The Russian government has accused Germany, Denmark, and Sweden of a cover-up in their investigations into the sabotage attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines last September. Moscow, with the support of China, plans to introduce a resolution before the United Nations Security Council on Monday calling for an independent international investigation.
The White House declined to answer questions from The Intercept about whether the U.S. has ordered its own investigation, saying only that it is supporting its allies in their individual probes. Germany, along with Denmark and Sweden, are each conducting separate investigations but say they are cooperating with one another.
In a series of letters to European governments and the United States in February, made public by Moscow earlier this month, Russian officials complained that they have been barred from examining evidence gathered from the sites where the blasts occurred. Despite Russia’s majority ownership of the pipelines, Russian officials said, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden have rejected Russia’s repeated requests for a joint investigation — confirming their “suspicions that these countries are trying to conceal evidence, or to cover up the sponsors and perpetrators of these acts of sabotages.”
Russia has been doing its own investigation into the sabotage, including underwater surveys. It has not, to date, released any forensic evidence to support its assertion that “Anglo-Saxon” powers or the U.S. were behind the explosions. At a U.N. Security Council meeting in February, Russia’s representative Vassily Nebenzia cited investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s report accusing the U.S. of carrying out the attack. “This journalist is telling the truth,” he said. “This is more than just a smoking gun that detectives love in Hollywood blockbusters. It’s a basic principle of justice; everything is in your hands, and we can resolve this today.”
Denmark and Sweden have cited procedural matters and national regulations as to why they aren’t collaborating with Russia. But it’s pretty obvious that they have also adopted the position that Russia should be viewed as a suspect in the sabotage and wouldn’t want to invite it into the probe, particularly given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It should be noted that Sweden also refused an official joint investigation with its own allies from the onset, opting for a less formal cooperative arrangement. German officials have publicly confirmed their investigation into a “pro-Ukrainian” group and its possible connection to the attack on the pipeline, but have also cautioned that it could be a “false flag” intended to conceal the sponsor.
Russia’s recent maneuvers signal that it is becoming more aggressive in its rhetoric toward the two Scandinavian nations and Germany and is breaking some diplomatic protocols by making public its private communications with various nations. It is effectively arguing that the three national probes, which are backed by the U.S., are part of the Nord Stream bombing plot, and it wants to pull the U.N. in, where Russia would find a more neutral audience than NATO or the European Union. The backdrop to all of this, of course, is the public display of Russia-China unity that’s unfolded over the past year, culminating with President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow. China, which is officially co-sponsoring the Russian resolution, has said it believes the attack was carried out by a state actor and that a U.N. investigation is needed to “uncover the truth and identify those responsible.”
Almost immediately after the pipeline explosion on September 26, 2022, the Russian government asked the governments of Sweden, Germany, and Denmark to participate in their national investigations into “deliberate acts of sabotage” against “one of the most important investment projects of the Russian Federation.” All three governments rejected Russia’s requests, and Moscow has said that they are not sharing any meaningful information with Russian authorities.
That position is hardly surprising given the war in Ukraine and the massive NATO and European weapons shipments aimed at defeating Moscow. Russia’s ambassador to Denmark, Vladimir Barbin, has been outspoken in his criticisms of the Danish government’s refusal to cooperate with Russia. He has rejected speculation Russia was behind the attacks, saying that its ships did not have access to the waters where the explosives were placed. “The preparation of such attacks requires time and direct presence in the area of sabotage, which was carried out in the exclusive economic zones of Denmark and Sweden,” Barbin said. “The Russian side, unlike the others, did not have permission for any underwater work or research in this area before the gas pipelines were blown up.”
Russia is effectively arguing that the three national probes, which are backed by the U.S., are part of the Nord Stream bombing plot.
The sabotage of the Nordstream 1 and 2 pipelines occurred in the Baltic Sea waters stretching around the Danish island of Bornholm and extending to the southeast of the Swedish coast. The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, nestled between Lithuania and Poland, is to the east of the area. The Nord Stream pipelines are majority-owned by Russia’s state-run energy firm Gazprom.
