By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
(Published in the IPCS web journal and may be accessed at http://ipcs.org/people_select.php?member_id=245t )
“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: https://pedlowski.files.wordpress.com/2023/02/hearsh-how-america-took-out-the-nord-stream-pipeline.pdf
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.