The twin Nord Stream pipelines that connect Russia to Germany were wrecked by an undersea explosion on Sept. 16. The catastrophe was both environmental and economic. The severed pipes released enormous amounts of planet-warming methane, Germany lost its main source of cheap energy and Russia one of its main sources of foreign exchange earnings.
The catastrophe was also political, of course. Who was to blame for the destruction of the Russian-owned pipelines? It was no accident. A Swedish inquiry concluded in November that the damage was the result of “gross sabotage” – investigators found traces of explosives on the metal pieces they recovered in the Baltic Sea.
Since then, separate investigations by Sweden, Denmark and Germany have gone nowhere. At first, Western countries assumed Russia was behind the attack. But Moscow denied all involvement. President Vladimir Putin called the event an “act of international terrorism,” suggesting that it made no sense for Russia to sabotage one of its most valuable assets.
Later, various reports in The Washington Post and elsewhere, citing European diplomats, said there was no evidence the Kremlin had carried out the attack. Indeed, if Russia wanted to stop gas exports to Germany, it did not have to blow up the pipelines; it just had to crank the valves shut – which it did.
This week, a highly detailed report by U.S. investigative reporter Seymour Hersh appeared to give credibility to the Russian stand by placing the blame for the attack squarely on the United States. The 5,000-word report concluded, in short, that the U.S. government had the motivation and the means to destroy the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines. It was published on Mr. Hersh’s Substack site.
Eric Reguly: A pipeline too far: How Nord Stream 2 became a geopolitical blunder for both Russia and Germany
Mr. Hersh, 85, is no journalistic lightweight. He spent much of his career at The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine, and was responsible for some of the greatest scoops of the past half-century. His earliest claim to fame was a report that exposed the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam by U.S. soldiers, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize (he has also won five Polk Awards and one George Orwell Award).
In the 1970s, he revealed America’s clandestine mass bombing of Cambodia. In 2004, he reported on the U.S. military’s savage treatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Later he accused the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama of lying about the events behind the assassination of Osama bin Laden. He also disputed the claim that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own civilians. Both the latter two assertions were widely criticized and denounced as untrue by the Obama administration.
The main criticism of Mr. Hersh’s work is that he is heavily reliant on anonymous sources, making it difficult – or impossible – to verify his reporting. And so it is with his article insisting that the CIA, with the help of U.S. Navy divers and NATO ally Norway, took the two Nord Stream pipelines out of action: He cites a single source “with direct knowledge of the operational planning.”
Until early September, when Mr. Putin ordered the shutdown of gas deliveries through Nord Stream 1, that pipeline was the biggest source of gas consumed in Germany. The newer Nord Stream 2 pipeline was not yet in operation because German Chancellor Olaf Scholz cancelled its regulatory review just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Hersh said the decision to sabotage the pipelines was made in secret by U.S. President Joe Biden, who never concealed his disapproval of the Nord Stream projects, especially Nord Stream 2. On Feb. 7, three weeks before the start of the invasion, he used a White House news briefing to say “If Russia invades ... there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.”
The CIA was the mastermind of the elaborate plan, which would see explosives planted on the pipelines at the bottom of the fairly shallow Baltic Sea under the cover of a NATO naval exercise last June. The explosives were detonated remotely three months later, Mr. Hersh’s article said.
If Mr. Hersh’s reporting is accurate, what was the motivation for the U.S. attack?
The White House wanted to end the Kremlin’s ability to buy influence in Berlin and other European countries dependent on Russian energy. Mr. Hersh wrote: “As long as Europe remained dependent on the pipelines for cheap natural gas, Washington was afraid that countries like Germany would be reluctant to supply Ukraine with the money and weapons it needed to defeat Russia.”
So the Nord Stream pipelines had to go. But there may have been another reason to kill the pipelines, one Mr. Hersh did not consider: The pipelines may have been used by Russia to spy on NATO traffic in the Baltic.
That is the theory of Andrii Ryzhenko, a recently retired Ukrainian navy captain who did a four-year NATO tour. He is now a consultant for the Centre for Defence Strategies, a Ukrainian security think tank.
In an interview in Kyiv this week with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Ryzhenko said major undersea pipelines anywhere on the planet are equipped with sonar devices to allow them to detect security risks. He believes the devices attached to the Nord Stream pipelines had a covert military use, allowing them to track NATO ship and submarine movements along virtually the entire length of the Baltic (the pipelines are 1,200 kilometres long). He admits, though, that he has no proof.
On Thursday, the White House dismissed Mr. Hersh’s report as “utterly false and complete fiction.”
That may be the case, but maybe not. The United States is one of the very few countries with the technological expertise to pull off such a caper – and perhaps the motivation, too. It is possible that the U.S., Russia or any other country with the ability to wreck the pipelines had nothing to do with the explosions, that it was an act of terrorism by an unknown group with formidable tech savvy. The point is, the investigations have found no culprit. Those investigations need to be intensified and broadened and not be allowed to quietly fade away.