The Nord Stream Affair a Coup-de-Grace to Perpetuate a Proxy War

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal and may be accessed at )

The Incident

“On September 26, 2022, a Norwegian Navy Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) aircraft on routine surveillance mission laid a sonobuoy field south of the Danish Island of Bornholm to seemingly surveil the underwater space in the region of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines emanating from the Russian pumping stations of Vyborg and Ust Luga, terminating at the Lubmin station in Germany. The conduits span a distance of about 1200 kilometres, most of the transit runs below the Baltic sea through the Gulf of Finland travelling East-West to south of Bornholm before making landfall on the German coast near Greifswald (see Map).  A few hours into the patrol, high-powered explosions were sensed in the vicinity of the pipelines and “within a few minutes, slicks of methane gas could be seen spreading on the water’s surface”. It was later established that three of four Nord Stream pipelines were blasted out of commission. So far investigations by Swedish, Danish and German authorities have not pinned the blame on any one country or actor.

Gas supply to Europe, during the on-going conflict in Ukraine, is a very profitable source of revenue to a ‘severely’ sanctioned Kremlin. It not only fuels the war effort but also rejects the Western forecast of a critical contraction of the Russian economy by as much as over 12%, in reality the contraction is closer to 2%.

The Seymour Hersh Report

Enter Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh; of My-Lai, Abu-Ghraib and Turkey’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, fame. He has in a self-published report on 08 February 2023 titled “How America took out the Nord Stream pipeline”, made a disquieting claim that “the pipeline blow-out was the handiwork of the American intelligence agency, CIA”. According to him, US Navy divers had been ordered to plant the explosives in a covert operation in June 2022, under cover of a NATO exercise BALTOPS 22. Hersh has suggested the explosives were triggered by sonobuoys laid for the purpose on 26 September 2022. Motive behind the American action was the need to reduce the commercial gains of Russia amidst its war with Ukraine. It was also an attempt to reduce the dependence of Europe on cheap Russian gas.

The facts that Hersh has used to substantiate his case are centred on a statement made by the US President Biden on 07 February 2022, when in the Q &A session, he declared that “if Russia invades Ukraine there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2”. This proclamation was made in the presence of German Chancellor Sholtz with an assertion that this would be the result of “joint action”. The second fact relates to a NATO maritime exercise conducted between 05-17 June 2022 in the South West Baltic Sea, codenamed “BALTOPS” in which 14 NATO nations along with two partners participated. And here, Hersh relies on an undisclosed source for the conjecture that the sub-surface explosives were laid under cover of this exercise, and were set off by a cooperating LRMP. The third and last fact was that on 26 September 2022, the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were struck by underwater explosions that busted three of four pipelines running south of the Danish Island of Bornholm.

Who Struck the Pipeline? And Why?

But the unanswered questions remain: Who sabotaged the Nord Stream pipe line? And how plausible is the Hersh Report? It makes little sense that Russia would punish itself by cutting off a vital source of funding to its military operations, particularly so when faced with economic contraction. At the same time to permanently throttle gas supply and reduce the EU’s dependence on Russia could only serve to stiffen NATO’s resolve to back Ukraine in its war-effort. After all, Russia could just as well have shut the tap if it was control that it wanted to establish. Clearly, the part played by America in terminally ending gas supply is more convincing. Intention being to cement and unify NATO’s resolve to exploit Ukraine’s case in the conflict. In support of this argument is a statement made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in September 2022, when he called Europe’s end of dependence on Russian energy supply as a “tremendous opportunity” to undercut Vladimir Putin’s power and influence in the region.

Map: Nord Stream 1 & 2 Source:

Continuance of the conflict with NATO support selectively restricted to “just enough” surveillance, intelligence and supply of land based short range arms and munitions of low conventional yield and defensive in nature would appear to be the order of things. US expenditure on the conflict makes apparent that it has morphed to a proxy-war between America and Russia with the aim of bleeding the latter to a state of emasculation.

