One of three natural-gas leaks from Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea, as photographed from a Danish F-16 based on the island of Bornholm on Sept. 26 or 27, 2022.

One of three natural-gas leaks from Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea, as photographed from a Danish F-16 based on the island of Bornholm on Sept. 26 or 27, 2022. Danish Defence

Nord Stream Leaks Underline Gray-Zone Risks

Damaging a neighbor’s environment can be easy, cheap, and deniable.

Around noon local time on September 27, Denmark’s armed forces released footage of leaks in the Baltic Sea. And it wasn’t just any leaks: Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipelines are leaking gas into the Baltic Sea. The day before, Danish and Swedish government agencies had registered unexplained submarine explosions. Russia, it’s becoming clear, is sabotaging its own pipelines – but the more lasting harm will be done to its Baltic Sea neighbors, who are now left with serious damage to their marine environment. But leaking pipelines don’t constitute military aggression. Causing environmental damage constitutes cunning gray-zone aggression – and like all gray-zone aggression, it’s extremely difficult to counter.

The first hint of trouble came around 2 a.m. local time on Monday, when maritime seismic monitors belonging to Swedish Maritime Administration and the Danish Maritime Authority registered mysterious submarine explosions. Around twelve hours later, the crew of a vessel reported leaks on the water surface. Then around 7 p.m., the monitors picked up more explosions, and a little over an hour later reports of new leaks arrived. The explosions and the leaks turned out to be in the same area. 

Scandinavian seismological experts and political leaders already agree that the explosions were a deliberate act. Who set them off? In theory, it might have been terrorists or other political extremists, but these lack the technical expertise to stage such sabotage; moreover, it is unclear why they would invest enormous effort and time into sabotage for little apparent gain.

Instead, the culprit appears to be the Russian government. With European countries cutting gas imports from Russia, the pipelines were not in full use anyway. (Germany has declined to certify Nord Stream 2.) What’s more, Moscow is desperately trying to frighten the West. On various occasions throughout September, Russian officials—up to and including Vladimir Putin—have invoked the nuclear specter in an effort to scare Western governments into ending their military support of Ukraine. But it hasn’t worked. Now Russia seems to be testing a new strategy: quietly causing harm to the Baltic Sea, a tiny ocean that is already extremely dirty. In addition to the damage done by commercial shipping, there’s the systematic flow of pollution from Kaliningrad. For years, and despite pleas by Russia’s Baltic Sea neighbors, the Russian exclave was simply pumping its sewage into the sea. In 2016, a sewage plant co-financed by the Swedish International Development Agency became operational—but most of the Baltic Sea’s environmental-damage hotspots remain located­ off Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg. (Baltic states and Poland: you could be doing better too.)

And now, a gas leak. “The gas in the Nord Stream pipes is basically methane, which is a much stronger polluter than CO2, about 29 times stronger,” noted Jaakko Henttonen, a Finnish maritime-environment expert who has for years been involved in Baltic Sea states’ efforts to clean up their ocean. “According to the news so far, the leaks are significant.”

Methane, of course, pollutes the air far more than the water – and by releasing the dangerous gas Moscow appears to be signaling that it’s willing to harm not just its neighbors but the rest of the world too. In addition, Henttonen told me, “Leaking gas could cause an explosion. No traffic should be allowed in the vicinity of the affected area.” That will cause a problem for any clean-up crews the Baltic Sea countries can swiftly assemble.

Damaging another country’s environment is easy, cheap, and can often be done without much risking one’s own habitat. With most of its coastline located elsewhere, Russia won’t suffer much if the Baltic Sea sustains environmental damage. China, meanwhile, has made harming other countries’ environment a veritable trademark. Its long-distance fishing fleet traverses the world’s oceans, parks itself in countries’ exclusive economic zones—where local fishermen earn their livelihoods—and casts their immense nets until the seas are empty. The vessel army then departs, having not only depleted the fish stocks but also harmed the seabed. And off the coast of Taiwan’s Matsu islands, Chinese excavators have for years been digging up sand. The practice presents the Taiwanese government with the constant headache trespassers that do harm but don’t engage in military aggression; Taipei has been forced to invest in an outsized coast-guard fleet. But in addition to being a nuisance, the dredgers cause harm to Taiwan’s maritime wildlife and its seabed. They often also manage to take the sand with them, a not-negligible benefit given that sand is becoming rarer, mostly as a result of China’s massive construction boom.

The Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 leaks are not yet a massive environmental disaster like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which saw 11 million gallons of oil to leak into the waters off Alaska. But the leaks will create environmental harm, which Sweden, Denmark and any other good-willing Baltic Sea countries will have to tackle as best as they can. Like overfishing in other countries’ waters, causing gas leaks in their waters is not as dramatic as military aggression, but it causes harm all the same. Because it’s not military aggression, though, it’s virtually impossible to defend oneself against. Countries won’t send long-distance fishing fleets to Chinese waters to teach China a deterrence lesson, nor will they cause explosions to any of their own pipelines that might be located near Russian waters.

Causing environmental harm is, in fact, brilliant yet utterly cynical gray-zone aggression. And because regimes like those of Russia and China—not to mention North Korea or Belarus—are utterly cynical, we can expect more along these lines (no pun intended). More holes in Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, for example.

NEXT STORY: Edging Towards the Nuclear Abyss