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10 March 2023

Who destroyed the Nord Stream pipelines?

Three main actors are considered potentially culpable.

By Ido Vock

On 26 September 2022 three powerful undersea explosions destroyed three of four pipes of the Nord Stream I and II pipelines. The pipelines, designed to deliver huge quantities of Russian natural gas to Germany, had been operating below capacity prior to the blasts, with Russia having shut off deliveries via Nord Stream I and Nord Stream II never having entered operation because of the war in Ukraine.

Responsibility for the incident, which is viewed as all but certain to have been deliberate, has been difficult to conclusively attribute. The explosions took place in international waters and evidence is limited. Various observers have blamed Russia, the US or groups supporting Ukraine. Here, we explain the three main actors who are viewed as potentially having the capability and motive to have carried out the attack on the pipelines which were, until they were disabled, central to Europe’s energy supply.

[See also: Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba: “We will not withdraw from Bakhmut”]

Pro-Ukraine groups

The New York Times and German media reported this week that Western intelligence has linked the attacks to groups supporting Ukraine, though not necessarily directly linked to the government in Kyiv. The perpetrators were most likely Ukrainian or Russian, or some combination of the two, according to intelligence officials.

Ukraine is viewed as having the clearest motive for the attacks. It opposed the pipelines for years, arguing that they handed Russia leverage over Europe’s energy supply that Moscow would use to undermine support for Ukraine. Their destruction ensured that Russia could no longer physically deliver a large proportion of the natural gas it used to export to Europe. The continent as a whole, and particularly Germany, had no alternative but to seek alternative suppliers of energy, at a stroke removing a large proportion of Russia’s leverage over the bloc’s economy.

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Russia was already toying with supply through the Nord Stream I pipeline before the explosions. Moscow had cut deliveries to a fraction of normal levels on spurious technical grounds, a move widely interpreted in Europe as putting pressure on Germany to reduce support for Ukraine or risk an energy crisis.

Russia could have blown up the pipelines, believing that they would never be used as Germany made rapid progress sourcing alternative suppliers of energy that would allow it to stop buying Moscow’s gas. Their destruction could have been intended by the Kremlin as a message to European countries that their critical infrastructure, including undersea networks of pipelines and internet cables, is not safe from attack.

[See also: The EU must accelerate its next enlargement]

The US

In February the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a report on Substack, based on an anonymous source, claiming that the US blew up the pipelines. According to Hersh US Navy divers, operating under the cover of Nato exercises in the Baltic Sea and with the assistance of Norway, “planted the remotely triggered explosives that, three months later, destroyed three of the four Nord Stream pipelines”.

Hersh claimed that Joe Biden, the US president, worried that the continued existence of Nord Stream would allow Russia permanent leverage over Europe, authorised an operation to blow up the pipelines. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said at the time of the explosions that they removed Europe’s “dependence on Russian energy and thus [took] away from Vladimir Putin the weaponisation of energy as a means of advancing his imperial designs”. Norway, one of Europe’s most significant producers of oil and gas, co-operated in order to sell more energy to the EU, Hersh wrote.

Hersh’s account has been received with considerable scepticism by some observers. Experts have questioned its reliance on a single source, its description of Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Nato secretary-general, as having “co-operated with the American intelligence community since the Vietnam War” (which ended when Stoltenberg was 16), and its apparently inconsistent technical details.

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