In the early morning hours of September 26, 2022, in the deep abyss of the Baltic Sea, an international mystery of substantial consequence began to unfold when a bomb ruptured the Russian-dominated Nord Stream pipeline. It was the opening salvo in a four-pronged attack that day that would leave three of the four pipelines incapacitated. One year later, no suspects have been arrested and no sponsor — nation state or otherwise — has been formally accused of responsibility.
This week on Intercepted, we present a special documentary, “The Hunt for the Nord Stream Bombers.” We hear from Holger Stark, an investigative journalist from Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper who has broken several major stories on the bombing, as well as retired Swedish engineer Erik Andersson, who organized a groundbreaking independent expedition to film all four of the blast sites. Jeremy Scahill takes us through what we know and what we don’t about the bombing and examines the top suspects and the mounting evidence suggesting Ukrainian involvement in the attacks.
Jeremy Scahill: It’s two hours past midnight on September 26, 2022, and all is quiet on the Baltic Sea. There are gusts of wind moving northeast from the Danish island of Bornholm.
At 2:03 a.m., some 80 meters below the sea, an explosion pierces a section of Nord Stream 2, an underwater pipeline intended to deliver gas from Russia to Germany. Seismologists registered a blast of roughly 2.0 on the Richter scale. Danish warplanes assessing the situation view a bubbling pool emerging from the sea.
It was the opening salvo in what would be a four-pronged attack against one of the largest international infrastructure projects in modern Russian history.
Some 17 hours after the explosion rocked the pipeline off the coast of Denmark, roughly 70 kilometers northeast of the early morning blast, three more explosions rip through three of the four pipes of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, each blast roughly 250 meters apart. The only so-called “string” of the pipelines left intact was the easternmost one, Line B of the Nord Stream 2.
Reporter, CNN: Like a boiling cauldron, the busy Baltic Sea bursting with gas from ruptured Russian Nord Stream reinforced pipelines. More than an inch of steel, coated in places, and approximately 4 inches of concrete. Not easy to break.
JS: It didn’t take long for international seismologists and government officials to calculate that the massive blasts were not caused by an earthquake or some other act of nature. Whatever happened deep beneath the sea was the work of human beings equipped with advanced knowledge of the pipeline infrastructure and powerful explosives.
Brianna Keilar, CNN: NATO this morning calling those mysterious leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines sabotage. The gas pipelines — there’s two of them — they run from Russia to Europe, and this comes at a tipping-point time for Vladmir Putin …
JS: This was how a mystery of substantial international consequence began to unfold. The list of suspects included no less than some of the most powerful nations in the world.
[Intercepted intro theme.]
This is Intercepted.
Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.
For the past year, theories and finger-pointing have swirled around the explosions of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea. The backdrop to it all is Russia’s war raging in Ukraine.
In that war, Moscow’s forces are battling not just Ukraine, but also the weaponry and intelligence infrastructure of the NATO alliance. And it has brought the world to the brink of what could, in a matter of moments, become a nuclear or global war.
Today, a special episode of Intercepted: The Hunt for the Nord Stream Bombers.
The Baltic Sea is a virtually enclosed body of European water — a maritime chessboard — and bordered by both Russia and several NATO nations, including Germany and Poland. The United States is a half a world away geographically, but it regularly sails its warships in the sea, and operates the most sophisticated surveillance network, including special underwater microphones, known as hydrophones.
From the beginning, the Nord Stream pipelines — which are majority-owned by the Russia consortium Gazprom — was a contentious project. Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy, had angered its allies by embarking on the massive project. It meant Berlin would be buying large quantities of gas from Russia, opening a spigot of profits for Moscow.
Holger Stark: For Germany, it was a pipeline to get independent, when it comes to energy — especially methane gas — imported from Russia. So, some ten years ago, Nord Stream 1 went into operation, and it transported gas through the Baltic Sea directly to the eastern part of the eastern shore of Germany. And Nord Stream Two has been built over the last years.
JS: That’s Holger Stark, the head of the investigative unit at the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. He’s one of Germany’s most respected investigative journalists.
Holger Stark: It never went operational, but it was an attempt to achieve independency, especially independency of third-party countries. Countries like Ukraine which, up until then, hosted another gas pipeline, and transported gas through their country, and earned millions and billions for that.