The Proxy War: To Emasculate Russia

Proxy wars involve the sponsorship of actors by an external state to influence a violent conflict’s outcome for the external state’s own strategic purposes. This characterization encompasses two considerations; firstly, the needs of the sponsoring state to avoid direct engagement while supporting the client state on the ground in order to obtain strategic political goals and secondly to prevent escalation beyond certain limits. It is there for all to discern why providing air-power to Ukraine is a no-no while the prospects of direct violence afflicting the US is kept at bay.

In any proxy-war, great-power competition does not visibly show itself by direct and high-intensity wars. The US has extensive background with indirect strategies and vast political experience with sponsoring separatists and regular forces in campaigns. One need only look at the US involvement early in the Vietnam War, in Congo, Afghanistan (1979-89), Libya, military operations in Syria, involvement in Yemen and Iran for confirmation of its reliance on the indirect approach. The US understands full well that the key to enfeeblement is protraction of conflict.


The Nord Stream episode may or may not have been engineered, yet it has brought about a situation that has energised a proxy war on Russia without direct involvement of America or the NATO in military operations. The larger aims of enervating Kremlin’s power and influence globally seem to be well underway. Nevertheless, the global economic fallout and its debilitating effects on the growth and privations of the European people puts a question mark on how long this proxy war can be sustained. But central to US strategic aims is the ability of Ukraine to bear with the daily crippling hardships of a devastating war and their nation being reduced to a grisly battleground.   

Saudi Arabia: Quest for the Ultimate “Political Play-Off”


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal. May be accessed at the following link: )

The British Empire, long masters of the Persian Gulf and the wiles of playing-off nations; met their match in Ibn Saud (1880-1953) the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. At the turn of the last century, Whitehall was concerned with the growing cosiness of Germany with the Ottoman Empire. In 1903, a strategic project was born from this snugness, a Berlin-Baghdad rail axis that envisaged a central terminal at Kuwait. The plan was for it to evolve into a pivotal Control and Logistic sea-land hub that could threaten the Suez Canal and in turn the British Indian Empire. Ibn Saud saw in the emerging geopolitical contest an opportunity to ‘play’ the protagonists to his advantage.

While consolidating his powerbase, Ibn Saud, never lost touch with the orthodox teachings of Muhammad Ibn al Wahhabi, who in the 18th century deeply influenced his forebears into enforcing a unity, based on the brotherhood of Islam. However, the tribal origins of the Al-Saud, its nomadic population and harsh conditions never permitted a strategic view of geography. It took Ibn Saud’s geopolitical acumen and the opportunity that the collapsing Ottoman Empire presented that inspired his return to puritanical Islam and most critically an acceptance of “Political Islam”. Ibn Saud attacked the nomadic structure of his society and combined the aggressiveness of the Wahhabi ideology with the unquestioning nature of his followers to penetrate the vast Arabian Peninsula. He weakened tribal allegiances and replaced them with loyalty to Allah and the Amir. He established a new communal identity of ‘Ikhwan’, a Wahhabi religious militia to form a significant military force. The Ikhwan not only played a crucial role in instituting him as ruler of most of the Peninsula, but also placed him in a favourable power-bargaining position with both the Sultan and the British. Ibn Saud made it known to the latter that the Ottoman and other powers were also interested in establishing treaty relations with him which he would have to conclude if he had no other means of support. The veiled threat to British interests was not lost on Whitehall.

With the Ikhwan at his side, Ibn Saud set out reconquering his family lands. In 1902, he captured Riyadh by assassinating the governor of the city. In one stroke he drew the tribes to rally to his call. Within two years of Riyadh’s fall, the Najd lay at his feet and he was in a position to threaten Ottoman designs for Kuwait and their Berlin-axis.

British policy towards Ibn Saud changed metamorphically when it coincided with the Admiralty’s doctrine to convert their imperial navy from coal to oil-fired. At the time their allies the US and Russia produced almost all of the world’s petroleum. Nonetheless, Whitehall was uneasy with the prospect of the Navy’s strategic dependence on foreign entities, even if friendly. The solution, it concluded lay in control at source. In the meantime, Ibn Saud finessed his relations with Britain through the Treaty of Darin (1915). The Pact became a corner stone of Imperial policy that made Ibn Saud an equal ally in the War and his state a protectorate of the British Crown. The minor sheikh from the desert had played his cards well, from tribal chieftain he was transformed into a revered king. By 1932 his nation, Saudi Arabia, was courted by world governments.

