Nord Stream leaks highlight difficulty of protecting critical infrastructure

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By Alice Tidey  & Sandor Zsiros
An engineer of the Hungarian Oil and Gas Company checks the receiving area of the Druzhba oil pipeline in the country's largest oil refinery in Szazhalombata, Jan. 9, 2007.
An engineer of the Hungarian Oil and Gas Company checks the receiving area of the Druzhba oil pipeline in the country's largest oil refinery in Szazhalombata, Jan. 9, 2007.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

Suspicions of deliberate sabotage after multiple leaks were observed in underwater pipelines in the Baltic Sea have raised concerns over the vulnerability of critical infrastructure across the European Union.

Four leaks have now been detected in Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 which both link Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. While investigations are under way, the governments of Denmark and Sweden said they believe the leaks are the result of "deliberate actions".

The North Atlantic Council — NATO's principal political decision-making body — also said in a statement on Thursday that "all currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage."

NATO allies are meanwhile "coordinating closely" on the next step and the protection of critical infrastructure, Denmark said, while Norway has dispatched navy vessels to patrol the area. Its state-oil company, Equinor, also announced that it has raised the level of preparedness on all of its facilities.

Julian Pawlak, a research fellow at the German Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies, has backed the deployment of the military to protect underwater infrastructure. 

"They can show presence, they can show that they are active next to their critical infrastructure, next to important sea lanes, also, as well as we have seen now, for instance, by the Norwegian authorities," he told Euronews, arguing that military vessels would act as "a kind of deterrent to foreign actors."

Yet he also stressed that this is not a viable measure: "It's basically difficult to monitor all of your sea cables or all of your pipelines. I mean, neither Europe nor NATO is able to put a navy vessel every ten sea miles to look at what is happening on the sea or below the surface or on the seabed."

Europe is highly dependent when it comes to energy and imported 58% of its energy needs in 2020.

The leaks in the two Nord Stream pipelines are not endangering the bloc's energy security for this upcoming winter as Russia stopped delivering gas via Nord Stream 1 on August 31 in retaliation for EU sanctions over the war in Ukraine while Nord Stream 2 had not yet come online. 

The EU had already started preparing for the eventuality of a complete cutoff from Russia by rolling out emergency measures to make up for the shortfall over the critical winter period. These include a mandatory gas storage requirement for member states, a gas use reduction plan and new deals with alternative suppliers.

The EU now receives pipeline gas primarily from Norway, Azerbaijan and Algeria as well as liquified natural gas (LNG) from the US, Norway, and Algeria, which is delivered by ships and requires off-shore terminals to transform back into gas. 

The protection of all this critical infrastructure in the hands of member states.

"If you look at what is going on in Europe, there is still violent aggression against a European country by Russia going on. And then permanent threats against also other European countries from Russia. So it means that, of course, we have to be on a very high alert level everywhere in every issue which may cause problems or damage to our societies," Estonia MEP Urmas Paet told Euronews.

The lawmaker underlined what his own country did in the aftermath of cyberattacks in 2007 that targeted the parliament, government organisations, banks, and media organisations amid outrage in the Russian-speaking community over the decision to move a WWII Soviet statue from the centre of Tallinn. 

"Cybersecurity is very, very important and critical to be prepared because cyber attacks are one natural part of every conflict these days," he said. "Don't be surprised what may come further in this sense."

Still, Brussels launched a Directive on European Critical Infrastructure in 2008 setting out a framework to identify and improve the protection of critical infrastructure.

An update to this directive requires member states to carry out "risk assessments of their critical infrastructure every four years, where they will need to check which systems are critical for our societies, for our economies, for our security overall and they will be obliged to check where our vulnerabilities (are), where we have to improve" Pawlak explained.