So, it was an attempt of the German government to basically become a gas-independent country, and have direct links and direct business relations with Russia.
JS: The project was subject to sanctions under President Donald Trump, and then, as Russia began its preparations for an invasion of Ukraine, it rose to a high priority level in the Biden White House. Ukraine viewed the pipeline as an economic engine to fuel Russia’s war machine, and senior U.S. officials — including President Joe Biden himself — began to make ominous threats about the future of the pipeline, should Vladimir Putin move forward with his invasion.
President Joe Biden: If Russia invades, that means tanks and troops crossing the border of Ukraine again. Then there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.
Reporter: But how will you do that, exactly? Since the project — and control of the project — is within Germany’s control?
President Joe Biden: We will … I promise you, we’ll be able to do it.
JS: Undeterred by these apparent threats from Washington, Vladimir Putin went ahead with what he called a “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine.
Andrew Simmons, Al Jazeera: Multiple attacks on cities across the country. The foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba has just tweeted that the country is under full-scale invasion by Russia.
JS: In the summer of 2022 with the war in Ukraine raging, all of the nation states that might arguably have a motive for blowing up the pipeline were very active in the Baltic Sea. The U.S. and NATO conducted naval war exercises, known as BALTOPS 22. Ukrainian naval forces trained alongside British teams in undersea mining and demining exercises, including in the use of sophisticated underwater drones capable of planting explosive devices deep on the seabed.
In June, Russia conducted its own exercises in the sea, where it has a port in Kaliningrad. And Poland ran exercises in late September, just days before the Nord Stream pipelines were sabotaged.
For two decades, Holger Stark has covered covert operations, surveillance, and international relations.
Holger Stark: Germany made a lot of enemies with this, this project. There were the other European countries — countries like France, but also Poland — which were furious that Germany perceived an independent energy policy and did not pursue an European solution.
Then we had the United States, the U.S. government, over years, [who] really fought hard against Germany and Russia being connected directly through those gas pipelines. They imposed sanctions, they threatened the German government. They sanctioned Russian companies, they sanctioned individuals. There were votes on the hill in Congress. There were delegations traveling.
President Trump executed almost every kind of pressure that he had on the German government. But also, President Obama and, later on, President Biden, they were really not happy with that pipeline. They did not want Germany to have some kind of direct business with Russia, to send billions of money.
And the Germans tried somehow to deflect this kind of pressure. So, they offered to the Trump administration, for example, that they would buy fracking gas from the United States as liquid gas. So, they tried to assure the United States that, from some billions, they would import American gas as well.
JS: It became both a power struggle with Germany and a point of leverage for Russia.
Holger Stark: For Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, Nord Stream always has been a political tool. And he, for himself, used that as leverage against Germany as well.
The Germans tried to keep the pipeline operational as long as possible. They had the severe hope that somehow Nord Stream could be, let’s say, discussed on a different level than the Ukraine war. So, from a German perspective, they did not want to stop the gas flowing through Nord Stream 1 as a pipeline.
Nord Stream 2 as a pipeline never went operational, but it was close to that. The pipeline itself was completed, so it was just a political question when that gas would be transported. Nord Stream 1 transported billions of cubic meters every year, and therefore was responsible for a significant part of the German gas use and consumption.
JS: The Nord Stream project consisted of two sets of pipelines to deliver methane gas from Russia to Germany. They are owned by a consortium, with Russia’s Gazprom being the majority shareholder, and Germany controlling a significant minority share.
Nord Stream Technology Presenter: The techniques used in the Nord Stream project are absolutely state-of-the-art and, in many cases, especially created for the project. The pipes are produced in Germany, Russia, and Japan, made out of special steel that is extra-hard, to resist the enormous water pressure.
JS: Nord Stream 1 began delivering gas to Germany in September of 2011. It was the first pipeline that bypassed Poland and Ukraine in delivering gas to the west of Europe. Instead, the pipes went from northwest Russia, through the Baltic Sea to northern Germany. Nord Stream 2 was completed in late 2021 and was expected to double the gas output of the project, but it never went operational.
Holger Stark: Nord Stream 2 was at the verge of being operational. So what happened then, when the Ukraine invasion started, Russia started a power play. First they withdrew a significant part of the pipeline of Nord Stream 1, a turbine which is relevant and necessary for the secure transport. They said it would have to be maintained, because of the sanctions of the West, that maintenance would be impossible.