As for the strategic Berlin-Baghdad rail link, it remained unfinished, limiting its use during the First World War.   

The Second World War was by no means as important for Saudi Arabia as the First had been. Ibn Saud remained a supporter of the Allies and yet stayed neutral. After the War, European powers that held sway in West Asia were exhausted. They could do little to prop their crumbling empires, thus, ending their influence in the region and giving impetus to a world order dominated by the USSR and the USA. Sensing the incipient power-vacuum in the region, Ibn Saud welcomed the USA into playing a more substantial role in his domain.

Cold War American interests worked to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold in the peninsula. Ibn Saud now manipulated circumstances to win Saudi Arabia financial and security guarantees in return for access and oblique control of the world’s largest energy reserves.  “The USS Quincy Memorandum”, ensured the legacy of the House-of-Saud through the reigns of Kings Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah and the current king, Salman. Solidarity with the Wahhabi’s, oil wealth and American guarantees were the keys that enabled dynastic continuity.

In 2017, King Salman appointed his son Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) as Crown Prince and heir apparent. The young Prince has set about launching sweeping economic, social, military and foreign policy reforms. Given the complex power structure and its vulnerabilities, success of these reforms is predicated on, how they affect the status-quo. Critically three challenges confront MbS. Firstly, the entire political, juridical and social system that is defined by the Wahhabi ulema and had sealed the kingdom’s founding compact with Wahhabism, must change; but any break with the Wahhabi Clergy will tantamount to a de-coupling of politics from its sub-structure of Wahhabism. The second challenge is a contemporary interpretation of the Koran that permits moderation, an idea that, till announcement, would have been blasphemous. Thirdly, MbS has taken a cue from his illustrious forebear, Ibn Saud. He has daringly chosen not to pick sides between Washington, Beijing and Moscow nor have a selection thrust on him.

Meanwhile, the US in their Saudi Policy has vowed, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” However, China has in its report Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era roundly denied the existence of a ‘power vacuum’ in West Asia. It would appear that the “Quincy Memorandum” for guarantees that eventually led to the policy of crude export revenues denominated in US dollars, the “Petro-dollar” deal and total dependence on the American security blanket may have outlived their shelf-life. The US-Saudi Jeddah Communiqué   may even suggest an outline for MbS’ new vision of a more versatile strategic relationship with the US that finds place for Beijing and Moscow.

But there remain three nagging doubts; can Saudi Arabia wean itself away from the luxury of the petro-dollar? Will the lifting of the US security blanket leave the kingdom in the cold? And lastly, will the dynasty survive without the Wahhabi ideology or as the, Economist put it, how to change what God said? 

Pushing the Doomsday Clock


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(The article has been published in the IPCS web journal and is available at the following link: )

The Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents the vulnerability of human existence. Set every year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it is intended to warn mankind of the imminence of humanity’s annihilation due to a nuclear war or climate change. The clock was moved to its current position at 100 seconds to midnight due to several geo-political incidents of 2020 that drove nuclear anxieties to a pitch.

Historically, the Cold War and the three decades after have contributed to over 30 near cataclysmic nuclear calls, all of which exposed the fragility of command and control and the high probability of unintended use. The build-up and nature of one such near catastrophe is detailed below.

On the Unintended Brink of Annihilation

On 02 November 1983, NATO conducted an exercise (Able Archer 83) simulating conflict escalation against the Soviet Union. The scenario envisaged a massive breach in European defences as Warsaw Pact forces rolled into Western Europe.

