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“Cui bono?” – Cicero
“Who benefits?” That is part of a longer quote by the Roman politician and lawyer Cicero. In full it runs: “L. Cassius ille, quem populus Romanus verissimum et sapientissimum iudicem putabat, identidem in causis quaerere solebat, ‘cui bono fuisset?’ (Lucius Cassius, whom the Roman people used to regard as a most honest and most wise judge, was in the habit of asking time and again in lawsuits: ‘to whom might it be for a benefit?'”)
It is a question that bears examination with any mystery. Who benefits by what happened? I’d like to apply it to the question of who damaged the Nord Stream pipeline. This post is the result of a conversation between my middle son and me that occurred last night. My son, a pipeline engineer, designs and builds pipelines, including repairing and replacing pipelines. Me? I write about naval warfare, including several books on submarine warfare. All of what follows is educated speculation.
Start with the question of who benefits from the damage to the Nord Stream pipelines? Not Russia. Without the pipelines they lose any leverage they get from threatening to shut it down. They need that leverage to get Western Europe to stop supplying Ukraine with arms and support. Not the Western European nations. They need the natural gas from those pipelines to prevent blackouts over the winter. Not the United States. I know Biden threatened to close the pipeline – implying force would be used. Biden writes a lot of checks with his mouth his body cannot cash. That was another one. There is no benefit to the US to shutting down these pipelines. Additionally, the US sabotaging the pipelines could trigger World War III.
Who does benefit? Three groups: Ukraine, Turkey, and environmental NGOs. The remaining gas pipelines from Russia to Europe run through Ukraine and Turkey. Additionally Ukraine is at war (excuse me, special military operation) with Russia. And environmental extremists may see this as an opportunity to wean Western Europe from “greenhouse” fuels.
At present Turkey is the biggest winner. The Ukrainian pipelines are shut down and this means until the war (er, special military operation) ends, Turkey has the only functioning pipeline. Turkey has been aggressive in body-checking the development of potential competing pipelines. Very aggressive. (Aided by Biden in preventing a new Mediterranean pipeline.) Against that, Turkey would be risking Russian retaliation if they did this and were discovered to have done it.
That does not necessarily mean they benefit the most. Ukraine’s fear is the Europeans might stop backing them due to Russian blackmail over Nord Stream gas. That card is now off the table for at least three months and more like six. (Until Nord Stream is repaired.) It also gives Russia a further incentive to end the fighting. Once that happens, gas and oil can flow through the Ukrainian pipelines to the benefit of Russia’s (and Ukraine’s) economy. It may not happen because Mad Vlad may not want to make peace, but some chance is better than no chance. With the pipelines out there is some chance this might influence things. Putin is sitting on a throne made of bayonets, and that is an uncomfortable position. Further, what more can Russia do in retaliation for Ukraine sabotaging Nord Stream? Bomb Kyiv? They are already doing that.
Finally, there are environmental extremists. They have threatened and damaged pipelines in the past.
Motive is only one aspect, though. Successful sabotage requires means and opportunity. This type of attack requires resources. Resources that exceed those of a fringe NGO, but well within the reach of a nation state. like Turkey or Ukraine.
A quick digression. Some have been saying this is just a maintenance accident. My son doubts that. It would be a very unusual maintenance accident – and a very convenient one. What about other maintenance accidents with the Nord Stream? One set of compressors was damaged soon after the fighting started in Ukraine. such that flow in one pipe had been reduced 90%. Doesn’t that demonstrate poor maintenance infrastructure? My son pointed out that this, too could have been Ukrainian sabotage. The compressors are an easy target, well within the type of attacks against Russian economic and logistical targets the Ukrainians have been making. The Russians are more likely to claim this was an industrial accident rather than admit successful Ukrainian sabotage. Sabotage is more humiliating than incompetence. (Of course, it could be Russian incompetence. We will know after the war ends.)
There has been talk of requiring nuclear submarines and high-tech torpedoes to do this kind of sabotage. That is nonsense. The means to destroy the pipelines has existed since World War I. It is called a depth charge: a container filled with high explosives and pressure fused. Or time fused. Or with a remote detonator. These are 48-in. pipelines with steel walls no more than an inch thick. Cracking those would be analogous to cracking the pressure hull of a World War I or World War II submarine. Great Britain had 1000-lb. depth charges in World War II, 70 years ago. Creating new ones in 2022 would be trivial.
The real issue would be placing the charge close enough to the pipeline. Technology to do that has improved in 70 years. Unmanned Underwater Vessels (UUV) capable of operating at that depth are common today. They are used in the offshore industry. They can operate off an Offshore Support Vessel, commonly used in the oilpatch.
Ukraine has an oil industry. One of their Universities offers a degree in pipeline engineering — the only such baccalaureate offered in the world, according to my son. They have people technically capable of planning this type of sabotage. Crew boats and UUV are available (thanks in part to Biden’s war of domestic energy idling a lot of offshore drilling in US coastal waters.)
Further, the Ukrainian Navy has proved to be highly resourceful. That Moskva is at the bottom of the Black Sea, and the rest of the Black Sea Fleet is staying well away from Ukraine’s coast demonstrates that. Ukraine has also demonstrated a capability of maintaining operational security and outside-the-box thinking. They have also been relentlessly attacking Russia’s economic and logistical infrastructure during the seven months of war.
They have also had five to six months to quietly set everything up. Building the depth charges, leasing the equipment, sending the men and munitions required for this out of Ukraine to meet up with the leased equipment, doing the planning — all of that could have been done during that period.
I am not saying Ukraine did it. This is speculation on my part. I am saying of the groups that benefit from the shutdown of Nord Stream, they are uniquely capable of planning and executing such an attack. And they have the best motivation. As I said, we will find out what really happened after the fighting stops. Not necessarily immediately after. Some WWII activities remained secret for decades after that war ended. But sometime.Published in