So, therefore they reduced the amount of gas that has been transported at that time, I think by half, or something like that. So they executed some kind of pressure on the German government like, ‘You send weapons to Ukraine, we reduce the gas that you get from us.’ But, from my perspective, President Putin never expected an immediate cut, an immediate stop of all the gas that was flowing through the pipelines.
Then the situation in Ukraine escalated. That turbine never went back into operation. And, at a certain time, the Germans then stopped the import of the gas, because it became clear that you just cannot import gas, buy gas, send billions of euros to a dictator who is attacking a country like Ukraine. It would be a kind of schizophrenia to send weapons to Ukraine on one hand, and to send billions of euros on the other hand, to the attacker, the army who was attacking Ukraine.
So, the moment when the bombs exploded in September, 2022, there was no more gas flowing from Russia to Germany. The pipeline itself was still filled up, so there was gas inside, but the gas did not go through to Germany anymore, because the Germans stopped the import at that time.
But for Putin it always was clear that this could be some kind of leverage, and from the German side as well. And, up until today, there are still some voices saying we should independently reopen that pipeline, if somehow possible, if it could be repaired.
So it was, until the very moment the bombs exploded, a political battleground.
JS: On September 26, 2022, three of the four lines were bombed. Explosions struck both of the Nord Stream 1 Lines, and Line A of Nord Stream 2. Line B of Nord Stream 2 — the one closest to Russian territory — was the only line left undamaged in the attacks.
Within hours of the blasts, political leaders from both Sweden and Denmark — the two nations closest to the blast sites — told the public that this was no accident, it was a deliberate act of sabotage. Eventually, a consensus formed among all affected countries that whoever did this was likely sponsored by a nation state.
Russia began accusing Western nations, initially suggesting it was the work of the British or unnamed Anglo-Saxon powers. The U.S. and its allies sought to cast the spotlight of blame on Russia.
John Brennan, Former CIA Director: This is clearly an act of sabotage of some sort, and Russia is certainly the most likely suspect.
Vasily Nebenzya, Russian ambassador to the United Nations: [In Russian] Since examples of the enmity of officials in Washington regarding the destruction of Nord Stream has just increased, primarily thanks to the well-known Russofobe, the godmother of the anti-constitutional coup in Ukraine, [U.S. State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs] Mrs. [Victoria] Nuland…
Donald Trump, Former U.S. President: I don’t want to get our country in trouble, so I won’t answer it. But I can tell you who it wasn’t, was Russia…
JS: In any case, no one offered any concrete evidence to support their theories and accusations.
After the pipelines blew, the world community largely split into two major camps: those who suspected that Moscow was behind the attacks against its own pipeline, and those who believed that the U.S. and/or its allies did it. Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Russia all launched official investigations, and the U.S. became remarkably quiet about the matter.
Mostly, the White House would say it was supporting the Swedish, German, and Danish probes. Holger Stark, the Die Zeit journalist, recalls his first reaction to the bombings.
Holger Stark: I must admit that I looked at this detonation in the first place and thought, hey, come on. That’s a typical Russian covert operation.
Once again, the Russians, we know they send their terror crews all over Europe. They poison people in the UK, they shoot dissidents in Germany. So I thought that might well be another Russian obstruction/destruction commando, until sometime in October.
So, a couple of weeks after the detonation, which took place on September 26 of 2022. So, a couple of weeks afterward, I discussed that case with one of my sources, and said, well, it very much looks like a Russian campaign, doesn’t it? And the guy said, like, yeah, maybe, of course Russia’s capable of that, and we are looking into it.
And then there was some kind of silence, some hesitant behavior, and I thought, like, what? And that source said, well, there is a very strange hint, a finger which points into the direction of Ukraine.
So, that moment, a couple of weeks after the attack, was a moment when a seed was planted that it might not be Russia.
JS: After receiving that tip from a well-placed confidential source, Stark began journeying down a rabbit hole, searching for clues of a Ukrainian link to the bombing. In this crime story, there are several suspects with both the motive and the means to carry out the operation. Among them, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland and, of course, Ukraine.
[Music cue begins.]