The war-game in its concluding phase saw the highest defence alert condition, DEFCON 1, being attained; indicating imminence of a nuclear exchange. Nuclear forces were at instantaneous readiness for strikes on the Soviet Union. All Command Centres had been given necessary weapon release authorisation that set the ether buzzing in preparation for ‘Armageddon’. Nuclear Command Authorities were in their bomb proof posts or in the air, alternate Command posts were enabled, cryptograms were flying fast and furious; while launch codes were broken open with surrealistic deliberation. Predictably this triggered extreme alarm on the Soviet side since there was neither any notification of progress of the exercise nor of the scenario crossing the nuclear threshold. Moscow feared that force build-up was a cover for an actual nuclear attack timed to coincide with their Revolution holiday. Soviet nuclear missiles were readied in ‘emergency mode’ for launch and the entire arsenal with its 11,000 warheads was placed on maximum combat alert.

Kremlin then intercepted a perplexing NATO message stating that US nuclear missiles had been launched; and yet there were no indications of nuclear explosions. It was only then that the hotline was enabled to establish what was going on. The CIA later declared that “the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation without even knowing it.”

Bewildering Nature of a Nuclear Crisis

The nature of a nuclear crisis is such that the decision to use nuclear weapons is invariably taken in a compressed time frame; in an ambience shut off from impartial consultancy and by a command authority of questionable competence. Its dynamics are driven by a purpose in denial of the probability of like-retaliation and the prospect of mutual destruction. Rationality and balance go out of the window in this determination and are replaced by nationalistic ego and an aroused rush to confront. As one will note, each one of these ingredients possess an element of inadvertence or at the least fecklessness. Carl von Clausewitz’s unerringly wise counsel, that even the “simplest” strategic decision making can be bewilderingly difficult; has new meaning when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. For neither is there precedence to guide nor, distressingly, time.

Documented events have shown that it takes the chancy instincts of a Vasily Arkhipov or a Stanislav Petrov to make an unsanctioned intervention to defuse a calamity through gut-feelings of survival, conscience and little else. In such a scheme of things one wonders whether hierarchical systems can guarantee the making of decisions in the larger interest of mankind.

The Crisis in Ukraine and Nuclear Overtones

The crisis in Ukraine is no different, for it reveals several events that have turned world attention away from the anguish of people, exposed the hypocrisy of nations and, most recklessly, pushed the doomsday clock a little closer to midnight. It is now apparent that NATO and the European Union are instruments of US foreign policy, rather than being consultative institutions in any collective cause. These institutions, arguably, are acting in American interests. That the USA has contributed over 60% of all contributions (over $ 55 billion since the start of the war) to the Ukrainian war effort makes clear where control of the war lies. The sanctions adopted under American stewardship are proving to be a double edged sword. Europe is faced with the onset of a frosty winter in circumstances of sky rocketing energy prices and crippling economic woes.

As recent as June 2021 in the Geneva Agreement for extension of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, both Premier Putin and President Biden reaffirmed the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. And yet right from commencement of Russia’s “special operations” to date, a week has not gone by without a threat or the rhetoric of imminent use of nuclear weapons. It began with Russia exercising their nuclear forces on 19 February 2022 as tensions of invasion of Ukraine were at its peak, almost as if to announce the impending military operations were covered by nuclear forces. Towards the end of October, both the NATO and Russia were involved in intensive exercise of their respective nuclear forces amidst shrill rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The nuclear face-off has today degenerated into a threat of use against intervention, on the one side; versus intimidation by proxy.

The Doomsday Clock in Forward March

And almost as if to further provoke the doomsday clock into a “forward march”, the US Nuclear Posture Review 2022 released recently, is interwoven into something called Integrated Deterrence  that brings the nuclear factor alongside war fighting domains as an instrument conjoined with all elements of U.S. national power. To say the least, this is disappointing for the cause of nuclear arms control and indeed for survival as it makes no attempt to differentiate nuclear weapons from the conventional.

Humanity’s hope for a lead into reducing the role of nuclear weapons in interstate relations and an opening to a universal No First Use policy as a pre-cursor to disarmament is a far and bleak cry. For verily, the Ukraine war and foolhardy nuclear postures have brought the day of reckoning that much closer.