Pipelines and Cables – the Hybrid War has Begun

14 mins. to read
Pipelines and Cables – the Hybrid War has Begun

The gas pipelines that will carry gas no more

Who blew up the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines on 26 September? And why?

Many readers will have seen the aerial photos of natural gas frothing chaotically to the surface of the Baltic Sea near the Danish island of Bornholm, which continued for several days. Somebody somehow undertook an unprecedented, highly sophisticated act of coordinated submarine sabotage. Only the most advanced military powers are capable of such a deed – certainly not any of the world’s best-funded terrorist networks. This was an act of war – or of defence, depending on your point of view.

The CO2 emissions resulting from the blow-up are more than the UK emits in a year (not forgetting all those dead herring) – so one can assume that Greta Thunberg was not responsible, even though many of her admirers devoutly wish the instant termination of the oil-and-gas industry. This was a brutal move in a game of grand strategy by one or more sovereign states.

Let’s just recall that Nord Stream 1 (which runs from Vyborg, Leningrad Oblast, Russia to Lubmin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany) has been supplying Germany with Russian natural gas for about 20 years. The construction of Nord Stream 2 (which runs from Ust-Luga, near the Estonian border, to Lubmin) was completed at huge cost at the end of last year, and would have roughly doubled gas supplies to Germany while entirely avoiding Ukrainian and Polish territory.

But Nord Stream 2 was still awaiting the necessary licences from the European Commission when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February this year. As I had predicted, the new pipeline was immediately mothballed by the German government. There was opposition to this in Germany and the possibility remained that it could one day be activated to fuel Europe’s largest economy.

Both pipelines are now unusable, and probably irreparable. The age of Nord Stream is over – Russia will never again directly supply natural gas to Germany. That is momentous.

All the world’s major intelligence agencies have been obsessed with finding out who did it, how they did it and why. At least one intelligence agency already knows the answers.

One of the most interesting analyses that has landed on my desk (so to speak) is from the American-in-exile guru investor, Doug Casey. (Spoiler alert: Doug Casey, unlike all my American friends, is not a fan of ‘Uncle Sam’).

The first question Casey asks is about motivation. Who benefits from the destruction of Nord Stream? The Russians may want to punish the Germans and the Europeans generally for supporting the Ukrainian fightback – but would they really want to destroy a major source of hard-currency revenue once, eventually, the war is over?

The Germans? It’s unlikely that they would want to close off a vital source of energy for good; and it is also unlikely that they have the submarine capability to undertake a mission such as this one. The Ukrainians and the Poles almost certainly would have wished the pipelines gone, because they remove their leverage over Russian gas exports – but it’s also doubtful that they would have had the military means to do it, even if they had cooperated. And those two neighbours who speak cognate languages are cooperating in interesting ways.

Interestingly, Radek Sikorsky MEP, a former Polish foreign minister, who is currently chair of the European parliament’s EU-US committee, tweeted that day: “Thank you, USA!”, with a photo of the gas bubbling in the Baltic. There are internet rumours that the US was testing submarine drones around Bornholm in late September – but I have no means of verifying that.

It is certainly the case that the US will benefit from the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines: since Putin invaded Ukraine, the US has become the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe, surpassing even Qatar. Ironically, much of this gas is derived from fracking in US shale fields, while fracking remains illegal in much of Europe, and now in the UK too under Rishi Sunak.

What do the Russians say? Of course, they deny having done it. This week Russian media has put the UK in the frame as the bad actor, saying that the Royal Navy “directed and coordinated” the attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines.

They also blame the Royal Navy for the drone attack on Russian naval forces in the Crimean port of Sebastopol last week. On Wednesday (2 November), Deborah Bronnert, the British ambassador to the Russian Federation, was put on notice that she would be summoned to the Kremlin to face “evidence” that “British specialists” were involved. A Russian foreign-ministry spokesperson claimed that a Royal Navy unit directed operations from the southern Ukrainian Black Sea port of Ochakiv. The UK has dismissed these accusations as “false claims on an epic scale”.

