Sep 29, 2022

Who attacked the Nord Stream pipeline?

Who attacked the Nord Stream pipeline?
Danish Defense shows the gas leaking at Nord Stream 2 seen from the Danish F-16 interceptor on Bornholm, Denmark on September 27, 2022. (Photo by Danish Defence/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A global mystery is unfolding in real time.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Today: We're taking a break from our normal format and covering the Nord Stream Pipeline "sabotage," one of the biggest global whodunnits of recent memory. We're skipping today's reader question to allow ourselves some more space to unravel the mystery.

This time last year: We were covering the historic week in Congress with the reconciliation bill and infrastructure bill being negotiated at the same time.

Quick hits.

  1. Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida yesterday as a Category 4 storm. Severe storm surges and high winds knocked out power for 2.5 million people and caused major flooding in the Naples and Fort Myers region. (The storm)
  2. Mortgage rates rose to 6.7%, their highest levels since 2007, as the U.S. housing market continues to cool. (The numbers)
  3. President Biden hosted a panel on hunger and health yesterday, and laid out a plan to end hunger in the U.S. by 2030. (The plan)
  4. Russia announced plans to annex four regions in eastern Ukraine after holding referendums that were widely considered illegal and fixed. Images online showed election officials going door-to-door with armed soldiers to gather votes. (The annexation)
  5. Congress appears poised to pass a short-term spending bill and avoid a government shutdown Friday. (The bill)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

The Nord Stream pipeline explosions. Two gas pipelines that run from Russia to Europe are leaking now after unusual and unexplained underwater explosions. Nord Stream 1 and 2, which run from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, appear to have been damaged at some point on Monday, when officials detected significant drops in their pressure. The pressure drop was tied to three leaks, which Swedish seismologists said came from underwater explosions. A fourth leak was detected on Thursday morning. The Danish military then released a photo from above of the gas leak (pictured below).

Danish Defense shows the gas leaking at Nord Stream 2 seen from the Danish F-16 interceptor on Bornholm, Denmark on September 27, 2022. (Photo by Danish Defence/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Danish Defense shows the gas leaking at Nord Stream 2 seen from the Danish F-16 interceptor on Bornholm, Denmark on September 27, 2022. (Photo by Danish Defence/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The pipelines are already a significant source of international tension. Germany halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline earlier this year over Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Then Russia shut off all Nord Stream pipeline flows earlier this month, a move perceived as retaliation for the European Union's continued support of Ukraine in the war (Russia claimed there were technical issues preventing the delivery of the gas, an excuse that has been viewed with much skepticism in the West).

Seismologists at the Swedish National Seismic Network said they registered two tremors in the areas of the pipelines that they believed to be explosions. Neither, they said, had the hallmarks of an earthquake, though one registered a 1.8 magnitude on the Richter scale, while the second registered at 2.3.

“These are deliberate actions, not an accident,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Tuesday. “The situation is as serious as it gets.”

The pipelines are about 750 miles long and lie on the floor of the ocean, at depths of about 262-320 feet. A submersible vehicle would be required to reach them, and there have been no reports of submarines or underwater vehicles detected at the times of the explosions. Germany's Nord Stream AG, which operates the pipelines, is attempting to repair them while investigating the cause.

Since the pipelines were already off, the leaks won't impact gas supply. But environmentalists say they could pose a climate issue, as the pipes contain natural gas and will leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

"There are a number of uncertainties, but if these pipelines fail, the impact to the climate will be disastrous and could even be unprecedented," atmospheric chemist David McCabe, who is senior scientist at the non-profit Clean Air Task Force, told Reuters.

There is now widespread speculation about who damaged the pipelines and why. Russia, the United States, Ukraine, Poland, and China have all been accused. NATO called it sabotage and promised a “united and determined response” to any attack on an allied member's infrastructure. The result is a global whodunnit, with little hard evidence pointing in any direction.

Because of the unusual nature of this story, we're going to take a break from our normal left-right format and share some ideas from across the U.S. and the world — then "my take." We’re also skipping today’s reader question to give this story some more space.

It was Russia...

In The Washington Post, Max Boot said Russia was the most likely culprit.

