Almost seven months have passed since powerful blasts ruptured three of the four Nord Stream pipelines on 26 September, rendering them not only inoperable but probably beyond repair. Over the following two days, Sweden and Denmark opened separate investigations of the incidents, which occurred in their respective economic zones, albeit in international waters. By 18 November, the Swedish Security Service had acquired enough evidence to conclude that the explosions constituted an act of ‘gross sabotage’.
Yet as of 10 April, no criminal has been linked to the crime by any Western government. The explosions, deliberately or coincidentally carried out one day before the opening of the Norway-Poland Baltic Pipe, are the latest in a series of incidents targeting European energy and communications infrastructure, some directly and others plausibly linked to Russia. Yet almost immediately, prima facie suspicions of Russian culpability have been countered by other hypotheses. Although he swiftly removed his post, the immediate response of Poland’s former foreign minister, Radoslav Sikorski, was ‘thank you, USA!’ Having initially suspected Russia, the respected Russia expert, Fiona Hill, gradually revised her opinion and by February 2023 had concluded that Ukraine’s involvement ‘isn’t implausible’.
But others have caused a far greater stir. On 8 February, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Seymour Hersh published an elaborately detailed article laying blame for the affair on the United States and Norway. Even a relatively credulous reader might wonder how the lone anonymous source invoked by Hersh could have had knowledge of the military, technical and decision-making minutiae required to assemble such a story — or possibly legend, though a hostile intelligence service might have had less difficulty doing so. Then on 7 March, the New York Times stated that ‘[n]ew intelligence reviewed by US officials suggests that a pro-Ukrainian group carried out the attack’. The following day, Die Zeit and two other German news outlets cited Western ‘intelligence tips’ that the attack was carried out by two divers from the 15-metre-long sailing yacht, Andromeda, owned by Ukrainians and rented from a Polish company.
Where is the fox, and where are the weasels in this hunt? The Federal German Minister of Defence, Boris Pistorius, was quick to warn that the Andromeda story had the makings of a ‘false flag’ operation; nevertheless, he did not name the flag’s owner. Arguably to their credit, the Swedish and Danish security police and intelligence services have not assumed that the identity of the culprit is obvious. In contrast, the Russian Federation (whose request to join the Swedish and Danish investigations was promptly rebuffed) maintains that three matters are crystal clear. First, ‘[s]uch an explosion, so powerful and at such depth, could only be conducted by experts backed by the entire potential of a state that has relevant technologies’; second, ‘Russia would not attack its own pipeline’ any more than it would ‘chop off its own leg’;; third, ‘the military of the United States of America and its Norwegian accomplices committed a criminal attack on three branches of the “Nord Stream-1 ” and “Nord Stream-2’. In reinforcement of this claim, Russia’s Permanent UN Representative, Valeriy Nebenzya, on 18 February forwarded Hersh’s article to the UN Secretary General along with the demand that the UN conduct an official investigation, thereby making Hersh’s analysis synonymous with Russia’s own.
For its part, the European Commission is having none of it. Previewing an updated EU maritime strategy on 10 March, Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, stated, ‘[a]fter what happened with Nord Stream, [we need] increased monitoring and protecting [of] critical maritime infrastructure and ships from physical and cyber threats’. He left little doubt of the connection perceived between the Nord Stream explosions and the vulnerability of other components of European energy and communications infrastructure.
The obvious questions that arise in any criminal investigation are: who has the means? who has the motive? The answers to the first question are easier to obtain than the second.
No Job for Amateurs
The technical characteristics of Nord Stream are a matter of record. Each pipe was surrounded by a wall of 41-mm diameter steel, in turn encased in a 110-mm weight coating (doubling the weight of the pipes) and then, to further fix them on the 80m seabed, a thick covering of stones. As to the damage caused by the explosions, the operator of both pipeline systems, Nord Stream AG, had this to say:
technogenic craters with a depth of 3 to 5 meters were found on the seabed at a distance of about 248 m from each other. The section of the pipe between the craters is destroyed, the radius of pipe fragments dispersion is at least 250 m.
Such effects could only have been created by an explosion of enormous force. Mykhailo Gonchar, for thirty years Ukraine’s foremost expert on Russian energy policy and Eurasian pipeline networks, has explained that performing such work would require:
a vessel with an on-board crane for cargo, with a specially trained crew, equipped with at least a remote-controlled device with a manipulator for carrying out underwater technical work…in order to carry out the relevant preparatory work….In addition, it is impossible to perform a set of preparatory works in one descent to the bottom in just one hour, and even more in three places.
Other experts too (no less than the Russians) have characterised the Andromeda story as implausible or preposterous. But by so firmly insisting that the operation could only have been conducted by a highly capable state, the Russians have put themselves in a corner. There are not many such states, and whilst a case might be made that the ‘US satellite’ Poland is sufficiently capable and sufficiently nearby to have done the deed, Moscow has chosen not to do so. Instead, it has endorsed Hersh’s version without qualification and, for good measure, it has echoed his charge that the US used the 2022 NATO BALTOPS exercise as cover for its preparations.
