The bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines has occasioned a lot of speculation. But what people don’t seem to realize is how easy a job like that is to do. Seymour Hersh published an elaborate conspiracy theory involving the US armed forces plus the Norwegians, with a minesweeper, deep divers, airplanes, and such.

But it could have just been three Poles in a fishing boat.

The operation would require at least one person with a knowledge of explosives and an ability to get a lot of them (including waterproof timed detonators). It would also require at least one person with a boat and practical familiarity with the sea. Though those could be the same person, it’d probably be two people; and I figure there’d be at least a third, perhaps the friend who talked them into it or perhaps a young guy taken along to provide some muscle for heavy lifting.

In brief, the method would be to go to the coordinates of the pipeline, drag an anchor to catch the pipe, and slide an explosives package down the anchor rope – and then to leave and be well away when the timed detonator fires.

The routes of the pipelines are public information, so a GPS will get you very close. For most of their length they just rest on the seabed; they are only buried where the water is shallow, near where they make landfall. (Grady Hillhouse has a good video on the construction of Nord Stream 2.) You’d start on one side of the pipeline, lower your anchor down until it touches the bottom, and drag it until it catches the pipeline. A pipeline is a large obstruction so is easy to catch, though some experimentation with anchors might be necessary to find one that would catch well onto a large round pipe. A magnet could be used instead of an anchor, though it would need to be a large and powerful magnet to attract strongly through the layer of concrete “armor” surrounding the steel pipes.

For confirmation that what you’ve caught is a pipe and not some random piece of seafloor debris, you can have a video camera positioned on the rope above the anchor (with a light to illuminate the dark depths), feeding its signal via a cable back to the surface. When you see you’ve caught a pipeline, fasten your explosives package around the rope and let it slide down the rope to the bottom.

The boat could be a fishing vessel (either a small commercial sort or a pleasure craft), fishing being a good cover story for going pretty much anywhere in the ocean and loitering there. Even if there aren’t any fish there, you can say you thought there were.

Some people have talked of shaped charges being used; those would have been the most efficient way of severing the pipeline, in terms of the amount of explosive required. But the actual method used seems to have been of the “blow it to hell” variety: large quantities of explosives, resulting in mangled pieces of pipe scattered around, tens of meters of pipe displaced, and large craters in the sea bottom. Shaped charges might require a diver (or an ROV) to emplace precisely, but “blow it to hell” can be done with the explosives package just resting on the bottom near the pipeline.

The ease of such an operation has political implications.

The main implication is that it hardly matters who did it. When something needs a nation-state’s resources to pull off, one can search for the blame among nation-states and hold the guilty nation accountable. When it can be done by three guys in a boat, even if a nation-state did it they have plausible deniability. Even if the explosives-laying party were caught red-handed, the state’s role in sending them out could be denied, as in the movie line “If you are caught, we will deny all knowledge of your mission.” Even if proof were found that a nation’s military or intelligence services were involved, the blame could be laid on one or two rogue operators. Such denials would not be believable for a high-budget effort involving lots of people, but are quite believable for an amateur-level effort. So there would be no large political consequences; the people who did it would probably be punished if caught, but that affects individuals, not nations; to escape blame the government would just have to let justice run its course. It still could be used as an excuse for a hostile act that someone wanted to do anyway, but excuses for such things are plentiful.

The question of who did it is thus a matter of amusement, and for amusement I’ll indulge in a bit of speculation. The original reaction of Western governments was to say that the Russians had done it themselves, which makes about as much sense as “he cut off his own right arm!” Admittedly people sometimes do things that don’t make sense: the South, in the US Civil War, cut off their own export of cotton before the North put a blockade in place, on the theory that this exertion of the power of “King Cotton” would make the world respect them more, instead of just making themselves seem unreliable. In a similarly-misguided spirit, the Russians themselves shut down the pipelines even before they were blown up. But actually blowing them up – destroying billions of euros of investment and years of work – would be on another level of self-harm; it would be like the South burning all their oceangoing cotton ships (which of course they did not do).