JS: In Gothenburg, on Sweden’s west coast, retired engineer Erik Andersson followed the news of the blasts. He was struck by how little technical information was being released to the public, and saw the initial commentary leaning heavily toward placing the blame on Russia.
He had been a critic of NATO’s involvement in Ukraine, and was opposed to Sweden’s aggressive push to join the military alliance.
Erik Andersson: I think pretty quickly this video of Joe Biden saying he would put an end to it … I mean, that became viral pretty quickly. I remember saying to my family, it must’ve been the U.S. But I felt with Sweden’s involvement, and also Sweden being on the verge of joining NATO, then I felt I really didn’t like us to participate in a big cover up or spreading a narrative, instead of just going for finding out what actually happened.
JS: Andersson would soon become obsessed with the Nord Stream attack, and would eventually embark on his own private investigation into who was responsible.
[Music cue continues.]
JS: As Die Zeit’s Holger Stark and his colleagues pursued a course that would take them to ports around the Baltic Sea, as well as to Poland and Kyiv, across the Atlantic, a legendary American journalist dropped a story that would thicken the plot.
Robby Soave, Rising, The Hill: Legendary reporter Seymour Hersh is here with us today to talk about his bombshell report on who blew up Nord Stream.
JS: On February 8th, Seymour Hersh published a lengthy, incendiary story on his newly launched Substack column. The piece, which cited a single anonymous source with seemingly full spectrum knowledge of the inner workings of the plan, boldly asserted that the United States had blown up the pipelines, in an operation directly authorized by the president of the United States.
Amy Goodman, Democracy Now: In his new piece, Sy Hersh cites an unnamed source who says the sabotage was carried out by the U.S. Navy, which planted remotely-triggered explosions during NATO exercises last September. Hersh reports the Biden administration began planning the act of sabotage in December 2021, two months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
JS: Hersh alleged that a clandestine working group consisting of senior U.S. officials — as well as representatives from a range of U.S. agencies and a foreign government — were in on the plot. It was U.S. divers, with support from Norway, who planted the explosives. They did so, according to Hersh, using the public cover of last summer’s NATO BALTOPS training exercises.
Seymour Hersh: A lot of sophisticated people in the intelligence and operation community concluded you could do it, and the White House was told it was possible. I think that led to the comments which, really, of course, made the people on the inside go half-crazy, because it was supposed to be completely covert.
But at that place, as I wrote, it was simply described as a classified operation. None of the rules or reporting to Congress were involved.
JS: While Hersh’s story was met with almost total silence and was ignored by most major U.S. media outlets, his story reverberated around the world. It did not take long for Russia — including Vladimir Putin himself — to endorse Hersh’s narrative as the definitive truth of what happened in the Baltic Sea last September.
Vladmir Putin, Translated: One day, I think it will be exposed, what happened, really, there. I think an American journalist, a very well known one, after an investigation came to a conclusion that this explosion, this attack, had been organized by the U.S. security service. A point of view that I completely agree with.
JS: The Biden administration issued sweeping denials of Hersh’s story, saying the U.S. government had absolutely no connection whatsoever to the attacks against the Nord Stream.
The spokesperson for the National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, told me that Hersh’s story was a, quote, “totally false concoction,” and she added, quote, “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.”
Holger Stark has known Seymour Hersh for many years, and Hersh has publicly praised Stark and his journalism. But Stark had already been chasing leads on the story for months, and had developed sources in multiple countries. What Hersh was alleging could not have been further afield of the evidence Stark was compiling about the crime.
Holger Stark: I do not have any kind of illusions about the CIA. I’m well aware — and I think many people in Germany are well aware — about the CIA’s clandestine programs. But, in this case, given the historical situation, also given the relationship between President Biden and Chancellor Schultz, that just does not fit. I can well imagine that the Americans support such an enterprise, let’s say, by the Ukrainians. I can imagine [even better] that they knew and still know who did it, because American surveillance is still top-notch, and they just learn a lot.
But the plot that is described in Seymour Hersh’s story, as it is described, lacks any kind of confirmation, any kind of evidence that you could prove.
JS: Even before Hersh’s story was published, Erik Andersson had posted several threads on Twitter piecing together circumstantial evidence suggesting the U.S. had bombed the pipeline. But Hersh’s story appeared to offer a treasure trove of specific details about the operation itself.
