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.   

China: Foreign Policy, Disinformation and Propaganda Warfare


Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in Salute Magazine available at

The United Front Work Department … is an important magic weapon for strengthening the party’s ruling position … and an important magic weapon for realising the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.

                                      —Xi Jinping, at the 2015 Central United Front Work Meeting

To Influence the Balance of Power

In 2015 when Xi Jinping made the above declaration it was bemusing as to what exactly the United Front Work Department (UFWD) was and how exactly it would serve to realise China’s dream of the “Great Rejuvenation”. Was it an internal tool of governance or did its mandate extend outside its borders? In its central role the “UFWD was the key to determine the ‘cause’ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for which the People were to influence the Balance of Power.” This muddled statement serves more to confuse than clarify; unless, one were to interpret this to mean that the UFWD was an organisation that not only served to ensure the solidarity of the citizens of China with the aims of the CCP but also had an external role that tilted the global balance of power in favour of the PRC. So not only was it primacy of the UFWD in domestic politics but also its critical assignment in shaping foreign policy and influencing overseas Chinese affairs.

In this perspective the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) does not make or even implement foreign policy, other than of a proforma nature, but provides the logistical framework for operationalizing policies. So much so, that today the Foreign Minister is neither a member of the seven-man Politburo nor is he the top foreign policy maker. Premier Xi, created in 2018, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission placing it directly under the Standing Committee of the Politburo which he led. There is a third organ related to the advancement and rendering of foreign policy goals that bears mention, and that is the International Liaison Department (ILD) which is charged with developing policies that create support for Chinese foreign initiatives and supress opposition. It specifically targets influential personalities and even conducts discreet propaganda, preparation of pliant politicians, society elites, media members and influencers.

The Paramount Leader

The troika of the UFWD, the MFA and the ILD thus make up the foreign policy institutions of China. Together they serve to firstly, legitimise and cement the rule of the CCP within and secondly, to formulate, support and promote foreign policy initiatives without.  The instruments used range from armed subversion to disinformation campaigns.  

Xi Jinping is the General Secretary of the CCP, chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), leader of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and indeed the President of the PRC; he has assumed the mantle of Paramount leader and by 2022 had extended his rule by an unprecedented third term (Mao was the last Chairman to do so). He has thus consolidated his grip on all aspects of the Chinese power structure; particularly so it’s internal and external manifestation.

Quiet Diplomacy: Propaganda, Subversion and Information Warfare

              As mentioned earlier, China’s MFA conducts the pro-forma traditional state-to-state diplomacy and provides the logistical framework for enabling policies. The lesser-known more recent UFWD and the older ILD working under the direction of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, conduct “Quiet Diplomacy”. Historically, such diplomacy almost exclusively meant foreign communist parties, but today it includes parties of varying ideologies, the process of cultivating potential support and supressing opposition to Chinese interests. 

Both the UFWD and the ILD have expanded their activities to include financing, recruiting, indoctrinating and arming subversive groups that promote Chinese interests. To further the foreign policy goals, the two organs use their foreign contacts to build support and advance its projects and mobilise opinion in target countries. In the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding (2021), the Party published a lengthy article outlining the core missions of their foreign enterprises in the modern era. While the obligatory CCP slogans and bromides were employed, it centred on gathering intelligence, influencing and garnering opinion for its initiatives through “consultative mechanisms”. The only overt project referenced was (for obvious reasons), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These ‘consultative mechanisms’ do not just include communist and socialist parties, but political elites, media celebrities and, without stating it, every group or agency that could directly or indirectly influence the desired outcome.

Enter the BBC Documentary

              A two part documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi was released by the BBC on 17 and 24 January 2023. The first part covers Modi’s early political career and the period when he was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, specifically during the 2002 communal riots and the part he played in the event as it unfolded. This is also when the producer parts way from the facts; conveniently forgetting the reality that the Supreme Court of India upheld the Special Investigation Team’s (SIT) clean chit to PM Narendra Modi and dismissed the case observing that the plea was devoid of merit. This was after a period of 16 years. The Producer, a Mr Mike Bradford and Director Dick Cookson choose rather to base their narrative on a little known report authored by the then Foreign Secretary of the UK, Jack Straw (of “WMDs in Iraq” fame). The makers of the film neither consider it necessary to make clear as to who invited Jack to conduct his enquiry nor why or when. Certainly it was not the Government of India.The second part of the film deals with the period of Mr Modi’s re-election for a second term as India’s Prime Minister. It makes a very jaundiced examination of select policies of his administration with more than just a cavalier approach to the historical reasons, constitutional considerations and the factual outcomes.