By making these claims, Moscow has given itself more to explain than might otherwise be the case. Before construction of Nord Stream 1 began, Putin stated (26 October 2006):
‘We are going to involve and use the opportunities afforded by the navy to resolve environmental, economic and technical problems, because since the Second World War no one knows better than seamen how to operate on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Nobody has similar means to control and check the bottom, nobody can better accomplish the task of environmental security. All of this incorporates a few new yet absolutely crucial directions for the navy’s activities and, of course, in this case in the Baltic Sea’.
Where, then, was the Baltic Fleet between 5-17 June when BALTOPS was taking place? Given Russia’s prima facie interest in the security of the pipelines and its unrivalled knowledge of their placement and characteristics, why did it take Moscow eight months to discover that US Navy divers had rigged them for destruction? Had the Russians known these things before, then surely they would have blown the whistle. Why didn’t they?
In evaluating Hersh’s assessment, Gonchar concludes that ‘he clearly overdid it’. So, apparently, has Moscow.
A Motiveless Crime?
But let us ignore all of these factors and examine the question of motive from a clean slate. Poland and Ukraine were deeply hostile to the projects, and from the time the initial deal was signed in 2005, their opposition had been strongly and repeatedly expressed. Neither of them gave any credence to the German mantra that these were ‘purely commercial projects’. Gazprom’s desire to remove ‘unreliable transit countries’ from the energy architecture of Europe was not a secret. Therefore, Germany’s failure to consult with Poland before concluding the Nord Stream 1 agreement caused much bitterness, leading then Defence Minister Sikorski to compare it to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
For Ukrainians, a relationship between the Nord Stream projects, the two gas crises of 2006-7 and 2008-9 and the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 was axiomatic. In 2014, Gazprom declared its intention to remove Ukraine as a transit state by 2018. But its efforts to do so began well before, and they were personally supervised by Alexei Miller, CEO of Gazprom and Alexei Gromov, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration. Igor Volobuyev, former Head of Gazprom public relations, detailed his own role in this infowar once he left Russia:
convincing Europe that the Ukrainian system is faulty, that the pipes are rotten, and that rebuilding the system is too expensive and easier to abandon. I developed theses that Ukraine has no money, Ukraine is stealing from us, better to bypass it….We managed to make Ukraine discredited in the eyes of the world as a reliable supplier. As a result, a decision was made to build gas pipelines bypassing Ukraine: Nord Stream, Turkish Stream, Nord Stream 2. Ukraine was deprived of the status of a transit country.
Nevertheless, a wish to see the pipelines destroyed and a decision to destroy them oneself are different things. By September 2022, Poland had acquired a key place in NATO’s system of collective deterrence and defence. Knowing full well what the implications would be if Ukraine were invaded and crushed, it attached at least as much importance to Alliance cohesion as everybody else. For its part, Ukraine was a supplicant, neither a member of NATO nor the EU and critically dependent upon the support of both.
US motives must be analysed with equal care. Before taking office in January 2021, Joseph Biden’s opposition to Nord Stream 2 had been no less categorical than that of Donald Trump. Yet on 19 May, the administration waived sanctions against Nord Stream AG on grounds of ‘national interests’. This is not because Biden ‘blinked’, as Hersh contends, but because in the wake of Russia’s deployments on Ukraine’s borders and in advance of a summit with Putin, opposing Nord Stream was deemed less important than repairing the Transatlantic divide that Trump’s policies had created. Yet as the drumbeat of war grew louder, Biden reversed course again and demanded a halt to Nord Stream 2. Hersh makes much of Biden’s statement at his 7 February 2022 press conference with Olaf Scholz ‘[i]f Russia invades, then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it’. Yet he does not record Scholz’s response: ‘we will act together jointly’. By mid-February, the pipe was filled with gas, and the project was ready to go. Yet on the 22nd, Germany terminated it.
With that decision, it removed the motive for destroying the pipelines. That is the key reason why Hersh has no case. Destroying the pipelines would have been an act of war (as Hersh acknowledges). The United States might have had the means, but it no longer had cause. Why destroy the pipelines after the battle had been won and there were far more important things to do? Hersh has not answered that question, and neither has anyone else.
The Geopolitics of Self-Harm
In late February 2023, the state prosecutor placed in charge of Sweden’s investigation, Mats Ljungqvist, stated: ‘Do I think it was Russia that blew up Nord Stream? I never thought so. It’s not logical’. Perhaps that is not the most propitious way to begin an intelligence investigation. But it is consistent with a widely held perception that Gazprom is a commercial company pursuing commercial objectives.
