By Luke Coffey
With the world focused on the fighting between Israel and Hamas, the sabotage of an important natural gas pipeline 3,200 kilometers away to the north of Gaza went almost unnoticed.
The Balticconnector is a natural gas pipeline connecting Finland with Estonia. Finished in 2019 and 150 kilometers long, it traverses the seabed of the Gulf of Finland connecting these two NATO and EU countries. Crucially, it is Finland’s only direct pipeline connection to the EU’s natural gas network.
During the early morning hours of October 8, a possible explosion in Finland’s economic exclusive zone was detected by Norway’s Seismological Institute. At the same time, Finland’s state-owned natural gas transmitter company, Gasgrid, noticed a significant drop in pressure in the Balticconnector pipeline. After closer examination, Finnish authorities discovered damage in the gas pipeline and a nearby communications cable. The President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, attributed the damage to “outside activity.” While that may sound purposely vague, in the regional geopolitical context a phrase such as this probably means Helsinki suspects that Russia is somehow connected to the sabotage.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that an underwater gas pipeline in northern Europe has been the target of sabotage. In September 2022, just several hundred kilometers away from the Balticconnector, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was blown up. Many NATO countries have accused Russia of being behind this attack. Of course, the Kremlin denies it.
Regarding the attack on the Balticconnector and the communication cable, there were probably two motivating factors behind it.
The first is timing. Europe is heading into its second winter since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Europe was able to get through last winter thanks to a rapid filling of natural gas storage tanks over the summer of 2022 and an unseasonably mild winter. Finland stopped importing Russian gas last year and has since relied on liquefied natural gas imports to make up the difference. Even so, energy security is a constant concern of European policymakers.
Thankfully, European officials claim that the disruption of the Balticconnector is unlikely to have a significant impact on Europe’s energy security this winter. The region’s main gas storage site in Incukalns, Latvia, is currently 95 percent full. However, it will probably take months to repair the Balticconnector and this couldhave an impact on the region’s energy security in the future.
Second, any attack on this pipeline was probably meant to send a message to the Finnish government and society after the country joined NATO. When Finland joined the alliance last April, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “The Russian Federation will be forced to take military-technical and other retaliatory measures to counter the threats to our national security arising from Finland’s accession to NATO.” Is it possible that the sabotage of the Balticconnector was part of the “other retaliatory measures” mentioned by Russian officials? One cannot immediately rule this out.
It just so happens that the defense ministers of all NATO countries are meeting in Brussels this week. Continuing support for Ukraine was at the top of the agenda. But the alliance could not ignore the attack on a key piece of infrastructure linking two of its member states. NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said: “If it is proven to be a deliberate attack on NATO-critical infrastructure, then this will be, of course, serious, but it will also be met by a united and determined response from NATO.”
Even with these tough words it is not clear what NATO can do if it is determined that the attack was deliberate and came from Russia. Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which is the mutual security guarantee of the alliance, can be triggered only if there is unanimous support by all 31 NATO members. This has happened only once in NATO’s 74-year history, in the days after the 9/11 attacks on the US. It seems unlikely that NATO would invoke Article 5 for sabotage against a pipeline, especially since there were no deaths.
Another option for NATO is to invoke Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. By invoking Article 4, a member can push a particular security issue on to NATO’s agenda and force the alliance to have a high-level meeting about it. Article 4 has been invoked only seven times in NATO’s history. Five of these occasions have been by Turkey, and of these, four have been because of Syria and once because of Iraq. Eastern European NATO members invoked Article 4 on two other occasions in relation to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. While this does not have the same force as invoking Article 5, using Article 4 to raise awareness about the security issue can have a strong symbolic effect. As more details emerge about the sabotage of the Balticconnector, it is quite possible that Finland and Estonia will call for Article 4 consultations. In the short-term NATO can move air and naval assets to the region to ensure the protection of other pipelines.
Russia has a track record of pursuing so-called asymmetrical or hybrid actions against NATO members. Examples include election interference, the proliferation of disinformation using social media troll farms and the assassination of political dissidents across Western Europe. NATO and its members should treat this recent incident with the Balticconnector as a wakeup call.
Critical civilian infrastructure such as pipelines and communications cables remain vulnerable. These are also vital to the functioning and wellbeing of the economy. Steps must be taken to address any security shortcomings before it is too late.
Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey
This article was also published at Arab News