Suspicion currently falls on ships that lingered nearby at the time the damage was done, especially a Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship that was above the "Balticconnector" gas pipeline at the time the leak occurred. An udersea cable was also damaged. There were also two Russian ships nearby, reported LTV's De Facto October 22.
De Facto clarified that Latvia does not have any problems in gas supply or communications due to the damage caused, however, the events have forced more attention to be paid to the protection of the infrastructure itself.
This year, Latvia's Inčukalns natural gas storage has its highest capacity in the last five years. The new "Inko" terminal in Finland helped to replace Russian gas. 30% of the natural gas in the storage this year came from Finland through the "Balticconnector" interconnection.
Gas also flowed in the direction of Latvia on the night of October 8, when shortly after one o'clock the pressure in the pipe suddenly disappeared, and the operators stopped the flow. The fact that something happened to the gas pipeline at that moment was registered by Finnish specialized seismological stations. The event was small, equivalent to a very small earthquake. It could only be registered with special hardware.
Jānis Karušs, head of the Department of Geology at the University of Latvia, stated that the fluctuations were too small to be noticed by the Latvian monitoring station in Slītere:
"It is some kind of perhaps a bigger explosion in a quarry, created by people to crush dolomite, which also happens widely in Latvia. This is indicative of this size, maybe even significantly smaller [...] To say whether it was purely a pipe defect or malicious detonation – it cannot be confirmed by seismological observations."
The Finnish police believe that the gas pipeline was damaged not by an explosion, but by a "mechanical" impact.
Russian and Chinese ships nearby
One of the lines of investigation is the study of nearby ships. At the time of the event, the Russian ship "SVG Flot" was anchored nearby. At approximately the moment when the gas pipeline lost pressure, two cargo ships passed above it one after the other: "Newnew Polar Bear" flying the Hong Kong flag, and "Sevmorput" - a nuclear-powered ship belonging to the Russian state company "Rosatom".
Less than two hours later, on the way to the port of St. Petersburg, the two ships also crossed an underwater telecommunications cable belonging to the Finnish company Elisa, which was also damaged that night. Estonian investigators announced on Thursday that the damage to the cable was caused by human action.
Sweden also reported damage in a similar time frame this week. The Swedish cable to Estonia EE-S 1 lost approximately half of its capacity. The damage was not serious and the cable has now been repaired. The place of damage was located 50 kilometers west of the Estonian island of Hiiumaa.
It is not yet clear whether the incidents are related, though the Swedish cable was also crossed by the ships "Newnew Polar Bear" and "Sevmorput" on October 7.
Russia denies that it had anything to do with the damage to infrastructure in the Baltic Sea. The company "Rosatom" wrote in a statement that its ship cannot be at fault, based on the constant speed of the ship during the crossing of the "Balticconnector".
On October 20, the Finnish investigators announced that the focus of the investigation is the Chinese ship that was closest to the "Balticconnector" when the damage occurred. A heavy object, possibly related to the incident, was also found in the sea bed.
The Finnish researcher is concerned about Russia's involvement
In the statements of the Finnish and Estonian authorities, there are no direct accusations of Russian involvement in the damage, however, suspicions remain. Charlie Salonius-Pasternak, a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview with LTV that Russia's motive for such action could be to test the reaction of new NATO member state Finland and its allies.
According to him, suspicions about Russia's involvement are not unfounded:
"If we look at which countries in the region have the ability to carry out such actions, which may have a desire to affect the energy and communications infrastructure, and which we know have trained to do so, the list is short – it's Russia."
NATO's response was discussed by the alliance's defense ministers during a meeting a week ago. Latvian Defense Minister Andris Sprūds (Progressives) said that one of the lines of action is to increase the military presence for the protection of infrastructure. On October 19, NATO announced that it will increase patrols in the Baltic Sea.
Latvian sea cables intact; they are not easily damaged
Both the Chinese ship "NewNew Polar bear" and the Russian "Sevmorput" also crossed Latvia's connections with Sweden on October 7, one of which partly belongs to the Tet telecom company and the other to the Latvian State Radio and Television Center. No damage to the cables was found.
Tet chief technology director Dmitry Nikitins said that the sea cables are well protected. It is not easy to damage them:
"Iron wires are along the entire length of the cable, often it is held in concrete casings. Therefore, it is quite difficult to accidentally damage this cable. [...] All sea cables are publicly available on nautical charts so ships can see where they are and not drop anchor there. Of course, as a result of negligence, if a ship drops anchor and drags a cable, it is possible to do that, yes".
The representative of Tet also pointed out that even if Latvia's connections at sea were damaged, it would not have a big impact, as the data flow can be ensured by other routes.
Also, the damage to the "Balticconnector" gas pipeline should not significantly affect the heating season in the Baltics. Even if the repair will take longer than the currently forecasted five months, storage will still be able to be filled with gas from Lithuania. However, the Finns will not be able to get gas from Inčukalns this winter.
The State Security Service (VDD) stated in a written response to De Facto that after the "Balticconnector" was damaged, the service reminded the maintainers of Latvia's critical infrastructure about various security measures. VDD states that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, increased attention has been paid to the protection of infrastructure, including stricter inspections of employees.
Since the invasion in February 2022, the VDD has conducted checks on nearly 8,000 employees of critical infrastructure companies to assess whether they can be trusted with confidential information about infrastructure facilities. The VDD's opinion was negative on 115 of them. VDD states that among the reasons for negative opinions was the expression of support by these individuals for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.