Updated: Nov 11
The recent gas leaks from the two subsea pipelines transporting Russian gas to Germany, Nord Stream 1 and 2, have brought about a range of speculations regarding the actor responsible for the economic and environmental fiasco. As the Swedish Security Service announced that its investigation pointed towards “gross sabotage” by a non-identified perpetrator, a range of media narratives – Russia-propagated and domestically amplified – have implicated the United States and/or a U.S.-led NATO faction. This analysis delves into the different components that have made the “U.S. Nord Stream Sabotage” narrative impactful.
A major point of tension in U.S.-Germany relations has been the latter’s extensive economic collaboration with Russia since the collapse of the USSR. None of its joint projects has been as controversial as the countries’ energy-related partnership, which the United States as well as a range of Eastern European countries warned since the early 2000s would lead to a dangerous European dependency on Russia. The construction of Nord Stream 1 started in 2010, and by 2019, when Nord Stream 2 was well underway, the U.S.-imposed sanctions on companies involved in laying the subsea pipes. On the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a sanction package was placed on the Nord Stream 2 AG company by the U.S.
Putin has strategically leveraged the Nord Stream pipelines since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. In June, Gazprom cut gas flow to 40 percent capacity, blaming sanctions for delays in the return of a turbine that was being repaired in Canada. In July, a 10-day maintenance of Nord Stream 1 caused significant nervousness around European energy security. In August, Russia shut down Nord Stream 1 at short notice for maintenance. Rather than receiving official notice, Germany found out through Gazprom’s social media.
On September 26, 2022, the first giant leak of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was reported and the next day, two more leaks were detected on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Around this time, Russian state media began pushing the narrative that the United States was responsible for the sabotage, featuring the story in its media channels and proliferating the claim across social media. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s responded to allegations that Russia may have sabotaged the pipelines as “predictably stupid and absurd”. On September 30, Putin blamed the United States for the leaks and suggested it was an escalation of sanctions on Russia.
Russian and Chinese Propaganda
Just prior to and especially after Putin’s initial comments, a range of Russian government organizations, officials, and news media amplified the narrative that the U.S. is responsible for the Nord Stream 1 and 2 leaks across social media platforms. On September 27, a Tweet from Radek Sikorski, an EU MP, seemed to gratefully attribute the leaks to the U.S. and was used by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to corroborate the U.S. as the responsible actor for the leaks.
Chinese officials were quick to further propagate the Kremlin-sponsored narrative through an array of memes. From there, it was amplified globally by users across social media platforms.
Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson was quick to embrace the U.S. sabotage narrative and propagate it on national TV, which, in turn, was touted by Russian TV as further evidence. It is important to note that domestic amplification was not confined to conservative media. Economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, describing himself as pro-peace, stated on Bloomberg TV the U.S. was likely behind the gas leaks - though he was cut short for propagating the narrative. Numerous artifacts from accounts within the United States have now started to advance the narrative and tweak it to align with new revelations as the investigation into the leaks continues. Of note, there was significant overlap between Nord Stream-related artifacts on openly pro-Russian English-language Telegram channels and primarily U.S. Telegram channels that can be classified as far-right and/or deep state conspiracy aligned. One such development is the publication by Gazprom of a picture supposedly dating back to 2015 showing an unexploded NATO Seafox drone next to Nord Stream 1 to demonstrate that the U.S. and NATO supposedly have a history of (attempted) sabotage.
Source(s): Telegram, Twitter
Potential for Impact
Above, the Leaderboard ranks the top-five Ukraine-related MDM Themes by Potential for Impact (PFI). Limbik evaluates over 30 Ukraine-related MDM Themes weekly and continuously adds new Themes as they emerge. Potential for Impact is Limbik’s predictive metric, which forecasts whether content related to an MDM theme or narrative will be considered believable – not just if it's likely to go viral. It is thus notable that the “U.S. Nord Stream Sabotage” narrative ranked fifth in its first week of monitoring, eliciting an 81.0 PFI. With a Believability of 77, an estimated 39 percent of U.S. adults will find the narrative that the U.S. is behind the gas leaks credible. Virality – a probabilistic forecast of whether Theme-related artifacts will elicit engagement online – for the narrative, fortunately, demonstrates it is not likely to command attention. Nevertheless, it is clear that among Ukraine-related MDM, this narrative has a high Potential for Impact.
Aside from the narrative’s high PFI among U.S. adults, the U.S. sabotage narrative has been propagated by foreign accounts around the world. In the last monitoring period, 32.9 percent of artifacts were attributed to accounts from outside the United States. Artifacts predominantly originated from Europe, India, and Russia. It is important to note that the Foreign Influence map above is not comprehensive and does not definitively show where actors like Russia and China, known to use proxies for information operations, are launching propaganda from. Foreign Influence percentage includes both artifacts posted by individuals and those posted through coordinated (state-sponsored) influence operations.
Conclusion: The Importance of Critical Infrastructure-related MDM in the Ukraine War
The importance of critical infrastructure-related MDM during the now eight-month unwavering invasion of Ukraine is becoming increasingly clear. Since the start of the war, nuclear power plants and cyber infrastructure have been featured prominently in the (dis)information landscape. The Nord Stream sabotage and the Kerch Strait Bridge blast have elicited a swath of disinformation narratives again implicating the U.S. and NATO in an attack against Russian interests. By definition, critical infrastructure undergirds the functioning of a country and therefore is particularly prone to foreign influence operations. In the context of war and assaults on sovereignty, proactively mitigating such narratives becomes even more essential.