Why Would Putin Sabotage Nord Stream?

30 September 2022, 1817 EDT

There’s been some chatter on “security studies Twitter” about why Russia might have sabotaged Nord Stream 1 and 2. Nord Stream 1 is an important source of hard currency, which the Kremlin needs to cushion the damage done by western economic sanctions and to finance its war effort in Ukraine. Given that Gazprom (the state-controlled energy company responsible for exporting natural gas) can turn off the flow of gas whenever it wants to, why use explosives to damage the pipeline?

Some very smart people have argue that Putin (may have) sabotaged Nord Stream in order to demonstrate resolve.

Branislav Slantchev offers two reasons why the sabotage “makes sense strategically.” He points out that Putin “could have concluded that Europe is well on its way to weaning itself of Russian energy.”

If that’s the thinking, then the expected value of keeping the line will have decreased substantially. (There are also some arguments about Gazprom payments, but these are too small to be worth mentioning.) The expected benefit of interrupting the supply now, however, is fairly large if it wreaks havoc on the European economies just as the cold season is starting. It will almost certainly push the European economy into a recession, the governments will scramble to cope with the fallout, and social discontent will increase quite a bit. Even if it is proven that the Kremlin was behind this, it will not matter — people might blame Russia but they will still demand measures from their own governments. This means that Ukraine might be pushed a lot further down the list of priorities in Europe, and so aid to Kyiv could be in jeopardy. The US will doubtless have to spend resources to help our friends in Europe, and that’s another strain on our budget. Overall, if your goal is to win some time for the mobilization to become effective, and if you believe that Europe is lost as a client anyway, blowing up Nord Stream would be a way to go.

But, as Slantchev notes, this still doesn’t explain why Putin didn’t just halt the flow of gas. Here he agrees with Lewis, but offers a more detailed account.

This leads me to the second reason, and it’s a sort of dual commitment. “Burning bridges” is a tactic used in situations where some option might be very tempting under certain circumstances, but if the opponent anticipates that you will take it, they will strive to create the circumstances that you wish to avoid. The classic example is with an army that is pinned against a river by a superior force. The general wants the soldiers to stand firm and fight, but if there’s a bridge across the river, many soldiers might be tempted to run away, causing discipline to collapse, and the battle to be lost. So the general blows up the bridge, giving the soldiers the choice between fighting and possibly winning or losing and likely dying. An historical example of this is when Hernan Cortez arrived in the New World with a handful of conquistadores, he beached the ships to prevent them from being tempted to go back home and abandon the expedition.

In this case, Putin has two bridges he might have wished to burn, an international and domestic one. On the international side, his signal is that he is irrevocably committed to seeing this war through no matter what the West does. The problem with Western dependence on Russian energy sources actually goes both ways because Europe is also the largest client. While most people focus on Putin’s leverage and blackmail, the Europeans have also had substantial leverage with their threats to limit or stop their buying. One argument was always that Putin can’t really afford to lose that buyer, and so the threats to continue the war or keep the gas off were not credible. (I have made this argument as well.) Turning off the tap does not solve this credibility problem — you can always turn it back on if you are sufficiently incentivized. Blowing up the lines, however, removes this option and so you no longer have the choice. Because the lines have become inoperable for a long time (one of them, I understand, potentially permanently), the Europeans have lost the leverage that their money was giving them.

On the domestic side, this is a move designed to consolidate power. Putin must know about the substantial discontent his policies have created among the elites, and he might be worried about conspiracies against him. One driving force behind any such conspiracy is the hope that with Putin gone, relations with the West can be regularized (I would not say “normalized” or “restored” because even the most optimistic Russians must realized that this is impossible for the foreseeable future.) While the West will remain quite hostile to Russia for a long time, this does not have to mean that business relations of some sort would not be able to resume. And so, potential conspirators might be hoping that replacing Putin could salvage the business relationships with Europe (more generally too, not just in the energy sector), and they may even think that Europe’s loss as a customer is not inevitable. If Putin were merely to turn the tap off, they can simply turn it back on when he’s gone. Destroying the lines, however, means that his potential replacement would not be able to resume delivery through them no matter how much they want to. The massive rift the sabotage will cause with Europe is also going to make resumption of relations a lot harder. This decreases the incentives of potential coup plotters to remove Putin since one of the largest benefits from doing so is now gone. What’s the point of removing him if this will not change anything with respect to the economy?

