The Nord Stream sabotage: conspiracy theories, suspicions and silence

German, Danish and Swedish investigations into the Baltic Sea pipeline explosions remain shrouded in secrecy

Nord Stream gas pipeline
Natural gas bubbles up from the ruptured Nord Stream pipeline near the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea; September 27, 2022.AFP
Elena G. Sevillano

On September 26, 2022, a series of explosions ruptured the Nord Stream gas pipelines between Russia and Germany, and natural gas began bubbling to the surface of the Baltic Sea. Someone had blown up a critical energy source amid Russia’s war on Ukraine, ratcheting up global tensions another few notches. Most experts think it was state-sponsored sabotage of the likes not seen since World War II. Five months later, no one knows for sure who was responsible.

The countries that initiated investigations – Germany, Denmark and Sweden – have maintained a hermetic silence about their progress and will only say that they are ongoing and in the hands of independent agencies. Any conclusions will be made public, they say. But in the absence of concrete information, conspiracy theories abound.

Many believe Russia is behind it, but no one has ventured to formally accuse Moscow. The Kremlin has denied responsibility and pointed its finger at the West, initially blaming the British Navy. However, after the well-known American journalist Seymour Hersh published a theory based on anonymous sources, Russia said the United States sabotaged the pipeline with Norway’s help. Others say on social media that Ukraine and the US were involved because they stood to gain the most. Ian Bremmer, who founded and heads the Eurasia Group, a political risk research organization, subscribes to this theory.

What do we know for sure? Swedish investigators found traces of explosives on several objects recovered from the bottom of the Baltic Sea, which led them to conclusively state it was “gross sabotage.” But Swedish prosecutor Mats Ljungqvist said their investigation is “complex and extensive.”

The German investigation is being led by the federal prosecutor and the Federal Criminal Police, which handles espionage and terrorism cases. Julian Pawlak, an analyst at the German Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies (GIDS), says that “they usually don’t have to conduct investigations at sea” and are relying on Navy resources for the arduous process of collecting evidence located 230 feet (70 meters) underwater. “Every day is a different situation because of the currents and conditions down there,” he adds.

Another reason for the investigations’ secrecy is the intelligence-collecting methods and data being used. Western countries do not want to reveal clues about the technology they use to monitor the Baltic Sea or the sensors and other military equipment they have deployed in a sensitive European security area. This is why a joint inquiry was immediately ruled out, and independent investigations are underway. With war raging in Europe, some information cannot be shared – not even with allies.

In a lesson learned from the downing of the MH-17 plane over eastern Ukraine, no government will make accusations unless it has solid evidence that leaves no room for doubt. Moreover, when the proof is made public, it should come with specific consequences. Security expert Niklas Rossbach of the Swedish Defense Research Agency said on German public television: “The West does not want to appear weak by naming a culprit and then lack the means for punishment.”

But silence and secrecy breed speculation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov immediately used Hersh’s article to spread the narrative that the West is deliberately concealing evidence to cover up for the actual perpetrator. This was also Lavrov’s position before it was proven that the MH-17 airliner was shot down by Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists with a Russian-provided missile.

Hersh alleges that US divers planted the explosives in June 2022 during NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea, and the Norwegian Navy detonated them three months later. But Hersh didn’t provide any evidence, and both the US and Norway called his report “utterly false and complete fiction.” Hersh only mentions one anonymous source for the allegations, which experts are knocking down one by one. Hersh wrote that specific types of explosives and ships were used in the operation, but experts question the claims about the explosives and say the ships were not in the area at the time of the sabotage. “The article includes so many inconsistencies and unproven claims that, in my opinion, it has already received too much attention,” says Pawlak.

European and NATO sources and other analysts concur that the Nord Stream pipeline destruction is a good example of hybrid warfare – an attack on physical infrastructure aimed at destabilization and causing chaos. No one will ever claim responsibility for the attack because the mystery will continue to generate confusion and never-ending theories. Without solid evidence, it will be difficult to pinpoint a culprit. When asked about it on television, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz only said: “We can suspect who blew up the pipeline but should not indulge in speculation even though we all are thinking alike.”

High alert status and a Russian spy ship

The Nord Stream pipeline sabotage put the Baltic countries and NATO on high alert as they rushed to shore up defenses around critical infrastructure. The explosions fueled concern that Russia could attack other gas pipelines like the one in Norway or submarine telecommunications cables. In late February, the Dutch intelligence agency detected a Russian spy ship that had been trying to map the country’s energy infrastructure in the North Sea for months. Dutch authorities say the ship is on a mission to conduct “sabotage operations.”

Norway issued a similar warning last week in its annual security assessment. While noting that it is “unlikely” Norwegian assets will be sabotaged this year, it is possible if Moscow decides to escalate the conflict in Ukraine. “The oil sector is a particularly vulnerable target,” said the report.

The Nord Stream gas pipelines have been a source of intense geopolitical tension since long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moscow’s decision to weaponize hydrocarbon supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions led to the disruption of gas to dependent countries such as Germany.

Gas ceased flowing through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline at the end of August 2022. Nord Stream 2 never started operations because Germany suspended its certification three days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, in response to Putin’s recognition of the independence of pro-Russian separatist areas.

Three of the four Nord Stream pipelines (each pipeline has two lines) are damaged, and one of the Nord Stream 2 lines is theoretically still operational. Gazprom, the Russian state energy company, suggested to Germany last October that it could send gas through the remaining pipeline if necessary.

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