Russian operator blames ‘external action’ for fire at Baltic gas terminal

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Operations have been suspended at a major gas terminal outside St Petersburg after a large fire broke out, which the Russian operator said had been caused by “external action”.

Novatek, Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer, said it had halted operations at the Ust-Luga terminal on the Baltic Sea following the incident, with local officials reporting “explosions” at the plant.

Ukraine has hinted at responsibility for a number of strikes against Russian infrastructure, weapons production plants and other targets, but rarely claims the attacks outright. Recent incidents have taken place deep inside Russia and far from the frontline in Ukraine, suggesting that Kyiv has been able to extend its reach to counter its invader.

The Ust-Luga incident follows a recent drone attack on an oil terminal in St Petersburg and another at a gunpowder manufacturer and oil depot in the Bryansk region, which borders eastern Ukraine.

Sources with knowledge of those attacks said they were conducted by Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, the GUR, using domestically produced unmanned aerial vehicles. The two St Petersburg incidents mark the first to hit Russia’s second-largest city since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago.

Ust-Luga is a key node in Russia’s energy export system, and includes a gas processing plant and a major port for shipping petroleum products abroad. Novatek processed 7mn tonnes of stable gas condensate into fuel at the complex last year.

Map showing location of Ust-Luga in western Russia

“Tonight there was a fire at production facilities at the Novatek-Ust-Luga production complex. According to preliminary information, the fire was the result of an external action,” the Russian state Ria news agency cited Novatek as saying, adding that a 100 cubic metre cistern was on fire but that the blaze had been “localised”.

A video shared on social media in the early hours of Sunday showed workers running from a tower of flame. Local officials cited by Ria said two explosions had hit the plant.

“A drone is flying over the base!” a man can be heard saying in a video shared by the Baza Telegram channel, which is considered to have ties to Russian security services. A drone is visible in the night sky. In another Baza video, a huge explosion can be seen, with the sky turning orange over the site.

The explosion is unlikely to significantly affect Russia’s energy exports, as petroleum products make up only a relatively small part of them. The fire could have more serious consequences for Novatek, as Ust-Luga production represents about 40 per cent of all its sales, both domestic and external, according to Novatek’s data for 2022.

However, the complex does not produce LNG, whose importance for Russia has increased considerably since the loss of the European gas markets.

Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, GUR’s chief military spymaster, told the Financial Times in an interview this week that his department would continue to attack Russia, as well as running its covert operations with commandos behind enemy lines.

The Leningrad region governor said there were no casualties as a result of the Ust-Luga fire and all workers had been evacuated.

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