Where: The Baltic Sea, corridor between Finland and Estonia
Who’s involved: the Finnish government, the Estonian government, Sweden, NATO, the European Union, Russia, China
On 10/10/2023, the Finnish government reported damage to a gas pipeline and a telecommunications cable with Estonia. The BalticConnector gas pipeline was shut down after Finland’s Gasgrid recorded an unusual drop in pressure on 08/10/2023. As a result of this damage, the European energy market has suffered from unease, following media reports of the shutdown of the BalticConnector gas link, causing gas prices to soar once again due to concerns over supply for the coming winter. Despite Finland initially suspecting a Russian retaliatory action, the National Bureau of Investigation recently stated the damage is likely a result of an anchor dragging on the seabed. Finnish officials will determine whether the damage was intentional in the next phase of the investigation.
NATO announced on 11/10/2023 that it will discuss damage to the gas pipeline and data cable running between member states Finland and Estonia, and will mount a “determined” response if a deliberate attack is proven.
Finnish and Estonian authorities formed a joint investigation team on 12/10/2023 in order to determine the cause of the damage. The investigation is ongoing. Progress has been made on identifying vessels operating in the area, and the investigation will continue to focus on the technical examination of the seabed for any visible traces.
On 11/10/2023, Finnish officials reported that the damage to the pipeline appears to have been done using mechanical force and not an explosion. The Estonian Geological Service claims that neither Estonian nor Finnish seismic stations registered anything resembling explosions during the time period the BalticConnector registered a loss of pressure.
On 16/10/2023 Finland increased security measures to its critical infrastructure, restricting access to parts of the port of Inga which houses one of the country’s two floating Liquefied Natural Gas terminals. In total, the Finnish government has identified 230 sites where it will restrict access over fears of sabotage.
On 19/10/2023 NATO boosted its patrols in the Baltic Sea, including additional surveillance and reconnaissance flights, maritime patrol aircraft, NATO AWACS planes, and drones. A fleet of four NATO minehunters is also being dispatched to the area.
On 17/10/2023 another Baltic Sea telecommunications cable connecting Sweden and Estonia was discovered to be damaged at roughly the same time as the Finnish-Estonian pipeline and cable were, but remains operational. Estonian authorities believe these events are linked.
The Finnish National Investigations Bureau announced on 20/10/2023 that the investigation will now focus on Newnew Polar Bear, a Hong Kong-registered container ship, as its movements coincided with the time and place of the damage.
On 25/10/2023 the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that Beijing is willing to provide all necessary information on the case, in accordance with international law.
The damage to the BalticConnector gas pipeline has brought back fears concerning the vulnerability of European critical infrastructure to sabotage by hostile actors. Therefore, European energy security is very likely to be high on the policy agenda of both NATO and the European Union especially considering the pressure of the coming colder winter months. The timing and nature of this event is reminiscent of the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines which occurred last year on 26/09/2022. As Europe is heading into its second winter since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, gas prices are again on the rise and putting further strain on European markets and economy. The risks posed by such disruptions to the European energy supply are likely to create tensions within Europe.
Furthermore, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did say that “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.” Finland has also been increasingly targeted by cyber-attacks from Russian hacking group NoName057(16) since 03/10/2023. This coinciding with a declaration by the Finnish Foreign Minister, Elina Valtonen, of increased Finnish support to Ukraine and the damage to the pipeline occurring all within the same week could serve as a clear indication of hostility towards Finland and potential sabotage operations.
NATO has already threatened to mount a “determined” response if the joint Finnish-Estonian investigation finds sufficient evidence to prove the pipeline was deliberately sabotaged. A potential response that will send a clear message to any hostile actors may be triggering Article 4. By invoking Article 4, Finland and Estonia can push the issue of the security of critical infrastructure onto NATO’s agenda and force the Alliance to have a high-level meeting about it. A likely outcome of such a meeting could be to move more air and naval assets to the Baltic region to ensure the protection of other pipelines.
Despite fears of Russian retaliation or other state actors attacks, the joint Finnish-Estonian investigation has not found any conclusive evidence yet in order to attribute the damage to sabotage by a state-actor.
The damage to the BalticConnector pipeline has increased energy price volatility in Europe and may put further financial pressure on European populations in the coming winter months. Consequently, energy security must be set as a priority for both NATO’s and the EU’s policy agendas. With Finland’s newly acquired NATO membership, hostile actors may be trying to sabotage NATO critical infrastructure to either provoke or intimidate. If the incident is proven to be a deliberate action, NATO is likely to respond.