In contrast to Barbin’s contentions, a new report published by the German outlet T-Online, asserts that Russian vessels, possibly including a mini-submarine, were operating in the waters near the blast sites days before the sabotage. The article cites open-source satellite data and relied on information provided by an anonymous “intelligence source.”
On February 17, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry fired off letters not only to Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, but also to the U.S. and Norway, charging an apparent cover-up. On March 1, Russia submitted its correspondence with those nations to the U.N. Security Council as part of Moscow’s push for the U.N. to initiate its own independent probe of the Nord Stream attack.
The U.S., which opposes the resolution, has portrayed Russia’s efforts to litigate the pipeline bombing at the security council as a “blatant attempt to distract” from its yearlong war in Ukraine. In a joint letter submitted to the council in late February, Germany, Sweden and Denmark claimed, “Russian authorities have been informed regarding the ongoing investigations,” adding that the three nations “have been in dialogue regarding the investigation of the gas leaks, and the dialogue will continue to the relevant extent.”
On February 21, a Gazprom-contracted ship doing a survey discovered an antenna-like device that Russia alleged might be a component of the materials used in the sabotage of the pipeline or part of a triggering mechanism for an unexploded bomb on an underwater pipe. “Specialists believe it might be an antenna to receive a signal to detonate an explosive device that could have been — I’m not certain, but it’s possible — planted under the pipeline system,” said Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in an interview with Russian television on March 14. “It appears that several explosive devices were planted,” Putin said, adding, “Some of them went off, and some didn’t. The reasons are unclear.”
He also alleged that the device was discovered attached to an undersea pipe junction on the only string of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline where no explosion was registered last September. “We would like to receive permission from the Danish government [to] conduct the necessary examination either on our own, or jointly with them,” Putin said. “Better yet, establish an international group of experts and bomb engineers that could work at a depth like that. And if need be, to defuse the explosive device, of course, if there is one down there.” Putin said his government had made discreet inquiries to the Danish authorities proposing a joint effort. “Their response was ambiguous,” he said. “To put it bluntly, there was really no answer at all. They said that [we] need to wait.”
Denmark’s government ultimately confirmed that there was an object in the area identified by the Russians and that it was investigating. There was a flurry of activity in late March — with Danish military vessels and diving ships congregating in the waters around the site identified by the personnel aboard the Glomar Worker, the ship that reportedly found the suspicious object. On March 21, the Danish newspaper Berlingske reported that Russia believes the “antenna” was “part of a device from an explosive charge on the last of the four Nord Stream gas pipelines.” Only three of the lines were successfully damaged in the sabotage, and it has confounded researchers why one was left intact. “It is a cylindrical object about 30 centimeters high and 10-15 centimeters in diameter and was located approximately 28 kilometers from the explosion site,” Barbin said in a statement to Berlingske. “It was installed at a welding joint on the B line.”
On March 23, the Danish Energy Agency released a photograph of an object roughly fitting the dimensions offered by Russia. The object appeared to have been submerged for a long time and was covered by a layer of algae or other foliage. “It is possible that the object is a maritime smoke buoy,” asserted the Danish statement. Such devices are commonly used to mark an area where someone has gone overboard or to alert other ships to a problem. The government agency said it had invited the owners of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, effectively Russia, to participate in the salvage. The Kremlin labeled the Danish invitation “positive news.”
It’s possible that the Danish government was essentially trolling the Russians by posting the photo and making a public offering to allow Russia to participate in the retrieval of what Denmark alleged is a harmless civilian device but that Moscow implied was potentially an unexploded bomb.
In its initial news report on the Danish invitation to Russia to participate in retrieving the object, the Russian state-owned TASS news agency did not mention the possibility it was a “smoke buoy,” instead doubling down on Russian theories it may be a component of an unexploded device. “It is critically important to determine what kind of object it is, whether it is related to this terrorist act — apparently it is — and to continue this investigation,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on March 24. “And this investigation must be transparent.” Denmark has said “the object does not pose an immediate safety risk.”
That chapter of this story appears to have ended with a whimper rather than a bang. “I do not think it makes sense for us to get into that now, since one of the NATO countries, or Denmark, told us that they had already examined it, which means that the situation is not explosive,” Putin told a Russian news network on May 25, adding that it no longer was necessary for Russian specialists to participate in a retrieval operation. “Honestly speaking, for us, the point was not to incriminate someone, but to ensure security so that there would be no other explosions,” he said. “If the Danes say that it is no longer explosive, well, thank God.”