Erik Andersson: Well, I felt, wow. I mean that was pretty bold, to say something like that. I thought that that was a big thing. And I felt that, since he was obviously a very famous reporter, it must be a big risk for him. If he’s wrong, you know, he will suffer if he’s totally wrong. So, I think it was worth taking very seriously.
I felt, at least, Sy Hersh himself must believe in this, and it’s worth checking, if this is plausible.
JS: After Hersh’s story came out, another veteran U.S. intelligence journalist published an alternative theory. James Bamford, author of several books about the NSA and U.S. covert operations, reported that the most likely culprit was Ukraine, perhaps with help from Poland. But Bamford assessed that they would have performed the operation using underwater drones, as he told me in May.
James Bamford: So, using undersea drones that are weaponized, or that can lay a weapon alongside the pipeline, and they could be set to go off at a different time. That made much more sense to me, having researched a lot of this, than sending divers down. So, that’s what I focused on.
And then, in terms of … I didn’t really buy the idea that the United States was behind it, because, you know, I have sources also. I mean, I’ve been doing books for a long time, all focused on the intelligence community. I’ve been writing about intelligence for a very, very long time, and everybody I’ve talked to discounts that, because a number of the people that I talk to, that I deal with, would have been in a position to at least have heard something about it. And nobody did.
So, that’s one of the key reasons I went to focus on Ukraine. And what I found was that Ukraine had the motive, the means, and the opportunity to do this. They certainly had the motive; they were going to lose a lot of money by having the gas bypass Ukraine and go directly to Germany. So, they were going to lose a lot of money.
And, at other times, they were very worried that this was going to pretty much weaponize Russia. Russia was going to be able to use the pipeline as a weapon to get Europe to do what it wanted to when it wants to, or they could turn it off and turn it back on again.
So, they were afraid of that, and then they also had the opportunity. Which was, you had a number of members of the Ukrainian Navy that were being trained in that same spot, basically, in undersea warfare, on using drones, and planting, and retrieving undersea mines and so forth.
So, you had the Ukrainian navy right there. They were working on undersea warfare at that time, being trained by the U.S. and the Brits on how to do undersea warfare, use of drones, and so forth. And then the Brits actually gave the Ukrainians six drones for free. Just, here’s six drones. And the head of the British Navy basically said, the expert skills being taught here will help Ukraine and then, quote, ‘repel Russian aggression.’
JS: While the U.S. and its allies were suspiciously quiet in making any formal accusations, it was clear that many within the NATO alliance believed Russia was somehow responsible for the attack. Or, at a minimum, that was the conclusion they wanted to project.
Catherine Herridge, CBS News: President Biden said Friday, he believes the damage is an act of sabotage by the Russians.
President Joe Biden: It was a deliberate act of sabotage, and now the Russians are pumping out disinformation and lies. We’ll work with our allies to get to the bottom, precisely what happened.
JS: As the battle to control the Nord Stream narrative played out in public, behind the scenes, a complex dynamic was unfolding. Both German and Swedish investigators were far from convinced that either Russia – or the U.S., for that matter – had conducted the operation.
In June of 2022, two months before the Nord Stream explosions, the CIA reportedly offered German intelligence and other European governments a, quote, “strategic warning” of a potential plot to blow up the pipeline.
According to the The Wall Street Journal, quote, “The warning included information about three Ukrainian nationals who were trying to rent out ships in countries bordering the Baltic Sea, including Sweden.”
Working with journalists from the Netherlands, Stark was able to uncover remarkable details about how the CIA came to be aware of an earlier plot to blow up the Nord Stream pipeline, scheduled for mid-June 2022.
Holger Stark: The stunning pretext of this attack is that, some three months before it took place, there was already a vital discussion in the international intelligence community about it.
So, the Dutch military intelligence, obviously, is running a well-placed source in Ukraine, and that informant approaches or speaks to the Dutch, and says, like, there is a plot ongoing to sabotage Nord Stream 1. At that time, only Nord Stream 1 was in the discussion.
And there is a commando consisting of Ukrainian soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and that commando is in the process of attacking Nord Stream 1 in those conversations. The date that has been mentioned was June 19th, right on the heels of a NATO exercise called Baltic Operations, which took place on the Baltic Sea until June 17th.