On Tuesday (1 November), the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, threatened the UK with unspecified consequences over its alleged actions: “Such actions cannot be put aside. Of course, we will think about further steps. It cannot be left like this,” he said. Putin and his entourage now consider the UK as enemy number two, after Ukraine.

There is another critical gas pipeline that might in time come under attack. This runs from the Caspian Sea, where Russia’s Lukoil is the dominant player, through Georgia and across Turkey to Greece and then via Albania across the Adriatic to Italy. Much of the gas Italians use comes through this vital route. Italy has a new government under Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia which secured about one quarter of the vote in the general election of 25 September. The price of gas – and the imminent threat of shortages – is high up the political agenda in Italy.

Italy is the weakest link in the chain of western solidarity against Russia’s aggression. Although it has been able to secure sufficient gas supplies from Algeria thus far, any disruption of the Caspian pipeline would have huge political ramifications.

There were also reports last week of unidentified drones flying near Norwegian offshore oil- and-gas installations. Several Russian nationals, including the son of a well-known oligarch, were subsequently arrested by the Norwegian authorities. Since then, Norway has formally put its armed forces on high alert.

Submarine internet cables under threat

On 21 October French police announced that they were investigating damage to internet cables that connect Marseilles, France’s second city, to other French cities and much of Europe. Other cables in France have been deliberately sabotaged in similar fashion this year.

French cable operator and internet service provider Free said its repair teams were deployed to deal with “an act of vandalism on our fibre infrastructure”. Photos published by Free on Twitter showed multiple cables completely severed in their concrete housings, which had been prised open. It said the cuts led to major disruptions to its network and phone services in the Marseilles area. The French internal intelligence service, the DGSI, is now on the case.

Zscaler, a cybersecurity company said the severed cables link Marseilles to Lyons, Milan and Barcelona. It also said that the cuts had impacted connectivity to Asia, Europe and the US.

Five years ago, a little-known MP by the name of Rishi Sunak wrote a paper for the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange, from which I quote here:

“In the digital age of cloud computing, the idea that steel and plastic pipes are integral to our lives seems anachronistic…But our ability to transmit confidential information, to conduct financial transactions and to communicate internationally all depends on a global network of cables lying under the sea…The threat {if they are cut} is nothing short of existential”.

Last week, the Shetland Isles, the most northerly outcrop of the British archipelago, lost its internet and phone contact with the outside world after the cable that links the islands to the mainland was severed. (Again, there are internet rumours that the Boris Petrov, a Russian “scientific research” vessel was in the area at the time – but again, I cannot substantiate that). What is sure is the Shefa-2 fibre-optic cable which runs from the Scottish mainland to the Faroe Islands via Shetland was severed.

The severance might well have been a natural accident – such things do happen from time to time. In 2008, cables connecting Italy with Egypt were severed by a container that fell from a ship. Communication between the Pentagon and US forces in Iraq was disrupted as a result. An earthquake in 2006 in the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines disrupted internet connectivity in South Korea for a time.

About 95 percent of the world’s entire internet traffic passes through just 200 fibre-optic cables which span the globe along the major sea lanes. There are about 10 choke points globally where cables come ashore, one of which is located in Cornwall. The UK is served by about 60 undersea cables. If any of these were disrupted the consequences would be severe, not least for public services. The NHS, for example, has been using cloud computing since 2013 with the result that much our personal health data is stored on servers in the US and Europe.

In January, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the head of the UK’s armed forces went public with the intelligence that Russia had developed sophisticated underwater drones. He warned of the “phenomenal increase in Russian submarine and underwater activity in the past 20 years”.

Liz Truss wanted to raise UK defence expenditure to three percent of GDP by 2030, partly to better defend the country against covert operations – but now there is speculation that, under Sunak, UK defence expenditure will fall by £2.5bn in real terms this year. Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the House of Commons defence committee who was a Tory leadership contender in the summer, warned last week that: “You reduce spending in real terms at your economic peril”.