The original Russian reaction was to accuse the “Anglo-Saxons” of doing it (as if this pre-dated the year 1066), pointing in particular to Biden’s statement that “If Russia invades… then there will be no longer Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” Biden is well known for his verbal gaffes; it was not an official policy of the US government; and there are peaceful ways, too, of “bringing an end” to things. Nevertheless, a gaffe has been defined as an occasion when a politician accidentally reveals his real thoughts, and the attitude displayed here was akin to “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest pipeline?”.

Recently there has been news implicating a boat rented in Germany by some sort of Polish and/or Ukrainian outfit. It is said that explosives have been found in the boat which match the explosives found at the blast sites. These are probably trace quantities (likely in the latter case trace quantities of combustion products); and identifying trace quantities is a delicate piece of chemistry, subject to doubt. Still, Ukrainians have the strongest reasons for wanting Nord Stream gone. Poles are not far behind, and they have the advantage of having shoreline on the Baltic.

There is a joke that a Pole finds an old lamp and summons up a genie, who grants him the customary three wishes, to which he responds:

“I want Genghis Khan to be resurrected, to reunite his hordes, to march to Poland, to decide he doesn’t want it, and to march back.”

“Okay, and your second wish?”

“I want Genghis Khan to be resurrected, to reunite his hordes, to march to Poland, to decide he doesn’t want it, and to march back.”

“Okay, and your third wish?”

“I want Genghis Khan to be resurrected…”

“Okay, okay. I get it. But why?”

“He has to cross Russia SIX TIMES!”

It’s not a great joke, but the hatred is real; Poles have suffered for centuries at the hands of Russia. It would not be surprising for a few of them to take anti-Russian action on their own initiative, without any government support – though for the same reason, clandestine government support would also be likely.

Another implication is as regards the morality of building the pipelines in the first place. It has been seen as a way for Russia and Germany to conspire together against the states in between them: perhaps a way to re-do the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Partitions of Poland. But there was a more innocuous motive, which was to prevent those states from charging exorbitant transit fees for gas piped across their territory. That is a reasonable peacetime motive; and with the pipelines being so vulnerable, the war-related effect was to give hostages for good behavior – hostages that proved insufficient, but valuable hostages nevertheless.

Now, the vulnerability of the pipelines is arguable, since the attackers did benefit from surprise. If the attack had been anticipated, a lot could have been done as regards patrolling the surface above the pipeline and as regards adding sensors to detect nearby activity. Still, Nord Stream goes for hundreds of miles through the Baltic, and civilian boat traffic frequently transits the area. A real wartime effort, supported by both the Russian and German navies, with shoot-on-suspicion sorts of rules, could prevent low-budget attacks. But that would still leave the pipelines vulnerable to attacks that were done by, say, the Polish Navy – who in that sort of political environment wouldn’t be worried about deniability, so could mount an attack using far more resources (and could prepare men and equipment for it even in peacetime).

Now that the example has been set, people may try attacking other underwater pipelines. There was some fuss about the release of methane from the Nord Stream breaches, it being a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2. (Such calculations – radiative transfer calculations – are a part of climate science that actually is solid.) If the escaping methane were really a problem, it could have been solved by throwing in a lit match and converting it to CO2. Of course it wasn’t really a problem; 25 is not a big enough factor for that. But the general atmosphere of climate fear that led to people thinking it was a problem might also inspire terrorist acts against fossil fuel infrastructure. Russian secret service money might be supplied anonymously to such terrorists (either for revenge or to damage the competition); much trouble could be caused. But blowing up a pipeline doesn’t mean its end. In the case of Nord Stream, there’s no political will to repair the broken pipelines; by the time political will returns (if it ever does), they likely will be corroded beyond repair by the salt water that is now inside them (or at least in large sections of them). But if done soon enough, repair of underwater pipelines is generally possible, though expensive and time-consuming.