              Clearly the two-part so called documentary (after all, a documentary is expected to document facts) lost its way somewhere between fact, selective amnesia and fiction; so questions that beg to be asked are: why was it made? Who was to benefit? Clearly, it was not the British Government, who’s Prime Minister, Mr Rishi Sunak, without any reserve “disagreed with the characterisation” of Mr Modi in the ‘documentary’. Countries such as the USA denied having anything to do with it while Russia quite bluntly suggested that it was pure “propaganda’.

The Propaganda Theory

Digging deeper into the propaganda theory, was there a larger movement to peddle influence and to what effect and by who? The Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales (ICAEW) pointed out in 2021: “The BBC faces significant financial challenges as it seeks to deliver on its public broadcasting mission in the context of a competitive and fast changing environment. The withdrawal of government funding for licence fees for the over-75s and insufficient commercial income have resulted in losses that have eaten into the BBC’s reserves”. This fact has also been substantiated by a National Audit Office Report of 25 January 2021 that suggests that BBC must develop a strategic response to its financial challenges. The BBC has funded the losses arising in recent years from a combination of its reserves and a sale and leaseback of its estate, but this is not sustainable in the long run. To supplement the licence fee the BBC seeks to generate revenues through commercial activities, which generated £1.5bn in external revenue in 2019-20. Unfortunately, the contribution to the bottom line was less than 6% of its licence fee income. Licence Fee in their 2019-20 balance sheet contributed 65% of their total income of £4.9 billion.  Income was £100 million short of expenditure. The BBC’ financial woes are clear for all to see.

There are also unconfirmed reports of the BBC’s financial interlocking with Chinese state funding agencies. Could these funding agencies be the very same organs of China’s foreign policy, the UFWD or the ILD that are tasked with “Quiet Diplomacy”? It is equally apparent that China would be the chief beneficiary of any disruption or upsets that may occur in the upcoming 2024 Indian general elections; their motive being the installation of a weak, left leaning and pliable government in the Indian Parliament rather than a strong, progressive right wing party such as the BJP. This is not beyond the realm of probabilities as the Chinese Communist Party have already been allegedly involved in election tampering in the USA and other nations.

Conclusion: Kindling the Nascent Arena for Defence

Sun Tzu in his treatise on “The Art of War” suggested that: “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. This is just what the waging of “Quiet Diplomacy” (at least the Chinese variant) is all about. The United Front Work Department and the International Liaison Department provide the teeth to realise China’s foreign policy objectives, to influence the will of people to conform to China’s point of view. This is done through the instrument of distortion of facts, disinformation, indoctrination and indeed manipulating and falsification.

While the government should continue to monitor and disrupt Chinese influence activities, its top priority must be restoring health of the Indian information ecosystem. Disinformation flourishes due to deep-seated currents in politics, society, economy, and law. Its carriers and methods include the TV, online data collection, social media micro-targeting, political party dynamics and student vulnerabilities. Large-scale progress in combating disinformation would require profound national reforms in these and other arenas. The aim being to disincentivize the production, amplification, and consumption of disinformation from all sources.

True reform would be an extremely daunting task. The government’s role in combating disinformation is poorly defined and heavily constrained by laws, norms, and political obstacles. Its tools are often tactical in nature and oriented toward foreign threats. Overreach by the centre could actually worsen political distrust or create harmful precedents.

The task of countering disinformation is a nascent area of defence that the government could either implement or help to coordinate. These measures include strengthening regulation of online platforms, reforming and monitoring electoral campaign finance and advertising. Funding media literacy education and facilitating research in influence operations. Without undertaking this mammoth assignment the spirit of India will remain susceptible to the emaciating effects of disinformation.

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?