But who lays the undersea cables? American, Japanese and French companies dominate the sector; but the Chinese company, HMN Technologies (formerly Huawei Marine Networks) has also become a major player. HMN is particularly active in the Pacific region, not least the Solomon Islands, where China is close to building a naval base which could threaten Australia.

For Russia, attacking submarine internet cables is low risk because Russia has a largely local internet and, like China, Russia seeks to limit the access of its citizens to the World Wide Web. Therefore, the impact to Russia of widescale cable disruption would be minimal. In contrast, the US and the UK would suffer huge economic damage if the internet were to go down for a protracted period.


In February last year, hackers changed the level of sodium hydroxide in water after penetrating the computer systems of a Florida treatment plant. This could have had devastating results had it not been discovered in time.

And in May last year a hacking group known as DarkSide stole 100 gigabytes of data from the operator of the Colonial oil pipeline which runs from Houston, Texas to the port of New York and New Jersey. The group used the data to shut down the pipeline altogether, halting the delivery of about half the East Coast’s fuel supply. DarkSide is known to carry out ransomware attacks and offers to sell its malware to others through “ransomware-as-a-service”, according to the Boston-headquartered cybersecurity firm Cybereason. One clue to its identity is that its principal language seems to be Russian.

It is thought that Joe Biden raised the Colonial pipeline incident directly with Putin when they met in Geneva on 16 June last year − and that he offered assurances that the Russian state would not attack US infrastructure.

In September this year, pro-Russian hackers launched a cyberattack against MI5, briefly taking its official website offline.

Phone hacking

On Monday (31 October) it emerged that Truss’s personal mobile phone had been hacked when she was serving as foreign secretary. The phone might have contained sensitive information concerning the UK’s support for Ukraine. Fingers were immediately pointed towards the Kremlin. Colonel Richard Kemp, a British military expert, wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

“Britain is under fierce attack in this new era of hybrid warfare. While we may not be exchanging fire on the battlefield, our critical national infrastructure will be severely undermined and potentially destroyed if we fail to get a grip”.

It was reported that Truss’s phone was so badly compromised that it had to be locked away inside a safe somewhere in Whitehall. As Kemp proposes, there will have to be a review of the use of personal devices by ministers. It is ironic that, the day before she was forced to resign, Truss sacked Home Secretary Suella Braverman for having sent confidential documents to a colleague from a personal email account.

One would assume that ministers are inducted in the dangers of security breaches via their phones, laptops and iPads – but a casual attitude seems to prevail. I criticised Boris Johnson during the pandemic for “government by WhatsApp”. WhatsApp boasts “end-to-end encryption”, which is all very well, but anyone who receives a confidential message can forward it to a third party.

Hybrid warfare in a time of polycrisis

The term polycrisis is becoming common, as it best summarises the complex network of disparate challenges that governments must face. The term was first coined in the 1990s by the French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin (still with us aged 101) and seems apposite today.

In the West we face falling living standards as rampant inflation erodes the real value of wages; and we have the impact of rising interest rates – what I have called economic climate change. We face the challenge of how to fund our burgeoning welfare states at a time of anaemic economic growth with its consequent debt spiral. Social media has unleashed forces which have made democracies more fragile – as exemplified by the events in Washington on 6 January last year.

Then we have the geopolitical disruption offered by a rising China and a disgruntled Russia: the latter’s leadership having threatened the West with the prospect of nuclear war – something that never happened during the Cold War (1946-91).

On top of this we have the intractable problem of global warming/climate change which necessitates that we massively reduce our carbon emissions. This is driving the total transformation of everything from vehicular transport to energy generation.

