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Danish election: Pipeline explosion reminds islanders of cold war fears

As the Ukraine war unfolds, inhabitants of Bornholm island seek a signal from Copenhagen and Nato that they won’t be forgotten — unlike in 1945

On the Danish island of Bornholm, the Russians are coming.

For now it’s just a sign in urgent red type — “Russene Kommer!” — for a museum exhibition.

But for many older islanders here, their Baltic Sea home feels once more as vulnerable as May 1945.

A month ago, three of the four explosions that ripped through the undersea Nord Stream gas pipelines took place just off the coast of Bornholm, beyond Danish national waters but in its exclusive economic zone.

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Days later, as surges of methane gas continued bubbling to the surface and Russia and western countries traded recriminations, Bornholm was plunged into darkness as its only power cable to the mainland failed.

The power outage was a technical glitch, a regular occurrence, but the timing rattled many on an island, about half the size of Kildare, that is home to nearly 40,000 people. Long before Halloween, old ghosts are walking again on Bornholm.

“When Nord Stream 1 and 2 blew up it all came back, all the memories of the cold war, and no one wants to go back there,” says Peter Juel-Jensen, MP for the liberal-conservative Venstre party since 2007 and seeking re-election in Denmark’s snap election next Tuesday.

Born on Bornholm in 1966, he remembers when the island — balanced in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Poland on a cold war fault line — hosted huge numbers of soldiers, marines and intelligence officers.

As Denmark’s popular “sunshine island” holiday destination, Bornholm has enjoyed a three-decade, post-cold-war “peace dividend”. But now Juel-Jensen is not alone in demanding that a post-election review revive the military presence on the island.

Wariness of the Russians is not new on Bornholm. While the rest of Europe celebrated the end of the war in May 1945, the Red Army took the island by force from the Nazis. An exhibition in the capital, Rønne, shows shocking footage of the aerial bombings and its aftermath: locals hiding in the woods, hundreds of homes in two cities reduced to matchsticks, and the delayed final departure of Red Army troops in April 1946.

On the way out of the museum, a framed cartoon from 2017 has gained a new significance of late: a bear about to devour Bornholm with Vladimir Putin on its back, shouting: “Piece of cake.”

As the war in Ukraine drags on, Bornholmers are anxious for a signal — from Copenhagen and Nato — that, unlike 1945, they won’t be forgotten again.

For Juel-Jensen, a former military officer, the Russian invasion of Ukraine means all deals are off with Moscow, including a 1946 understanding that only Danish troops could ever be stationed on Bornholm.

“That agreement was with the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist any more,” he says with a faint smile. “Bornholm is vulnerable … and we can invite everyone we want to help us. We [Denmark] are an independent country.”

Ask around on Bornholm and everyone has theories — but no proof — of who blew up the pipelines. The key question they ask is cui bono — who benefits?

Putin v US

Most see the fingerprints of Putin, increasingly unhinged by defeats in Ukraine; a few point to the United States and talk darkly of its supposed push for “full-spectrum dominance”.

The disastrous methane release was equivalent to a third of Denmark’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, but regular tests of air and water show no other side effects. The pipeline’s route through shallow Baltic waters meant the explosions were too far away to dislodge old wartime munition in deeper sea dumps. Still, Danish security services remain tight-lipped about their investigations and the three explosion sites remain off-limits.

Amateur sleuths on Bornholm now have a new favourite website, Marine Traffic, allowing them follow busy ship traffic in offices and cafes.

Many here hope the imminent accession of Sweden and Finland to Nato will turn the Baltic into a “sea of peace”. Others are hopeful of the prospects offered by a new Norway-Poland pipeline, running via Denmark, and a Danish North Sea gasfield about to be reactivated.

“If Putin’s war aims were to scare away energy customers and close the Baltic to his ships in Kaliningrad and St Petersburg — then his war has been a huge success,” joked Caspar, an islander of 40 years, in Rønne’s buzzing Cafe Gustav.

Even a month on, Bornholm’s mayor, Jacob Trøst, still can’t quite believe why, for a moment, the world’s eyes were on his island. Ask about the largest unwanted natural gas delivery in human history and, with unintentionally dry humour, he adds: “The thing is, we don’t even use gas on Bornholm.”

“I was in the police for 26 years and used to say there that reality is much more crazy than the imagination. But this…” he says.

Like the rest of Denmark, Trøst says Bornholm voters are more preoccupied with the indirect costs of Russia’s war — exploding energy costs — as well as climate, healthcare and pensions.

After months quietly inspecting old bunkers and other dusty cold war inventory, the mayor predicts complicated post-election talks here. How much additional security infrastructure on Bornholm is wise, and how much could be seen by Moscow as a provocation?

“This has reminded us how vulnerable we are on Bornholm,” he says. “To have to think of having to spend more money on defence is just depressing, but it is necessary.”

Sitting in Cafe Gustav is Martin Kelleher-Petersen, a first-time parliamentary election candidate for the Green “Alternativet” list. The Danish man met his Dublin wife, Siobhán, 10 years ago at the Roskilde festival and only last month decided to run in the election. Like his party, he hopes that the current uncertainty — on Bornholm and across Europe — brings a chance of a radical climate shift.

“The energy crisis we have is all down to dependency on fossil fuels, on pipes turned off or blown up,” says the 37-year-old heating technician. Like many on Bornholm, he insists the nearby pipeline explosions have not made him nervous. What’s the point of worrying?

“I live on the edge of a forest, right between an ammunition depository and a communications mast, listening to Russia, so strategically I am in a bad position if something drops on us,” he says. Then, with a perfect mix of Bornholm-Irish fatalism, he rolls his eyes and exclaims, “Ah sure look…”