“The Kremlin, predictably, denied any responsibility and blamed the U.S. government — as it has previously done for everything from the spread of AIDS during the 1980s to the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014 by a Russian missile battery," Boot wrote. "It is true that the Biden administration, just like its predecessors, opposed the Nord Stream pipelines because they would increase European dependence on Russia. But it is bizarre to think that the United States would undertake an act of sabotage that could hurt our closest allies in Europe and add to inflationary pressure at home. President Biden has done a superb job of marshaling European countries to oppose Russian aggression. He would never risk the blowback from an attack on European energy infrastructure...

“The assumption among European officials is that Russia is responsible, and that makes sense. No other nation would have both the motive and the means for an attack,” Boot wrote. “The means are easy: Moscow could have sent an undersea drone, as reported by the Times of London, or a submarine with Naval Spetsnaz (special forces) frogmen to plant the charges. The motive is more speculative, because it would seem counterproductive for Russia to sabotage its own pipeline. But Russia has a long history of using gas interruptions as a geopolitical tool. Indeed, the Kremlin had already announced in early September that the Nord Stream 1 pipeline would be closed indefinitely for repairs, in a move that was widely interpreted as an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Europe to stop supporting Ukraine.”

Mark Galeotti, a British expert on Russian criminal and security affairs, argued that it was a warning from Russia.

“Both of these lines linking Russia to Germany have sprung devastating leaks. The cause, according to seismological readings, was a series of explosions off the Danish island of Bornholm, too directed (and powerful enough to breach 4cm of steel and a thick concrete mantle) and too synchronised to be any kind of an accident,” he said. “There are those in Russia who, predictably enough, are blaming the Ukrainians. Given that the Russians took their last working submarine in 2014, though, this is implausible even by their standards. While some are instead seeing an American plot behind the leaks, the most credible answer for now is that the Russians dunnit. But why sabotage their own pipelines, especially when neither was at the time pumping energy to Europe?

“The answer is likely to be as a warning,” he wrote. “If you want to signal that, if pushed to escalation, you might regard foreign pipelines and other undersea assets as fair game – and the underwater cables that are the arteries of the global internet are the obvious concern here – then a safer option is to hit your own. Ursula von der Leyen has taken time out from explicitly threatening the Italians to implicitly threatening the Russians, warning that any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure would be met by the 'strongest possible response'. But it is harder to seriously respond when the infrastructure isn't yours, isn’t in use, and isn’t likely to be used in the future.”

It was not Russia...

In her newsletter, Caitlin Johnstone said "someone who believes the US or its proxies sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines can tell you exactly what they'd stand to gain from it and how little it would cost them."

"Someone who believes it was Russia has to perform weird mental contortions about Moscow sending some kind of message to the world and Putin being insane, or entertain the absurd notion that Russia could only stop Europe from obtaining Russian natural gas by destroying Russian pipelines," Johnstone wrote. "This says a lot about whose arguments are stronger. The west has blamed Russia for bad presidents, for western racism, for western political divisions, for inflation, for pretty much every bad thing western power structures are responsible for, but blaming Russia for attacks on Russian pipelines is probably going to take the cake.

"Online discourse is crawling with people who really, truly, sincerely believe that if someone doesn't fully support their government's foreign policy with Russia and believe 100 percent of what their government says about it, it means they love Vladimir Putin and support everything he does," she said. "You either believe Putin invaded Ukraine solely because he is evil and hates freedom and support your government's actions against Russia no matter how much it costs or how much it risks, or you love the Kremlin and think Putin is a saint. Those are the only two possibilities. If you can propagandize someone into believing their government is pure and virtuous, they will necessarily see any opposition to that government as evil and malicious."

In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote about the reasons Russia wouldn't do this.

"Russia’s coercive diplomacy strategy was built upon these pipelines functioning, allowing Putin to turn off the taps and then turn them back on again when he gets what he wants," he said. "The EU — Germany in particular — was already showing signs of being tired of the energy war. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz continuously declines to send weapons his government has already promised to Ukraine. Arguably, EU’s wartime sanctions on Russia were already weakening. The European Union has already lifted its restrictions on Russian fertilizer coming into the EU, and Russia was asking them to lift the restrictions on Russian fertilizer being shipped to developing nations.

