In September 2022, the Nord Stream gas pipelines exploded in one of the most spectacular political and environmental acts of terrorism in history.
In the days immediately following the attack, which cut Germany and Europe off from its gas supply and released enormous amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere, the West immediately pronounced judgement against Russia. "No one on the European side of the ocean is thinking this is anything other than Russian sabotage," said a senior European environmental official. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm immediately said that it "seems" Russia is to blame.
But investigations by Sweden, Denmark and Germany, countries close to the explosion site, were slow to report and unable to arrive at conclusions. Then, on December 21, 2022, The Washington Post reported that, after months of investigation, there is nothing to suggest that Russia was responsible. The Post article interviewed "23 diplomatic and intelligence officials in nine countries" who said that "[t]here is no evidence at this point that Russia was behind the sabotage." It reports that "even those with inside knowledge of the forensic details don’t conclusively tie Russia to the attack." The Wall Street Journal reports that there is a "growing sense among investigators in the U.S. and Europe that neither Russian-government nor pro-Russian operatives were behind the sabotage."
But if Russia didn’t do it, then one of us did.
On February 8, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a detailed account of the "act of war" that concluded that it was carried out by the US.
A month later, The New York Times has now published a story that assigns responsibility to "a pro-Ukrainian group." The story is so thin and vague in its detail, its sourcing and its reporting that it seems surprising that it met the paper’s criteria for publication. The only thing the article seems to have done well is to divert the blame that Hersh concluded away from the US.
The Times did not refute Hersh’s reporting. In mentioning his article for the first time, The Times said only that "In making his case, Mr. Hersh cited the president’s pre-invasion threat to "bring an end" to Nord Stream 2, and similar statements by other senior US officials." But to represent Hersh’s reporting as relying only on public statements by US officials is to diminish the extensive detail provided to Hersh by "a source with direct knowledge of the operational planning."
Hersh has been accused of relying only on that one source. That too is unfair, not only because of Hersh’s long and reliable record of breaking important stories, but because it is misleading. Hersh’s source is the one who told him the story, but others corroborated it. Hersh has been very clear in making this point. To highlight it, Hersh prefaced the clarification in an interview by saying, "I’m telling you something important." He then explained that "The people who own companies that build pipelines know the story. I didn’t get the story from them but I learned quickly they know."
Unlike Hersh’s reporting, there is more in the Times report that is not known than that is known. "US officials," the report says, "said there was much they did not know about the perpetrators and their affiliations." The intelligence "does not specify the members of the group, or who directed or paid for the operation."
But somehow, without knowing much about the perpetrators, their affiliations or who directed or paid for the operation, the one thing the US officials are confident about, as The Times makes clear at the very top of the article, is that there is "no evidence President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine or his top lieutenants were involved in the operation, or that the perpetrators were acting at the direction of any Ukrainian government officials."
But no evidence is not evidence. And further down in the article, the report says that the US officials say "that there are no firm conclusions about it, leaving open the possibility that the operation might have been conducted off the books by a proxy force with connections to the Ukrainian government or its security services." They say, too, that "it is possible that the perpetrators received specialized government training in the past."
US officials told The Times that "there were still enormous gaps in what US spy agencies and their European partners knew about what transpired." It is not even clear how much credibility they give the account of the sabotage: US officials "who have been briefed on the intelligence" told The Times anonymously that they "are divided about how much weight to put on the new information."
Since The New York Times broke the story, a second report has come out. The leak, it turns out, is less of a leak than a press conference.
The same day as The Times report came out, Die Zeit reported that joint research by several German outlets found that "traces lead in the direction of Ukraine." According to the German report, evidence that once unequivocally pointed to a massive operation that had to be carried out by a state actor, now pointed to a small six person operation on a yacht that was "rented from a company based in Poland" but "apparently owned by two Ukrainians."
