesman for the operator of Nord Stream 1, whose twin pipelines were both affected, told Fortune the company could not comment on the reason for the leak, but would provide further information to the public as soon as it was able to verify the cause.
Earlier on Tuesday, Baltic Pipe celebrated its official inauguration in Goleniów, Poland. It is slated to transport up to 10 bcm of gas annually from Norway to Poland by cutting through Danish territory both onshore and offshore.
EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said in a statement the gas transit line was a “key project for the security of supply of the region” that would play a “valuable role in mitigating the current energy crisis.”
In a briefing with journalists on Tuesday, the European Commission confirmed three leaks had been discovered, but said it was too early to comment on the cause.
“It’s really not the moment to speculate on what the potential causes could be and any coincidences that may or may not be there in terms of when it happened,” said a spokesman.
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