In May 2018, the investment research division of Russia’s Sberbank presented a different view:
Gazprom’s decisions make perfect sense if the company is assumed to be run for the benefit of its contractors, not for commercial profit. The Power of Siberia, Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream are all deeply value-destructive projects that will eat up almost half of Gazprom’s investments over the next five years. They are commonly perceived as being foisted on the company by the government pursuing a geopolitical agenda.
Long before Russia embarked upon what Dmitry Trenin calls a ‘total war (albeit hybrid)’ with the West, ‘commerce’ in Russia’s energy sector has routinely bowed to non-market and even anti-market considerations. In 1999-2000, Russia artificially prolonged a gas siphoning dispute with Ukraine until President Kuchma made political concessions unrelated to it. Its interruption of oil to Estonia during the 2007 bronze soldier crisis, albeit brief, halted 25 percent of its oil product exports to Europe. Not only did Gazprom lose $1 bn when it cut Europe’s gas supply during its dispute with Ukraine in January 2009, it damaged the economies of downstream consumers who in no way were party to it. In an episode eerily foreshadowing the Nord Stream explosions, Georgia accused Russia of carrying out two explosions on the Mozdok-Tbilisi gas pipeline in January 2006 in parallel with sabotage on adjacent electricity pipelines that plunged the country into darkness. A 2007 Swedish study concluded that of 55 major energy ‘incidents’ involving Russia since 1991, 36 had political or partially political underpinnings.
But if this record makes Russia’s destruction of understandable, it doesn’t answer the question posed by the Swedish prosecutor. What is the logic?
One part of the logic, paradoxically, is money. On 2 September Gazprom announced that it would close Nord Stream 1 ‘indefinitely’, pending the resolution of ‘maintenance’ issues caused by sanctions. As noted by Deutsche Welle, ‘Russia has also cut off supply to Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Poland completely, and reduced flows via other pipelines in response to sanctions’. Yet a less forgiving Europe is now responding not by censuring itself, but with law suits and fines, which might amount to $35 bn. Three weeks after Nord Stream 1’s closure, the pipelines were destroyed. No pipeline, no liability.
Yet money is the least significant factor. Germany’s halting of Nord Stream 2 marked the end of Russia’s long bid for energy dominance in Europe. Therefore, it will make Europe pay: with money, distress and political turmoil. Dmitry Trenin’s May 2022 article should be read by anyone who doubts how fundamentally the war has changed matters.
the possibility of compromise — first and foremost between the USA and Russia — on the basis of a balance of interests is in practical terms absent’. [These circumstances] completely annul [Russia’s] previous strategy towards the USA and Europe’.
It is in this context that we can understand the role of Norway, perhaps the most interesting dangle in Seymour Hersh’s article. Following the withdrawal of Gazprom, ‘US satellite’ and NATO Ally Norway will be the EU’s most significant gas supplier. Why then should Russia not seek to discredit it, subject its pipelines, communications networks and off-shore platforms to harassment, and, to reinforce the point, time the destruction of the Nord Stream pipes with the opening of its Baltic Pipe? The motive? To warn Norway and its allies. Let us dare to put words in the Kremlin’s mouth: ‘You have rejected the firmest form of security open to you: cooperation with Russia. Instead, you have brought NATO and its in-law, the EU, to our borders, you have turned Ukraine into an ‘anti-Russia’, you have rejected our peace proposals, and now you have rejected our gas. So instead of security, you will have war (‘so far hybrid’). Escalate this war, try our patience further, and it no longer will be hybrid’.
The logic behind the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines is the logic of war.
A Final Word
When it comes to ‘understanding Russia’, intelligence services, even Swedish and Danish and German ones, are not always the world’s experts. Good intelligence can reveal but it will not necessarily explain. Nevertheless, when it comes to hard material fact — which ship was where, what it was up to, what was heard and what was silenced — the historian and the savant must defer to these professionals. Hard, open source evidence linking Russia to these explosions is available to anyone dedicated enough to unearth and pursue it — Mykhailo Gonchar being one, the Danish OSINT analyst, Oliver Alexander being another. Much of this information, not all, is consistent, much of it is persuasive as well. But what is persuasive is not necessarily conclusive. The official investigation might not be conclusive either. At least, let us hope that its unvarnished conclusions are made public and not ‘spun’ by political authority, as so often has happened in the past.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.
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https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/deutschland/aussenpolitik/id_100140696/sabotage-an-nord-stream-zweifel-an-tauchoperation.html Mykhailo Gonchar, op cit., 13 March 2023, Jonas Mueller-Töwe, Oliver Alexander, Carsten Janz and Lars Winkelsdorf, op cit., 26 March 2023.
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 Full statement: You can be sure that there won’t be any measures in which we have a differing approach. We will act together jointly… We will be united, we will act together, and we will take all the necessary steps. And all the necessary steps will be done by all of us together’.
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