Further attacks on energy infrastructure are likely in the coming months. This follows explosions in September against non-operational gas pipelines in the North Sea, which Russia was very probably behind.
This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 11 October 2022.
Russia’s main aim appears to be creating energy uncertainty (in supplies and prices) among European governments and populations. It does not need to take the riskier step of targeting critical infrastructure to achieve this. So, for now, sabotage attacks are likely to be materially low-impact, but Russia’s threshold for pursuing disruptive operations on critical infrastructure will probably fall over the coming year.
Russia still seems keen to avoid drawing NATO into a military conflict, especially given its losses in Ukraine. NATO has said any attack against critical infrastructure (seemingly in reference to operational energy facilities) would trigger a ‘united and determined response’. Even though it has not specified what this would entail, we still assess that this is a sufficient deterrent for Russia. Moscow has so far tread a delicate line; it seems to have gone to great lengths to conceal hard evidence of its involvement in the North Sea attacks.
We assess that Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK are all highly vulnerable to major gas supply shocks in the event of an attack on pipelines. It is exactly this response that Russia seems to be pursuing; gas prices soared almost immediately following the September explosions on the Nord Stream pipelines. Even though no Western government has explicitly blamed Russia, they have insinuated as much and implied that Moscow was also behind drone activity around critical platforms.
Evidence points to Russia
Russia was very probably behind the Nord Stream attacks; NATO has said the explosions were ‘deliberate’. Other possible perpetrators that we have considered include terrorists, environmental activists, and other state actors. But only Russia has the demonstrated capability, intent and opportunities to carry this out. A Danish military official recently cited in international media said Russian warships and submarines regularly operate in the area, and are seen ‘every week’.
Russia has long been modulating gas flows to Europe as a way to pressure the West into lifting sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine. As such, these incidents probably point to tactical innovation, rather than a change in Russia’s strategy to modulate Europe’s access to gas. The move is a slight escalation. This is because the pipelines were not operational, and – assuming that Russia was responsible – it conducted an attack in such a way as to maintain uncertainty as to who was responsible.
Potential future targets
We assess that, in future, sabotage attacks by Russia will continue to exploit areas with limited or ambiguous security jurisdiction and oversight. This would most probably be other offshore pipelines in international waters, or other pipelines owned by Gazprom. This assessment is based on our analysis of why Russia (the most plausible perpetrator) chose the Nord Stream pipelines:
- Their remote location in international waters means there is relative ambiguity of security oversight.
- The pipelines belong to Gazprom (a majority state-owned firm), boosting the opportunity for plausible deniability.
Pipelines in Norway are the most likely to be targeted, due to their strategic importance as well as their remote location.
The map above shows an overview of physical gas flows to Europe as of 19 September, based on data published by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas (ENTSOG). We have omitted gas flows originating from countries outside of Europe. This is because any future attacks will probably still happen within Europe, at this stage. Most other pipelines supplying Europe are operated by either neutral or Russia-allied countries. It seems very unlikely that Putin would be willing to incur the costs – diplomatic or military – involved with such an escalation with any non-European country.
Vulnerability to future attacks
Countries that import large amounts of gas from Norway, which is now Europe’s main gas supplier, are all vulnerable in the event of an attack on their pipelines. France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium each have one direct pipeline, and the rest of their imports from Norway are transported through the UK, which is supplied by two pipelines. An attack (actual or rumoured, physical or cyber) on any of these would push up wholesale gas prices and affect supplies to direct or indirect importer countries.
Russia modulating gas flows to Europe in recent months has been the main driver of fluctuating gas prices. There is a reasonable possibility that future price shocks would be more severe. This is largely because most European countries are more reliant on other European gas sources than before, and there appear to be very few other options it could immediately turn to if Norway’s gas pipelines were destroyed. According to infrastructure experts cited in international media, the damage to Nord Streams 1 & 2 could take at least five months to fix.
Russia will very likely continue over the coming months with what appears to be
its main aim in Europe: heavily restricting energy supply as a way to put pressure on regional governments to lift sanctions. However, it does not appear to be in a position to withstand the consequences of escalating these efforts further, making it unlikely that it will carry out more damaging attacks, for now. That said, over the longer term, further Russian territorial losses in Ukraine together with deepening hostility with the West would probably push up its risk appetite for pursuing disruptive (but still deniable) operations on Western critical (including energy) infrastructure.
An outlier scenario would be Russia openly attacking major gas pipelines to Europe. NATO has said in a statement that ‘any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response’. It has said nothing yet to confirm if such an attack would trigger its collective defence obligations under Article 5, but Russia will likely continue to opt for the lowest-cost, highest-impact methods, at least for as long as its military resources are tied up with Ukraine and its low-impact attacks continue to have the desired effect – uncertainty and rising energy prices – among Western states.
Image: A Norwegian Home Guard (Heimvernet) soldier stands guard at the Karst gas processing plant in Rogaland county, Norway, on 3 October 2022. Photo by Carina Johansen/NTB/AFP via Getty Images.