"The first glance turns out to be sensible still. Russia is in the midst of an energy war with Europe. Why would it blow up its weapon in the months before it would have its greatest effect?" Dougherty said. "When you want to demonstrate your capabilities, you don’t deliberately bomb and sabotage yourself... Who benefits? If it weakens Russia, Ukraine benefits... The former Polish foreign minister and current MEP, Radosław 'Radek' Sikorski, initially went to Twitter to thank the United States for blowing it up. He also reticulated a video of President Joe Biden from earlier this year, apparently promising that the U.S. could take out the pipelines in the event of an invasion of Ukraine. Sikorski’s most endearing trait is his ability to troll and provoke. Was he trolling?"

It was the United States...

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said Putin would have to be a "suicidal moron" to do this, but we know other countries would consider it.

"And we know they have considered it because at least one of them has said so in public,” Carlson said. “In early February, less than three weeks before the war in Ukraine began, Joe Biden suggested on camera that he might take out these pipelines. PRESIDENT BIDEN: If Russia invades that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again. Then there will be, there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it. REPORTER: But how will you? How will you do that, exactly, since the project and control of the project is within Germany's control? BIDEN: We will. I promise you, we'll be able to do it... Joe Biden wasn't the only person to suggest it. Toria Nuland at the State Department said pretty much the very same thing... VICTORIA NULAND: With regard to Nord Stream 2, we continue to have very strong and clear conversations with our German allies and I want to be clear with you today. If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward.

"Radek Sikorski is a Polish politician who is chairman of the EU USA delegation in the European Parliament. He's connected. He's also the husband of regime stenographer Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic magazine,” Carlson said. “Sikorski is so close to Joe Biden that he's got a picture of the two of them together in his Twitter profile. So, when the pipelines blew up, Sikorski responded immediately and here's what he wrote. 'Thank you. USA.' ... We should tell you that maybe not coincidentally, today, a brand-new pipeline was unveiled, a pipeline that carries non-Russian natural gas in roughly the same areas, Nord Stream 1 and 2. This is called the Baltic Pipe. It was inaugurated in Poland. It will carry natural gas from Norway through Denmark to Poland and other countries nearby. And it's likely to do very well, since now it has less competition."

It wasn't the United States...

Also in National Review, Jim Geraghty said "let's get a few things straight."

"It would be odd, to say the least, for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to warn a number of European nations, including Germany, in June that the two Nord Stream gas pipelines which carry natural gas from Russia could be targeted in forthcoming attacks, if the U.S. was secretly planning to attack the pipelines in late September," he said. "For what it’s worth, it sounds like European governments strongly suspect that Moscow sabotaged the lines...  Among the many reasons it is unlikely that President Biden would order covert action to attack the infrastructure running to a NATO ally, leaking natural gas is bad for the environment.

"Which government seems more likely to take an action and not care about the impact on climate change: the Biden administration or the Russian government run by Vladimir Putin?" he asked. "Our Mark Wright offers an astute analysis, examining the possibility that this was a Russian shot across Europe’s bow: “Destroying Russian-owned infrastructure in international waters wouldn’t be an attack on NATO countries or NATO assets — with all the fallout that might entail — but could still be seen as a capability demonstration and a threat to Western energy infrastructure, such as to the major pipeline systems originating in Norway that provide much of the U.K.’s and Western Europe’s remaining gas supplies."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I really don't know.
  • I desperately want to know.
  • I think Russia and the U.S. are by far the most likely culprits.

I'm down the rabbit hole.

When you find yourself up late at night reading the comments section of a blog called Moon of Alabama, measuring the distance between Denmark and a Polish navy base, and researching the radar capabilities of an MH-60S helicopter, you've probably had enough.

Since the damage is mostly already done, and the responsibility of sealing the pipeline and restoring it is firmly in the hands of others, I’ve tried to allow myself a little bit of levity while researching this piece. And I've got to say, it's one of the most interesting mysteries I've tried to unpack in a long time.

The case that it was the United States is obviously the most salacious and in some ways the most alluring. Perhaps the most obvious logic is that we have the ability. We have the most advanced military in the world with the equipment, espionage capabilities, and firepower to do this and get away with it, as well as the hubris. We have a long and sordid history of sticking our nose in the middle of global conflicts, of undermining our allies' interests, and of committing brazen acts of sabotage with just enough plausible deniability to get away with it. To dismiss this as improbable — or even unlikely — is to be willfully blind and ignore our own history.

