‘Naked Fear’: A Pipeline Attack Fans Anxiety in a German Village, and Beyond

LUBMIN, Germany — When Heidi Moritz stands at her window and gazes over the gray expanse of the Baltic Sea stretching to the horizon, she cannot make out the giant swirling pool of methane bubbling from leaks in two sabotaged gas pipelines from Russia far offshore.

But she knows it is there.

“It is terrifying,” said Ms. Moritz, 74, a hotel owner in the tiny village of Lubmin on Germany’s northern coast, whose fate has been closely linked to that of the pipelines, both of which land here. “This has brought the war to our doorstep. Where will it all end?”

Seven months into Russia’s war on Ukraine, the undersea explosions that damaged what was once the main source of Russian gas for Germany and much of Europe have raised the level of anxiety and fear among already jittery Europeans.

As the home of the two gas pipelines arriving directly from Russia, Lubmin was once a symbol of energy security. Nord Stream 1 used to carry almost 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year to keep Europe’s biggest economy humming. And Nord Stream 2 was built to increase that flow.

Since then, the pipelines have come to embody Europe’s dependence on Russian gas — and the continent’s frenzied and painful effort to wean itself off it.

It was always going to be a tense winter, with worries about energy supplies and prices testing the social peace on a continent barely recovered from the economic hardship associated with the coronavirus pandemic. European leaders have been scrambling for months to fill their gas storage facilities, and some are now announcing price caps to protect people and businesses from surging energy costs.

But the recent attack off the coast of Western Europe added yet another diffuse threat to a growing array of worries, from power blackouts all the way to nuclear war. It has not yet been established that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who this past week issued a thinly veiled threat to resort to nuclear weapons if pushed too far, is behind the pipeline sabotage. Yet, the attack was a reminder of the unpredictability of a war that has been fought on multiple fronts and, in the perception of many Germans at least, is creeping closer.

“The war has come closer and people are feeling very vulnerable,” said Matthias Quent, a professor of sociology at Magdeburg University of Applied Sciences and an expert on the far right. “It’s the first time that this kind of attack on a pipeline has happened here. We’ve seen such attacks in the Middle East but never in Europe.”

The big question, officials and analysts say, is whether public support in Europe for Ukraine and for Western sanctions on Russia, so far remarkably steadfast and united, risks splintering.

“The greater the fears, the more cracks are appearing,” Mr. Quent said. “Already there is a narrative taking hold in parts of society that we are sacrificing our prosperity for this war. People blame the high energy prices on the sanctions. Even the solidarity with Ukrainian refugees is looking less solid.”

In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat who on Thursday announced a $200 billion program to cap gas and electricity prices, has acknowledged that tension.

“When we decided on our sanctions regimes, we were always following the idea that they should hurt Russia and give them the idea not to continue with what they are doing,” Mr. Scholz said in an interview last week. “But we will not decide on sanctions that are hurting our countries more than others.”

Other leaders, anxious after the recent election victory of a hard-right candidate in Italy and gains by a neo-Nazi party in Sweden, were more explicit.

“If this war doesn’t end, we will face really hard times in Europe for the next years,” Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria, a conservative, said in an interview. “Our democracies will be suffering.”

Some polls are beginning to capture a shift in attitudes. In Germany, after Mr. Putin’s announcement of a mobilization and talk about nuclear weapons, the war jumped in importance on people’s lists of concerns after declining in recent months. While three in four Germans say their government should continue to support Ukraine despite rising energy prices, only one in four Germans believe the Ukrainians can push back the Russian army even farther. Only four in 10 believe the Ukrainian army can achieve a major military success.

Protests against rising energy prices — but also against sanctions on Russia that many see as causing the current economic hardship — have been growing in number and size in different corners of Europe.

Tens of thousands gathered this past week in Prague, the Czech capital, for the second such march in a month, and thousands more took to the streets in two dozen cities in the former Communist East of Germany. One in three people from that part of Germany want to drop all sanctions against Russia, according to a poll taken last month, twice as many as in the more populous former western region.

In the village of Lubmin, whose population is only 2,000, some 4,000 protesters gathered last Sunday with banners demanding “end sanctions” and “re-open” the recently finished Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Germany blocked from going into service after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. It was damaged in this past week’s attacks, as was Nord Stream 1.

Tensions briefly rose when a couple of Ukrainian refugees raised a banner calling Russia “a terror state.” There are few refugees in the area, but hushed comments about their “expensive mobile phones” and “branded clothes — much better than ours” can be heard in supermarket lines and on buses these days.

Ms. Moritz, who with her daughter runs the only seaside hotel in the village, did not attend the march but said she sympathized with the protesters. Like most here, she wants Russian gas to resume flowing for now and opposes arms deliveries to Ukraine, saying they only prolong the war.

“They say they’re defending our freedom in Ukraine,” she said. “Who believes that? This is not our war. We are just a pawn in this.”

Before Russia attacked Ukraine, Ms. Moritz was planning to expand her hotel. Now she might have to shut it down. She wells up when she talks about that.

Surging heating costs could make it prohibitive to rent rooms in the winter, she said. Her supplier of carbonated drinks fears insolvency because of the higher gas prices. Bakeries in surrounding villages all worry that they might not survive the winter.

“It’s like we’re heading into a really dark time and people won’t just stay quiet,” said a taxi driver from a nearby town who goes by the name Sunny and said she paid about 200 euros every time she filled up the gas tank. “There could be unrest, maybe even a revolution.”

Marco Hanke, who runs a small family heating and plumbing business in Lubmin, has seen orders for heat pumps surge as people worry about gas shortages. But he cannot meet the demand because he cannot buy enough units from suppliers.

Like others here, he blames the sanctions directed at Russia.

“We get the sense that those imposing the sanctions have been harder hit than those who the sanctions are directed at,” he said. Ironically, Mr. Hanke said the recent leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines “made the situation more acute.” Like many here, he had hoped that a diplomatic resolution to the conflict would eventually lead to a renewed flow of Russian gas.

With that possibility receding, and as they themselves have become targets in an amorphous war, the people of Lubmin have emerged as a symbol of Europe’s vulnerability.

“Talk to anyone around here,” Ms. Moritz said. “What we feel is naked fear.”

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.

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