In a recent op-ed in the Danish newspaper Altinget, Barbin, the Russian ambassador, accused Denmark of engaging in speculative analysis since the explosion last September with an aim to assign blame for the attack. In Danish media, some prominent military analysts have spent considerable time discussing potential Russian culpability for blowing up its own pipeline. Barbin asserted that this “intellectual exercise, without presenting facts that should be verifiable, leads to a dead end and benefits only those who are afraid of the truth.” He said Denmark should provide an update to a variety of questions: “Which naval vessels — including military ships — were present in the sabotage area? Are there any witnesses who have been questioned and what is their testimony? Were fragments of broken gas pipelines raised and what are the results of their research? Which companies — especially foreign ones — were allowed to work in Denmark’s and Sweden’s exclusive economic zone, and were their activities audited?”
These are all fair questions, which may well be answered once the governments complete their probes. Denmark and Sweden have both remained tightlipped, and scant details have leaked from either government. While there are likely multiple layers contributing to the hyper-secrecy, the stakes are obviously high, particularly if evidence leads to a nation-state actor, such as the U.S., Russia, or Ukraine, as the perpetrator.
False Flag vs. “False Concoctions”
In the public discourse, Seymour Hersh’s report in February that the Nord Stream pipeline was blown up in a covert operation authorized by President Joe Biden has become something of a Rorschach test in the broader context of the war in Ukraine and the hostilities between the U.S., NATO, and Russia.
Hersh himself appears entirely unfazed by the mounting attacks on his credibility. This, he asserts, is what powerful forces do: They seek to destroy the messenger to distract from the crime. When pressed on some of the criticism of his reporting, including apparent inconsistencies raised by open-source data on ship and aircraft movements during the alleged operation, Hersh has cut his questioners short and asserted that he hasn’t even published 20 percent of what he knows or what his sources have told him. He has all but said that he used additional sources and is playing his own game of cat and mouse to protect them. Moreover, he has argued, these OSINT warriors are naive to believe that the CIA and other U.S. agencies would not have taken extensive steps to cloak the operation.
At 85 years old, Hersh is staking his storied and well-earned reputation as one of the premiere muckrakers in modern U.S. history on the veracity of this one story. It may appear to be a crazy gamble, particularly if it is based on a single source, but it also serves as a powerful symbol of how right Hersh believes he is. In essence, Hersh is forcing the question: Do we really believe Sy Hersh would do this if it wasn’t true?
This same dynamic has played out with several of Hersh’s stories over the past decade since he left the New Yorker. It was true of his 2015 story for the London Review of Books alleging that President Barack Obama and his administration lied about almost every detail of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. And it was also the case with both his 2013 LRB article and his 2017 story for the German newspaper Welt asserting that the U.S. was falsely accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army of using chemical weapons. Hersh’s detractors say he is not the journalist he once was and is peddling false theories based on dubious or fictional assertions from anonymous sources. Hersh maintains he got these stories right and that he continues to use the same quality of fact-checker, editor, and lawyer he had reviewing his work at the New Yorker.
In his most recent post on Substack, Hersh criticizes reports in the New York Times and multiple German media outlets that among the perpetrators of the sabotage was a “pro-Ukrainian group” that rented a private boat using false passports. Hersh alleged that the entire story, based on anonymous U.S. intelligence and German law enforcement sources, was a false-flag operation and that the assertions published by the Times and Die Zeit “originated with a group of CIA experts in deception and propaganda whose mission was to feed the newspaper a cover story—and to protect a president who made an unwise decision and is now lying about it.” Hersh writes:
“It was a total fabrication by American intelligence that was passed along to the Germans, and aimed at discrediting your story,” I was told by a source within the American intelligence community. The disinformation professionals inside the CIA understand that a propaganda gambit can only work if those on receiving are desperate for a story that can diminish or displace an unwanted truth. And the truth in question is that President Joe Biden authorized the destruction of the pipelines and will have a difficult time explaining away his action as Germany and its Western European neighbors suffer as businesses are shuttered amid high day-to-day energy costs.