I also think the idea presented by Geraghty that we might not take such an action because of climate change is, well, laughable. When has climate change ever gotten in the way of the United States’ military interests? And who really thinks that some methane emissions would stop us if we wanted to go this far?

More difficult to parse is the balance of motives. Yes, the U.S. might want to fully sever the Europe-Russia energy ties. Biden has made it clear he opposed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline even before the war, as have other administration officials. But putting a few holes in Nord Stream doesn't put it offline for long and doesn't necessarily sink that relationship. And consider the alternative outcomes: What if Germany discovered it was us? The blowback would be catastrophic, far worse than, say, the revelations that we were spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel. It would be the kind of thing that fractures — if not cleaves — the NATO alliance and the newfound solidarity Biden has spent so much time coordinating against Russia since the war began.

More to the point, what if the sabotage works? Let's play that out. Long-term, it means the pipelines are less likely to come back online at all, which means the energy crisis in Germany gets even worse, which turns more German citizens against their leaders, which puts more pressure on those leaders to get the pipelines back online, which makes it more likely that Germany and the rest of Europe turn back to Russia for energy, which is bad for the current U.S. administration who desperately wants to keep Europe allied with Ukraine and against Russia. It's an extremely risky play.

And yet, the Russia theory has similar holes in it. As others have pointed out, the pipelines are leverage for Russia. In the long-term, Russia wants the European Union's solidarity against its invasion of Ukraine to break. The most obvious route to getting there, again, is to make gas extremely expensive in Europe so the citizens turn on their leaders and demand a return to the pre-war status quo. Which means the EU turning back to Russia for energy, which provides much needed revenue for Russia and normalizes relations in an abnormal time. If Nord Stream 1 and 2 aren't functioning, and can't be turned on, that possibility is kaput. If the pipelines had been transporting fuel, sabotaging them might have made more sense. But since they weren't even moving gas, it makes a lot less sense.

At the same time, I think there are some angles missing from the commentary above. For starters, it's not quite right to call these "Russia's pipelines." Gazprom, a Russian conglomerate, owns 51% of the pipelines, yes. But the other 49% is owned by European shareholders. This isn't the equivalent of Russia shooting itself in the foot for no good reason. It's maybe more akin to Russia burning down a house in Florida it timeshares with its adversaries, which — hey — not exactly out of character these days.

I pinged my good friend and editor in chief of the Iraq Oil Report, Ben Van Heuvelen, for his thoughts. "I think pretty obviously Russia," he said.

What about arguments that it would diminish Russia's leverage? Van Heuvelen speculated that, based on his knowledge of how other pipeline and gas agreements typically work (without knowing intricacies of Nord Stream), a damaged pipeline could benefit Russia.

"Russia has commercial contracts to deliver gas," he said. "If they break those contracts there are probably clauses that enable buyers to take legal action via international arbitration. So if Russia is going to cut off supplies to Europe they need some reason that will not be a breach of contract. Such as, 'my pipelines were mysteriously bombed.' ... Another reason is that it sends a message: we can mess with energy infrastructure. Raises perception of risks to other, non-Russian gas pipelines. Functions as a deterrent against larger scale Western support for Ukraine. Also, as a bonus, if the market thinks other pipelines might blow up, gas prices go up, which is good for Russia’s balance sheet and raises economic costs for Europe/West."

Emma Ashford, author of "Oil, The State and War," had a similar line of thought. She outlined four reasons Russia might make this move in a thread on Twitter:

1) Putin was signaling that he can damage European energy infrastructure at will and might do so in future. Fits with the last few days of escalation, but not with Russia's caution about attacks outside Ukraine so far. 2) Putin was tying his own hands and that of any future Russian leader by making it harder to back down from the war in Ukraine, even in the face of Western concessions. This matches pretty well with Russia's choice to hold annexation referenda in Ukraine. 3) Putin was creating Force Majeure: a legal basis to avoid lawsuits against Gazprom for failure to supply gas to Europe. Convenient, certainly. 4) It was Russia, but not Putin (ie, hawks carried this out to prevent Putin himself from backing down). Pretty improbable.

