Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
In 2014, we had regiments of “I can’t believe it’s not Russia” troops appear in Crimea. We took too long to hold Moscow responsible, and Vladimir Putin used our benefit of the doubt to seize the peninsula and later expand into Eastern Ukraine.
Now we have three implausibly deniable explosions crippling the Nordstream pipelines. Perhaps they were planted by some tourists looking for ancient Viking longboats. Perhaps it was those fishermen from Cork who chased the Russian navy away from transatlantic cables just around the outbreak of war. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn has already told an empty fringe meeting at Labour conference that it was the Israelis.
While there are occasional events, such as the plane crash near Smolensk that killed the president of Poland and a significant part of the country’s trop brass that were not actually Russian plots, these explosions at the Nordstream pipelines have no other plausible culprit.
The pipelines are made of thick steel encased in concrete. They do not spontaneously spring leaks. And if two leaks are happenstance, as the proverb goes, three are enemy action.
There is a half-mystery, however: why blow up your own pipelines? Discount the theory advanced by this esteemed Spanish football commentator that the submarine captains were drunk.
Nor is it a failed ‘false-flag’ operation, to try and pin the blame on someone else. (Who? Perhaps the secret fleet of advanced submarines that Ukraine has developed but somehow never managed to use against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet).
The best explanation is these attacks are like those bomb warnings the IRA used to phone in. Look at all those other pipelines linking Norway to Poland and Britain. Shame if something were to happen to them. Think of the gas market!
It was probably not a coincidence that these explosions occurred just as a new pipeline running across the Baltic Sea from Norway to Poland was opened. The Mediterranean is vulnerable too: pipelines run from Algeria and Libya to Spain and Italy.
As discussion about Russian escalation had focused on the detonation of a tactical nuke over uninhabited Snake Island in the Black Sea (famous for the heroic words of its Ukrainian defenders in February: “Russian Warship: go fuck yourself”), Putin has served up his demonstration elsewhere.
Energy infrastructure is indeed vulnerable to Russian sabotage, but the West is far from powerless. These attacks were against segments of the pipelines just outside Danish territorial waters. Evidently Russia understands that an attack within them would bring NATO into the war.
So should attacks on pipelines that serve Western countries, even if the attacks occur outside international waters. Interrupting other pipelines would cause havoc on the energy markets and prevent Europe heating itself this winter. They would be no different to German attacks on allied food convoys in the First and Second World Wars. It is essential that this is communicated to Russia by all relevant Western institutions.
NATO leaders, led by Joe Biden, must publicly tell Putin that attacks on pipelines serving NATO members, even if they take place outside territorial waters constitute an armed attack within the meaning of Article V.
The Prime Minister needs to declare that the UK would consider an attack on pipelines or other undersea infrastructure serving Sweden and Finland as invoking the UK’s obligations towards the two NATO accession states under the security agreements concluded on 11 May this year.
The Presidents of the European Council, European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy need to communicate that any response to attacks on pipelines will be considered an attack on all EU member states under Article 42.7 of the EU Treaties, and not just a terrorist attack under the Article 222 solidarity clause. This matters because Hungary (already arguing for sanctions against Russia to be lifted) may attempt to veto action under Article 222, but cannot affect obligations under 42.7.
Furthermore, even a demonstration attack on pipelines should be considered an escalation by Russia, and trigger an immediate riposte from Ukraine’s allies. This should include the supply of: long-range ATACMS rockets for HIMARS launchers capable of hitting the bridge over the Kerch strait between Russia and Crimea logistics and supply targets inside Russia itself, modern main battle tanks including British Challengers and French Leclercs (German Leopards would also be welcome, but the symbolism of a speedy response is more important than waiting for German policy to catch up), and more NSAMS air defence systems to protect Ukrainian infrastructure from cruise missiles and drones.
These would not only improve Ukraine’s chances on the battlefield, they would also send a strong signal of Western resolve. Plans to supply Ukraine F16s (of which the US has hundreds spare) should also be accelerated.
Privately, the US and key NATO allies should reinforce their existing communication to Putin that any attempt at nuclear or chemical escalation would be met with what US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has called “catastrophic” consequences for Russia. Putin needs to understand that escalation won’t work, and the only way to save his regime is to withdraw from all of Ukraine, not threaten Europe’s energy infrastructure.
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