Nord Stream attacks expose vulnerability of European infrastructure

Energy and risk analyst Peter Burgherr works for the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland and has created a database together with a U.S.-based researcher of more than 10,000 attacks on energy infrastructure around the world since 1980. The attack on Nord Stream, says Burgherr, represents “a new dimension.” It has targeted a central, cross-border element of Europe’s energy supplies, he says, adding that the attack was the product of a complex operation.

The pipelines, he points out, lie between 80 and 110 meters (260 and 360 feet) beneath the surface of the Baltic Sea. Furthermore, the pipeline’s steel shell is several centimeters thick and runs though a cement casing that is also several centimeters thick. “As a rule, only state actors” have the ability to destroy it, Burgherr says.

According to his research, targeted attacks on the energy sector have increased in recent years. And the perpetrators have changed. “It used to be primarily non-state actors that attacked energy infrastructure, such as guerillas in Colombia. Today, state actors have become involved as well. They have more money and personnel available and have a much more professional approach,” he says. As such, the danger associated with such attacks has risen. “We are now discussing catastrophic scenarios that we still considered extremely unlikely just a few years ago.”

Attacks on “neuralgic nodes” such as compressor stations or transmission substations for electricity can be a particularly effective way for perpetrators to cause significant damage that is difficult to quickly repair, says Burgherr.

Protection for these facilities, he adds, is frequently insufficient. With pipelines or high-tension electric wires that extend for hundreds of kilometers, security is more difficult anyway. But, he notes, it can be assumed that particularly critical pipelines, such as the ones leading beneath the North Sea from Norway to continental Europe – a line that crosses paths with the Nord Stream pipelines not far from the sites of the explosions – are being more intensively monitored now than they used to be.

The vulnerability of critical infrastructure is something that NATO has long been concerned about. In June 2021, national leaders from the alliance issued a statement called the “Strengthened Resilience Commitment,” which today reads like a dark premonition of an energy war with Russia. “We will step up efforts to secure and diversify our supply chains, as well as to ensure the resilience of our critical infrastructure,” the statement reads. “We will bolster our efforts to meet challenges to our energy security.”

At its June summit this year in Madrid, NATO strengthened its commitment to resilience, and it not only became part of the strategic concept that determines the alliance’s future alignment. The summit declaration also mentions “national-developed goals and implementation plans” for the strengthening of infrastructure. It’s just that not much has apparently happened since then.

Europe, in particular, is lagging when it comes to the protection of undersea pipelines and cables, because countries have competing views on how important it is. In France, it is seen as a “key issue” in military planning, but in Denmark, it is primarily in the hands of private companies, as an EU analysis published in June makes clear. The report notes that Europe can deal with minor damages but warns that “a number of very vulnerable sites exist.” It also says that several countries have the capability and potentially the intent to attack the EU data network. While cables and pipelines are frequently mentioned in EU strategies, the analysis notes, “hardly any actions and programs address the issue directly.”