As investigators piece together clues, Russia has quietly taken steps to begin expensive repairs on the giant gas pipeline, complicating theories about who was behind September’s sabotage. After European countries stockpiled natural gas this year, the Kremlin’s behavior changed. Russia took Nord Stream I offline in late August, blaming mechanical issues. In early September, the Kremlin said that the pipeline would be shut indefinitely. The explosions came a few weeks later, on Sept. 26. They severed both strands of Nord Stream I and one of the Nord Stream II pipes.
The explosion does not neatly benefit Russia. It must keep paying transit fees to Ukraine, it cannot easily use the promise of cheap gas to cleave Germany from its European allies, and it faces hefty repair costs. But the sabotage all but guarantees that gas prices will be uncomfortably high for Europeans until spring. And it creates an incentive for E.U. countries to push Ukraine to negotiate a quick ending, since the war threatens the land-based pipes that bring gas west. The fact that one of the Nord Stream II pipes remains intact also means that, in an energy crunch, Germany could reverse course and allow that pipe to start pumping gas.
Sabotaging Nord Stream also creates uncertainty about what other infrastructure could be attacked. In addition to damaging the pipeline, the explosion came perilously close to damaging a cable carrying electricity from Sweden to Poland. “You are sending a signal,” said Martin Kragh, deputy director of the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies at the nonprofit Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “It’s signaling ‘We can do this, and we can do this elsewhere.’”