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A pipeline attack on Nord Steam in the Baltic Sea has exposed a worrying weakness that could be used to topple civilisation as we know it.

Escalate to de-escalate. It’s classic gangster logic. Which is why the sabotage of Europe’s Nord stream gas pipelines may be President Putin’s way of saying, “I need to surrender – but you must surrender for me.”

Facts about the underwater explosions that ruptured the Baltic Sea pipelines are scarce.

We know Nord Stream 1 experienced two separate breaches at its closest point to Sweden.

We know Nord Stream 2 suffered two adjoining breaches at a point the pipeline almost touches Denmark’s borders.

We know seismic sensors in the region detected a series of blasts – one with force equivalent to a magnitude 2.3 earthquake.

We also know Europe’s gas supply has been on the frontline of the economic battle between Moscow and Brussels over the invasion of Ukraine.

But they’re sufficiently distant dots to allow anyone to connect them in just about any shape they desire.

That’s a well-established Kremlin disinformation tactic. As is the concept of “escalate to de-escalate” in Russian military doctrine.

The idea is to attack brutally to such an extent that any retaliation would seem both worthless and likely to elicit an even more extreme response.

Mix it with diplomatic confusion, distorted facts and plausible allegations and denials – and you get a major tactical and propaganda victory.

And beneath it all lies a terrible threat: The world’s economy is utterly dependent on the internet traffic being carried on a handful of exceedingly vulnerable underwater cables. A shame if they were to suddenly end up broken.

Underwater attack

Since before the attack, NATO anti-submarine helicopters and aircraft were observed operating in the Baltic – and off the shores of Russian Kaliningrad.

It’s a chaotic place.

The Baltic is relatively shallow. But it also has powerful deepwater currents. And its seabed is littered with the wrecks of World War II shipping.

Combined, this makes underwater and anti-submarine operations especially difficult.

The gas leak at the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as it is seen from the Danish Defence’s F-16 rejection response off the Danish Baltic island of Bornholm, south of Dueodde. Picture: Danish Defence/AFP

The gas leak at the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as it is seen from the Danish Defence’s F-16 rejection response off the Danish Baltic island of Bornholm, south of Dueodde.

The Nord Stream pipelines run through depths of 80m and 110m. And while the explosions occurred at the shallowest end of the scale, they remain much deeper than the 20 or so metres unassisted scuba-divers usually reach.

That means planting explosives requires a sophisticated effort.

The options are extensive. Submarine-fired torpedoes? Disguised drones operating from commercial ships? Special forces mine-laying submersibles? Scuttling charges incorporated during their construction?

Whatever the case, the attacks needed powerful warheads.

The pipes are made of 3cm thick high-grade steel. These are then encased in concrete.

And that’s also why they’re not likely to be repaired anytime soon.

A man working at the construction site at the landfall area of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Lubmin, northeastern Germany in 2019. Picture: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

A man working at the construction site at the landfall area of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Lubmin, northeastern Germany in 2019.

Sewing confusion

Nord Stream 1 is owned by Russian energy company Gazprom. Nord Stream 2 is owned by a Gazprom subsidiary based in Switzerland.

The gas flow through Nord Stream 1 was halted in August after Moscow claimed technical difficulties. Nord Stream 2 was denied operational certification upon its completion in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine.

They’ve not been contributing substantially to Russia’s economy. And that gives Moscow plausible deniability.

“Thank you, USA,” European Parliament member Radoslaw Sikorski declared on Twitter when sharing a photo of the Nord Stream leak. Russian propagandists immediately seized upon the implied suggestion that Washington was behind the sabotage.

Poland’s secretary of state, Stanislaw Zaryn, quickly retaliated, tweeting: “Authenticating the Russian lies at this particular moment jeopardises the security of Poland. What an act of gross irresponsibility!”

But the damage had been done. The conspiracy theory had been lent the credibility of a Polish minister.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has called the Baltic explosions “concerning”.

“We cannot rule out any possibility right now,” Moscow spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in a statement. Obviously, there is some sort of destruction of the pipe. Before the results of the investigation, it is impossible to rule out any options.”

US, Russian, and NATO forces had been operating in the Baltic Sea in the lead-up to the attacks. This makes it easy to point to the location of warships such as the USS Kearsarge or the course of a Russian electronic warfare aircraft as potential triggers.

In the absence of evidence, speculation abounds.

Leveraging such doubt and confusion is a common Kremlin tactic. So why would Russia sabotage its own economic infrastructure?

A look at the Kremlin’s history offers a clue. It regularly uses violence to intimidate. The extent to which it is willing to do so is shown in the Salisbury nerve agent attack in the UK in 2018.

Emergency services workers in biohazard suits at the spot where a man and a woman were found on in critical condition after a Russian nerve agent attack on a former spy in 2018. Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP

Emergency services workers in biohazard suits at the spot where a man and a woman were found on in critical condition after a Russian nerve agent attack on a former spy in 2018.

“It’s a very classic Russian hybrid warfare approach,” says Denmark-based Risk Intelligence CEO Hans Tino Hansen. “They are showing that they can attack seabed energy infrastructure, with the pipelines, which then sends the signal that they can attack and destroy any energy infrastructure in Europe.”

Between the lines

The explosions all happened in international waters – just barely.

Nord Stream 2 was attacked where it passed along the edge of Denmark’s territorial waters.

Nord Stream 2 was breached at its closest point to Sweden.

This means the NATO treaty’s war clauses have not been triggered.

“All available information indicates those leaks are the result of a deliberate act,” says European Union (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell.

“Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response,” Borrell added, without specifying what such a response would be.

And that makes the attack an expert piece of diplomatic brinkmanship.

Even if it is possible to pinpoint the culprit – if it was Russia, why cause does NATO have to punish Moscow for destroying its own assets?

Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder says Washington is sharing information with its allies about the “apparent acts of sabotage.” German magazine Der Spiegel yesterday reported that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had warned Berlin several months ago of an impending attack on the pipelines.

“We are, of course, in a situation in Europe and Germany where critical infrastructure – and energy supply may be counted among them as a whole – are potential targets,” German vice-chancellor Robert Habeck said overnight. “Germany is a country that knows how to defend itself, and Europe is a continent that can protect its energy infrastructure.”

And now, global strategic analysts are keenly aware of the vulnerability of another vital piece of international infrastructure: undersea internet optical fibre cables.

“Unprotected cables and energy infrastructure could provide adversaries with all kinds of opportunities to gain the upper hand,” warns Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments senior fellow Robert Martinage.

Some 95 per cent of all international communications traffic travels underwater along some 300 5cm-thick fibre optic cables, all funnelling towards just 20 or so collection points worldwide.

“Hostile forces could, for instance, plant explosive charges in sensitive locations and threaten to pull the trigger,” Martinage says. “Or they could set off explosions without warning, throwing markets into chaos and disrupting military command-and-control systems.

“State and nonstate actors could conduct anonymous attacks or act under a false flag.

“Attributing responsibility for a covert attack would prove challenging, making deterrence extremely difficult.”

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