“Commitment problems” provide a compelling, intuitive heuristic for parsing a lot of behavior in international politics.

As Brett Ashley Leeds writes, “a state makes a credible commitment when it convinces its counterpart that it will have both the ability and the incentive to act as promised.” A great deal of international-relations scholarship concerns whether (and under what conditions) states can make credible commitments to, for example, abide by arms control agreements, adjust their domestic laws to comply with treaty obligations, or follow through on threats to use force.

The ability of states to make commitments is a critical dimension of the international system. Between two states, commitments run the gamut from formal defense treaties to casual assurances between diplomats. For liberal institutionalists, the ability to make commitments is central to the process of international institutionalization. But commitments do not have to reflect only cooperative behavior. Even for realists, the ability to make commitments is0 critical to international interactions. The efficacy of deterrence threats and the functioning of alliance politics clearly hinge on the ability of actors to make credible commitments.

So should we conclude that commitment problems drove Putin to sabotage Nord Stream?

First of all, I’m not sure how much the answer matters. Knowing the specific calculus that led Putin to think “yes, is good idea to sabotage Nord Stream” won’t change much of anything. Natural gas won’t be flowing through either pipeline anytime in the immediate future. Supply will go down. Prices will go up. As Slantchev put it so well, “It will almost certainly push the European economy into a recession” leading incumbent governments to “scramble to cope with the fallout.” We should expect more “social discontent” and quite possibly greater political resistance to continued sanctions on Russia.

I agree that, in principle, understanding the logic behind Putin’s decision might, in principle, help other governments to calibrate their policies toward Russia and the war in Ukraine. That is, if we know why Putin ordered the sabotage, it will be easier to anticipate future decisions.

One problem here is that Putin himself may not really know why he ordered the sabotage. His own account of his decision—the story he tells to himself and perhaps to his closest confidantes—may not be particularly accurate. Human beings are very good at constructing post hoc justifications for our decisions. Sometimes we retcon our reasoning without even realizing it.

Moreover, Putin’s original intentions may not predict his future actions. As circumstances change, leaders often alter their aims and tactics. We’ve likely already seen this in Ukraine, where a cascade of failures have altered Putin’s war aims and increased his willingness to make risky policy decisions.

Second, we need to be very cautious about how we impute motives. Russia’s government almost certainly suffers from a number of pathologies associated with personalistic regimes. We have very good reasons to believe that Putin operates in a distorted information environment. That means that we likely don’t have a good understanding of both his current decision-making process (other than it doesn’t accord with best practices) and of the information that he’s using as inputs into that process. This makes the inherently difficult task of inferring motives from behavior even harder.

When analysts speculate about why a leader’s motives for a specific action, they tend to ask “given the circumstances, what reasons for their behavior do and don’t make sense?” But we cannot assume that Putin shares our understanding of “the circumstances,” that he agrees with our theories about how international politics work, or is in an environment that facilitates rational decision making.

Thus, while I find Lewis’ and Slantchev’s accounts plausible, I also have no idea what Putin thinks about “burning bridges” as a way of signaling resolve. As best I can tell, Putin is a big fan of threats and shows of strength. He needlessly antagonized Sweden and Finland after the first Ukraine crisis by violating their airspace and harassing vessels in international waters. Those actions pushed both countries closer to NATO and paved the way for their current membership bids.

I bet you can guess how Russia tried to dissuade Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, and how it’s behaved throughout the process.

This is not the behavior of someone who thinks about credibility the same way that American international-relations scholars do. Putin makes a lot of (apparently) empty threats, and that’s undermined his credibility. Consider that many observers didn’t believe that Russia would invade in Ukraine in 2022, despite a massive military buildup on its border.