Hersh also asserted that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to the White House in early March was, in part, aimed at preparing the rollout of the cover story developed by the CIA and its German counterparts. “I was told by someone with access to diplomatic intelligence that there was a discussion of the pipeline exposé and, as a result, certain elements in the Central Intelligence Agency were asked to prepare a cover story in collaboration with German intelligence that would provide the American and German press with an alternative version for the destruction of Nord Stream 2,” Hersh writes. “In the words of the intelligence community, the agency was ‘to pulse the system’ in an effort to discount the claim that Biden had ordered the pipelines’ destruction.”
Hersh is staking his storied and well-earned reputation as one of the premiere muckrakers in modern U.S. history on the veracity of this one story.
For people who have already concluded that Hersh is either fabricating this story or relying on bad sources, his latest story is evidence that he is trapped in a hall of mirrors and seeing conspiracies in every direction he looks. Holger Stark, the lead reporter on the German story Hersh claims was the product of a CIA deception campaign, addressed Hersh in a tweet: “Sy, old colleague, I admire your historical work and it hurts tremendously to say it: But this is, at least in respect to our work at Die Zeit, complete BS. And if you write about me: call next time before you publish. You would avoid a lot of mistakes.” Stark has collaborated with The Intercept on an investigation into the U.S. drone program and Germany’s role and was one of the main German journalists reporting on Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency documents for Der Spiegel.
For those who believe that Hersh has correctly identified the perpetrator of the Nord Stream bombing — the U.S. government — it is plausible that the information fed to the Times and German news outlets about the “pro-Ukrainian group” is suspicious and part of a deception operation. Last June — two months before the Nord Stream explosions — the CIA reportedly offered German intelligence and other European governments a “strategic warning” of a potential plot to blow up the pipeline. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The warning included information about three Ukrainian nationals who were trying to rent out ships in countries bordering the Baltic Sea, including Sweden.”
It could well be that the U.S. was simply sharing its intel with allies with a direct stake in such an action. It could also be that this is where a potential deception operation involving a “pro-Ukrainian group” began. What does not seem likely is that the cover story was created in response to Hersh. More plausible, if this is indeed a cover story, was that it was planned long before Hersh wrote his story and was designed to deceive or misdirect U.S. allies and the world about who was responsible. Stark, the German journalist who heads Die Zeit’s investigative unit, said he had been working on his story, based on the German criminal probe, for months and rushed to publish only after he learned the New York Times was going to post its “pro-Ukraine group” story, which was based on the claims of anonymous U.S. intelligence operatives. Hersh later updated his piece to reflect this.
In his latest story, Hersh lambasted the U.S. press corps for refusing to ask the White House about his assertions the U.S. blew up the pipeline. “There is no evidence that any reporter assigned there has yet to ask the White House press secretary whether Biden had done what any serious leader would do: formally ‘task’ the American intelligence community to conduct a deep investigation, with all of its assets, and find out just who had done the deed in the Baltic Sea. According to a source within the intelligence community, the president has not done so, nor will he. Why not? Because he knows the answer.”
I asked the White House Hersh’s specific question and also for comment on Hersh’s assertions about the private meeting between Biden and Scholz and the CIA manufacturing a cover story. In a statement, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson did not directly address any of my questions. “These stories are totally false concoctions,” Watson said. “We can say categorically that the United States was not involved in the Nord Stream explosions in any way. We continue to support efforts with our allies and partners to get to the bottom of what happened.”
During Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s appearance before the House Committee on Appropriations on March 23, Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, asked Blinken: “You’re now in a formal setting. Can you assure the world that no agency of the U.S. government blew up those pipelines or facilitated that action?”
“Yes, I can,” Blinken replied.
Update: March 25, 2023, 8:00 p.m. ET
This piece has been updated with comments made by Putin on March 25 saying Russia would not retrieve the underwater object.
Update: March 27, 2023, 3:57 p.m. ET
On Monday, Russia’s UN resolution calling for an independent investigation of Nord Stream sabotage failed. Russia, China, and Brazil voted in favor. The other 12 council members abstained.