There is no conclusive evidence that Russia is behind the attack on the Nord Stream

Commentary

After explosions in late September severely damaged undersea pipelines built to transport natural gas from Russia to Europe, world leaders were quick to blame Moscow for a brazen and dangerous act of sabotage. With the arrival of winter, it seemed that the Kremlin intended to to choke off the flow of power to millions across the continent, an act of “blackmail,” some leaders said, designed to threaten countries into withdrawing their financial and military support for Ukraine.

But now, after months of investigation, many officials are saying privately that Russia may not be to blame for the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines after all.

“There is no evidence at this point that Russia was behind the sabotage,” said a European official, echoing the assessment of 23 diplomatic and intelligence officials in nine countries interviewed in recent weeks.

Some went so far as to say that they did not believe that Russia was responsible. Others who still see Russia as the main suspect said that positively attributing the attack, to any one country, may be impossible.

In the months after the explosions, which resulted in what was likely one of the largest methane gas releases in history, researchers combed through the debris and analyzed explosive residue recovered from the bed of the Baltic Sea. Seismologists have identified the time of three explosions on September 26, which caused four leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines.

No one doubts that the damage was deliberate. A German government official, who is conducting his own investigation, said explosives were apparently placed outside the structures.

But even those with inside knowledge of the forensic details do not conclusively link Russia to the attack, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to share information on the progress of the investigation, some of which is based on classified intelligence. .

“Forensics in an investigation like this is going to be extremely difficult,” said a senior US State Department official.

The United States routinely intercepts the communications of Russian officials and military forces, a clandestine intelligence effort that helped accurately forecast Moscow’s February invasion of Ukraine. But so far, analysts have not heard or read any statements from the Russian side claiming credit or suggesting they are trying to cover up their involvement, officials said.

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Attributing the attack has been a challenge from the start. The first explosion occurred in the middle of the night southeast of the Danish island of Bornholm. Scientists detected two additional explosions more than 12 hours later northeast of the island.

Given the relatively shallow depth of the damaged pipelines, roughly 80 yards at the site of an explosion, several different actors theoretically could have carried out the attack, possibly with the use of submersible drones or with the help of surface ships, the authorities said. authorities. . The list of suspects is not just limited to countries with manned submarines or deep-sea demolition experience.

The leaks occurred in the exclusive economic zones of Sweden and Denmark. European nations have been trying to map which ships were in the region in the days before the explosions, hoping to select suspects.

“We know that this amount of explosives has to be a state-level player,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said in an interview this month. “It is not a single fisherman who decides to put the bomb there. He is very professional.”

Regardless of the perpetrator, Haavisto said that for Finland, which is not a Nord Stream customer, “the lesson learned is that it shows how vulnerable our power grid, our undersea cables, the internet… are to all kinds of terrorists.”

However, Russia remains a key suspect, in part due to its recent record of bombing civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and its propensity for unconventional warfare. It’s not a huge leap to think that the Kremlin would attack Nord Stream, perhaps to undermine NATO’s resolve and eliminate allies dependent on Russian energy sources, the officials said.

But a handful of officials lamented that so many world leaders pointed the finger at Moscow without considering other countries, as well as extremist groups, that might have the ability and motive to carry out the attack.

“Governments that waited to comment before drawing conclusions did the right thing,” said a European official.

Moscow’s condemnation was swift and widespread. On September 30, four days after the explosions, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told the BBC that she “seems” Russia was to blame. “It is highly unlikely that these incidents are coincidental,” she said.

German Finance Minister Robert Habeck also hinted that Russia, which has always denied responsibility, was responsible for the explosions. “Russia saying ‘It wasn’t us’ is like saying ‘I’m not the thief,'” Habeck told reporters in early October.

An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the ruptures “a planned terrorist attack by Russia and an act of aggression against Russia.” [the European Union].”

“Nobody on the European side of the ocean thinks this is anything other than Russian sabotage,” said a senior European environment official. saying the washington Post in September.

But as the investigation progresses, skeptics point out that Moscow it had little to gain from the damaged pipelines that fed Western Europe’s natural gas from Russia and generated billions of dollars in annual revenue. The Nord Stream projects had stirred controversy and debate for years because they linked Germany and other European countries with Russian energy sources.

“The reason for that was Russia [that attacked the pipelines] it never made sense to me,” said a Western European official.

Nearly a month before the break, Russian energy giant Gazprom halted flows on Nord Stream 1, hours after the Group of Seven industrialized countries announced a forthcoming price cap on Russian oil, a move meant to put a dent in the Kremlin treasury. During Putin’s long term in office, the Kremlin has used energy as an instrument of political and economic influence, using the threat of cuts to intimidate countries into following its goals, officials said. It made no sense for Russia to abandon that influence.

Germany had stopped the final authorization of Nord Stream 2 just days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine. But the pipeline was intact and had already been fully pumped with 300 million cubic meters of natural gas to prepare it for operations.

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European and US officials who continue to believe Russia is the most likely culprit say it had at least one plausible motive: attacking Nord Streams 1 and 2, which were not generating any revenue to fill Russian coffers, showed that pipes, cables and other submarine infrastructure were vulnerable and that countries supporting Ukraine risked paying a terrible price.

Haavisto noted that Finland has taken steps to strengthen infrastructure security since the explosions. Germany and Norway have called on NATO to coordinate efforts to protect critical infrastructure, such as communication lines in the North Sea and gas infrastructure.

“But at the same time it is true that we cannot control all the pipes, all the cables, all the time, 24/7,” Haavisto said. “You have to be prepared. If something happens you have to think, where are the alternatives?”

The war led European countries to accumulate reserves of alternative energy, making them less dependent on Russian sources. But the attack on the Nord Stream has left many governments uneasy about how far Russia or other actors could go.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said his government was waiting for the country’s independent prosecutor’s office to complete its investigation into the blasts before reaching a conclusion. Sweden, along with Denmark, increased their naval patrols just after the attack.

“We have talked about [the explosions] as part of the opinion that the security situation in the northern part of Europe has deteriorated after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, with all the implications that this has,” Billstrom said in an interview this month.

The possibility that the explosions will never be definitively attributed is unsettling for countries like Norway, which has 9,000 kilometers (5,500 miles) of undersea gas pipelines to Europe.

A Norwegian official said Norway is trying to strengthen security around its own pipelines and broader critical infrastructure. You are investing in surveillance; work with Britain, France and Germany to intensify naval patrols; and trying to find ways to keep oil and gas flowing in the event of another attack.

Norway is also investigating the appearance of unidentified aerial drones around their oil and gas facilities at the time of the Nord Stream attacks.

“It’s not a good thing,” the official said, about the possibility of the Nord Stream explosions going unresolved. “Whoever did it can get away with it.”

Souad Mekhennett and Meg Kelly contributed to this report.

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