Like The New York Times report, the German report is characterized by more uncertainty than certainty. "The nationality of the perpetrators is apparently unclear," and the investigation has "not yet found any evidence as to who ordered the destruction." Although "traces lead to Ukraine, the investigators have not yet been able to find out who commissioned the suspected group of perpetrators."
The next day, The Times of London suddenly reported that NATO had intelligence within a week of the explosion that the attack had been carried out "by a private venture originating in Ukraine." Like the US and German reports, the British report says that the "private sponsor" was "a Ukrainian not affiliated with President Zelensky’s government."
Though the media outlets have arrived at this conclusion, German intelligence has not. Die Zeit reports that a German government spokesman told the UN Security Council that investigations by Germany, Sweden and Denmark "are ongoing and that there are still no results."
In its coverage of the story, The Washington Post says that "[t]he reports are far from conclusive." The Wall Street Journal says the US report "isn’t definitive." And not everyone is convinced. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius raised the questions of the possibility of a false flag operation and of differentiating "whether it was a Ukrainian group that acted on the orders of Ukraine or … without the government’s knowledge." "As such," he said, I’m refraining from drawing premature conclusions."
Russia judged the report as "hardly believable." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the operation "was too difficult and was only within the scope of abilities of a well-trained, state-run intelligence service." Former Russian President and current deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia Dmitry Medvedev evaluated the reports as "blatant low-rating B-movie stuff." Medvedev said they were meant to trick Europeans, and Peskov said they were meant to overshadow Hersh’s reporting.
Whether the sabotage was carried out by the US, as Hersh concludes, or Ukraine, as the German and British stories conclude, will be crucial to figure out. But what is crucial for Germany and Europe right now is that they are faced with a choice between two dangerous and consequential realities.
Either their US NATO ally betrayed and sacrificed them by blowing up the gas pipeline and cutting them off from their gas supply to prevent them from funding Russia’s invasion and from falling short of fully committing to the US led sanctions regime, or Ukraine, the country that they are financing and arming at great national cost, did. The former could have significant foreign policy consequences in the future; the latter could have significant consequences for arming Ukraine in the present.
If the "new intelligence" is true, that it insists that sabotage was carried out independently of the government in Kiev may make little difference to Germany, and not only because the intelligence doesn’t know who the perpetrators are or who they are affiliated with. It may also make little difference because Ukraine’s denials may mean little.
If Kiev were involved, US intelligence may not know it, since The New York Times reports that "US officials and intelligence agencies acknowledge that they have limited visibility into Ukrainian decision-making."
But US intelligence has been suspicious of Ukraine’s denials of involvement in other recent acts of sabotage. When a car bomb blew up near Moscow in August 2022, killing Daria Dugina, Ukraine denied any involvement. But The New York Times reported in October that "United States intelligence agencies believe parts of the Ukrainian government authorized the car bomb attack near Moscow in August that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist. . . ." That assessment was shared with the US government who "admonished Ukrainian officials over the assassination."
And on March 2, two villages in the Bryansk region of Russia on the border of Ukraine suffered an attack that killed at least two people. Responsibility was claimed by a far right nationalist group called the Russian Volunteer Corps. Ukraine has denied directly supporting the group and, according to The Times, "has strongly denied knowledge of either attack." But the Corps’ founder, who goes both by the name of Denis Nikitin and Denis Kapustin, insists that the "cross-border raid he’d conducted from Ukraine into Russia had the endorsement of Kyiv." He told The Financial Times that Ukrainian authorities signed off on the attack. "Yes, of course, this action was agreed," he said, "otherwise it couldn’t have happened." He went on to say that "If I did not co-ordinate it with anyone [in Ukraine’s military] . . . I think we would simply be destroyed."
Germany and Europe are confronted with two possible conclusions on who blew up the Nord Stream gas pipelines. Both conclusions are disturbing and dangerous. Either would affect their foreign policy and partnerships, and both could have profound consequences.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.