Third, so what do I think? I find Slantchev’s first explanation far more plausible. Putin wants to weaken western governments by inflicting maximum economic pain on their citizens. He has long believed that western democracies are fundamentally decadent and weak; I strongly suspect he also believes that Russia can outlast countries like the United States and Germany—either his adversaries will buckle under pressure or their citizens will elect leaders who are more willing to reach an accommodation with Russia.

(Even if he doesn’t actually believe this, trying to outlast western resolve is pretty much his only option other than widening, or risk widening, the conflict beyond Ukraine.)

It’s possible that Putin sees the Italian and Swedish elections as evidence that this kind of strategy will work. The Lega and Forza Italia are both pro-Putin; it remains unclear if Giorgia Meloni had a genuine road to Damascus moment and truly supports Ukraine and NATO; even if she did, that policy may not last given the preferences of her coalition partners and the state of public opinion in Italy.

The Sweden Democrats are also relatively recent converts to the western consensus on Ukraine and NATO. Thus, I suspect Putin views their newfound influence as creating opportunities that did not exist under the prior coalition.

Regardless, he may see the defeat of two incumbent coalitions as itself a good sign.

But why not just “turn off the tap?”

The “credible commitment” account makes a lot of sense, but I think we’re better off looking at looking at the standard toolkit Russia uses to influence public opinion in western democracies. Russia’s repertoire includes a fair amount of “information warfare,” especially in the form of disinformation. Sabotaging the pipeline creates ample material for conspiracy theorizing—and for the spread of theories that point the finger at the United States, Ukraine, one of the Baltic States, or any other “western” country.

If Russia simply embargoed the flow of gas, then would be much easier for western governments to successfully blame Putin for their economic woes. In fact, when Russia reduced the flow of gas in the past, it usually cited “technical issues” and blamed western democracies. That’s the playbook it ran in early September.

Russian gas giant Gazprom (GAZP.MM) on Friday said the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, Europe’s major supply route, would remain shut as a turbine at a compressor station had an engine oil leak, sending wholesale gas prices soaring.

“Problems with gas supply arose because of the sanctions imposed on our country by Western states, including Germany and Britain,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

“We see incessant attempts to shift responsibility and blame onto us. We categorically reject this and insist that the collective West – in this case, the EU, Canada, the UK – is to blame for the fact that the situation has reached the point where it is now.”

Even if western intelligence agencies “prove” Russian culpability, that doesn’t mean everyone will believe them. This may come as a shock, but a lot of people don’t consider the Central Intelligence Agency a reliable source.

Besides, the point isn’t to “win” the propaganda war outright. It’s to maximize uncertainty. Muddying the waters creates space for multiple alternative narratives to flourish. Some people will buy into one of those narratives. Others will conclude that it’s impossible to the truth.

This post originated as a Twitter thread, one that I drafted on Thursday night. By the time I got around to putting it up, Russia was already blaming the United States and NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday blamed the United States and its allies for blowing up the undersea Nord Stream pipelines, raising the temperature in a crisis that has left Europe racing to secure its energy infrastructure and supplies.

In a speech to mark the annexation of four Ukrainian regions invaded by Russian forces, Putin offered no evidence for the claim. Russia has previously said the United States would profit from attacks on Europe’s energy infrastructure.

The sanctions were not enough for the Anglo-Saxons: they moved onto sabotage,” Putin said. “It is hard to believe but it is a fact that they organised the blasts on the Nord Stream international gas pipelines.”

“They began to destroy the pan-European energy infrastructure,” Putin said. “It is clear to everyone who benefits from this. Of course, he who benefits did it.”

Does this line of argument suffer from the same problems that I raised earlier in this post? Pretty much. It does have one advantage, though: it relies on actual patterns of Russian behavior.

Of course, the Kremlin would put out the same propaganda no matter who, or what, caused Nord Stream to start leaking natural gas into the Baltic Sea. Which should underscore that the question “why would Putin do this?” is less important than the question “what are the consequences of Nord Stream 1 going offline?”

ETA: edited for typos and syntax.