There are other possibilities, too. One is Ukraine, who has the clearest motive. Nord Stream undermines their interests by giving Russia leverage over Europe. If Nord Stream 2 were up and running, it would also function to steal Ukraine’s potential gas customers, and allow Russia to avoid paying fees on pipelines it runs through Ukraine. So it’s an economic and geopolitical threat to Ukraine. However, there are holes there, too. Most notably, Ukraine does not appear to have the capacity to pull this off. As far as we know, they are submarine-less. They are also, in case you haven’t heard, fighting a desperate war on their own turf that is consuming all their resources.

The idea Ukraine had the time, resources or ability to pull this off without being detected seems absurd. And that’s to say nothing of the idea that getting caught would upend the support it’s currently getting from the EU, which is helping to keep it from collapsing.

Poland, or any of the other Baltic states, are also fascinating prospects. I personally have less understanding of the dynamics of these states and their interests than those at play in the U.S., Russia or Ukraine, but it is obvious that a larger European reliance on gas flowing through pipelines in their countries benefits them economically. Still, it's not entirely clear to me how any of them think they could get away with this without the U.S. or European intelligence agencies finding out. Again: The blowback for doing something like this would be catastrophic, and every potentially involved nation knows that. The upside for rolling the dice may be obvious, but I don’t know that it outweighs the risks — look at Ukraine to see the security risk of having a Russian pipeline running through your country.

Of course, there is China, too. But now it just feels like we’re naming big bad global powers at random. Why would China step in? They've kept their nose out of it and appear hesitant, if not outright opposed, to backing Russia in the war. As far as I can tell, the best case for China is the war ending quickly with as little additional disruption to the global economy as possible. Nevermind the fact they, too, would have to pull it off without being detected, and would have come a long way from home — inside NATO patrolled waters — to get it done. It just seems really unlikely.

All this leaves me with the sense it was Russia or the U.S. This is the part where my nationalism and U.S. propaganda-addled brain might be snapping into play. Still, conceding that, if I had to bet on one of Biden or Putin making an extremely risky, burn-the-house-down type move that could cause huge political blowback and disrupt the Western order, I'm not betting on Biden. But maybe that’s exactly the logic the president is betting on to pull something like this off. Or maybe, just maybe, the answer is the simplest and most obvious explanation – that the world leader who has been making highly destructive, high-risk moves that might undermine his own long term interests for the last six months is continuing to do exactly that.

I really don’t know. What I do know is we can expect some news articles in the coming weeks citing unnamed “intelligence sources” here in the U.S. pinning this on Russia, and that Russia itself will continue to point the finger back at us. As that happens, I’d keep your eyes on any independent and fair-minded journalists you can find, and hope for some concrete evidence to settle the mystery for good.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question. But if you want to ask a question to be answered in the newsletter, you can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form

Under the radar.

The Food and Drug Administration announced new rules on Wednesday about what labels can go on the front of food packages in order to indicate they are "healthy." The proposal means manufacturers can only label their products “healthy” if they contain a meaningful amount of food from one of the food groups or subgroups recommended by dietary guidelines. They must also have limits on saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. Changing American diets could have a massive impact: 6 in 10 U.S. adults have chronic lifestyle-related diseases, typically from obesity and poor diets, according to the CDC. However, the government's record on determining what is and isn't healthy is spotty and controversial, and opposition to the guidelines is expected to be fierce. The Washington Post has the story.


  • $4.1 trillion. The annual health care cost of the lifestyle-related diseases mentioned above.
  • 100,000. The number of 24-ton concrete coated steel pipes that comprise the Nord Stream pipelines.
  • Over 50%. The amount of gas that has now left the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines since the leaks began.
  • 778 million. The amount of natural gas in cubic meters that was being contained in the pipelines.
  • 32%. The percentage of Denmark's annual CO₂ emissions that 778 million cubic tons of natural gas represents.
  • $11 billion. The price of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.

Have a nice day.

A Ukrainian teenager has been named "global student of the year" and won $100,000 for his work developing a mine-detecting drone. Igor Klymenko began working on the project eight years ago, but the 17-year-old had to relocate from Kyiv to the countryside when the war began. His Quadcopter Mines Detector can find anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines and provides coordinates of their locations to within two centimeters. Since it is a flying drone, it can spot the mines without setting them off, and it has already been patented in Ukraine. He submitted his project along with 7,000 other students in's Global Student Prize, which picks one exceptional student each year. Evening Standard has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.