Climate change is already one factor in mass migration from the south to the north. If much of the Sahel region becomes uninhabitable, or small Pacific states like Tuvalu (of which Charles III is King) sink beneath the waves, then we can expect many people to move to more temperate lands. The narrative of an ecological tipping point (“climate catastrophe”) has now become embedded – hence the rise of the disorderly eco-protestors. And then there is the problem which has dropped out of sight for the moment, of terrorism by Islamic extremists, as well as the risk of another pandemic.

All these challenges have different causes but, collectively, they combine to render states and governments more vulnerable to the kinds of shocks that can be inflicted by hybrid warfare. The UK is already braced for power outages this winter. The negative impact of that could be exacerbated by malign external forces.

On Thursday (3 November), Elliott Management, the hedge fund founded by billionaire Wall Street investor Paul Singer, warned that the global economy is on the path to hyperinflation and risks “global societal collapse and civil or international strife” if soaring prices are not brought under control. The fund thinks that the “everything bubble” – the value of virtually all assets inflated by loose monetary policy – is about to pop.

In in mid-October Ian Bremmer, the American political scientist and founder of the Eurasia Group, reported that White House insiders put the odds of nuclear war over the next year at 20 percent – though he personally thought they were more like five percent. I suspect that a nuclear war will be averted, though, because of the impact of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD).

But I foresee a protracted period of hybrid or asymmetric warfare which is only just beginning. During The Troubles in Northern Ireland (1967-98), the IRA used to taunt British security forces with: “You have to be lucky all the time; but we only have to get lucky once”.


Is social media a depreciating asset?

Not only have the major tech companies’ shares bombed this year – with Meta/Facebook down over 70 percent – but their social utility is in rapid decline. Elon Musk’s conquest of Twitter will just make that unproductive platform duller. He very clearly has little idea what he wants to do with this new ‘trophy’ − he only completed the $44bn takeover, from which he had previously resiled, when a Delaware court threatened to indict him.

The pre-literate ‘tinies’ and the youth have gone to TikTok, the slightly silly arm of China’s sinister surveillance state − a ‘Pied Piper’ which entices the innocent.

It seems to me that addiction to social media generates illiteracy and groupthink; and these make social media turgid and less useful.

WhatsApp (also in the Meta stable) is moderately useful – but it is also largely a waste of time. In the halcyon late-90s, we used to make appointments with our friends by sending punctuated emails. The only emails I receive today, with a few notable exceptions, are from advertisers. The buzz of online discourse has fizzled out – and possibly, here in the UK, Brexit had much to do with that by polarising opinion in such an infertile way.

I’m rationing my time on social media. And I promise never to post a photo of my lunch again.

Listed companies cited in this article which merit analysis:

  • Zscaler (LON: 0XVU)

Comments (3)

  • Lawman says:

    An informative review. Security of the realm is the first duty of HMG, and armed forces, cyber security etc must have priority; provided public procurement is reformed. Even then you cannot account for the folly of politicians using public media or not having telephones sanitized.

    The good news is that, after the Cameron & Osborne years of opening the door to China, we now recognize the threat.

  • Julian M says:

    I think you are wrong in writing off the Russians as saboteurs of their own pipeline. It had become of no use to them and was in fact costing them cash in terms of penalties because they had themselves latterly turned off the supply, allegedly to do repairs not to blackmail the EU.
    Having seen the video of the explosion site, the pipe wall is bent outwards and it looks as if the explosion was internal. This could easily have been caused by explosives placed inside a pipe cleaning pig, or several in a queue to cause multiple failure points.
    The Russians stood to gain by demonstrating to western govts that they were capable of such actions and putting the fear of god into them, it puts penalty payments into the force majeure category, they had nothing to lose because the EU were never going to put it fully into service, and guess what, the increase in price in gas has also benefited them.

  • K. Burke says:

    Of course you are right – anyone who understands pipelines (Transneft ) knows how easy it is for a ‘PIG’ to blow both pipelines at whatever point they choose.
    Submarine / underwater drone action would look quite different at the blast point.

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