So, the days when the Dutch received that hint, that’s in the second week of June. They immediately realized that this is big; if it’s true, it’s huge. So, they approach the CIA, either the same day or day later on, that I don’t know for sure. The CIA allegedly realizes as well that this is a big deal, if it takes place.
JS: The details came from a Dutch military intelligence officer with highly placed sources in the Ukrainian government. According to this informant, the operation was being run by General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian armed forces.
Holger Stark: So, the decision that has been made in those days, in [the middle] of June, 2022, is to task the chief of station of the CIA in Kiev to approach the Ukrainian government.
So, he approaches the office of General Zaluzhnyi. Why Zaluzhnyi? Because, in the Dutch report, General Zaluzhnyi is mentioned as the guy who’s pulling the strings, and who’s in charge or, at least, who knows about that operation.
The report, by the way, also says that President Zelensky is not in the picture. That might be for plausible deniability, or because it’s a pure military operation. But the report, the informant of the Dutch says, it is an operation, which goes up to General Zaluzhnyi, who is basically the chief of the Ukrainian army.
So, the chief of station of the CIA speaks to General Zaluzhnyi in Kyiv. And, obviously, the Ukrainians deny any kind of involvement, but the conversation leaves the impression that Ukraine heard the message, and the message was some kind of, like, ‘stop it, don’t do it.’ So the CIA goes back to the Dutch, and says something like, ‘it looks like they pulled it off.’
During those days and weeks, a small group of international partners has been informed as well; among them, the Germans. But June 19th passes, and no device explodes, Nord Stream is still operational. So, the question is how credible that source was. And, during those days, the CIA — but also German intelligence, and maybe the Dutch, but for sure the CIA and German intelligence — came to the conclusion that the source might not be the best source, and might not be that credible.
JS: But then, three months later, both the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were bombed. Either this was an epic coincidence or, more plausibly, the Ukrainian operation had been delayed by several months.
What’s more, Stark and his colleagues would discover evidence that many of the specific plans that the Dutch source warned were in the works for the alleged June operation were present in the successful attacks on Nord Stream a few months later, in September of 2022.
Among these was the use of a rented sailboat called “The Andromeda,” and a cover story about diving to examine underwater ruins off the coast of Sweden.
Holger Stark: So, weeks after the explosions took place, the Germans receive a hint coming from another European intelligence agency, a hint coming from the Netherlands. And the Netherlands claim that this commando consists of Ukrainian special forces — so, soldiers from the Ukrainian army — and that the commando consisted of six people. And those people did not use a commercial vessel, a big boat with, like, a decompression chamber or anything like that. But they used a pleasure boat, if you want to say so, a yacht, 50 feet long, of a German company called Bavaria. And they rented this boat in a German harbor called Rostock on the German northern shore of the Baltic Sea.
So, what the German investigators did in those weeks after the explosion in October 2022, they look into commercial diving boats, commercial vessels. And they soon realize there is no way that such a vessel is just being rented out; it always is rented out with a crew. But with a crew — like, a professional crew — you would not be able to conduct such an operation.
So, late in fall of that year, someone in the investigators’ team comes up with the idea to say, like, what if it was not a professional boat? What if it was not an industrial boat? Like, a big boat, even a submarine or something like that? What if it was a private boat, like a sailing yacht?
So, they widen the spectrum, and start to approach all kinds of charter companies that are renting out boats there. And there is one company called Mola Yachting, which is one of the biggest companies which is renting out boats in the Baltic Sea, I think they have some 250 yachts that you can rent.
And it turns out that Mola Yachting had been contacted in summer of 2022, through an email which came — as the investigators later find out — from Ukraine, and that this Bavaria 50-foot long yacht was sailed by a group of allegedly six people. Witnesses later described the crew as five men and one woman. And it turns out that this boat sails pretty straight to the places where the attack took place later on. They circled around through a couple of harbors. Investigators found witness accounts, people who described the crew.
But the most significant trace here is traces of explosives in the cabin, on the table in the cabin. The explosive that has been found there is an explosive called HMX, or Octogen. It’s some kind of chemical that has been developed during the Second World War. It’s a highly professional military explosive, it can detonate underwater in almost the same way as on the ground.
And those traces of explosives on the table in the cabin of the yacht matches the traces that were found on the ground in the Baltic Sea, at the remains of the pipeline. So, there is a direct connection. The findings on the yacht are directly linked to the explosions.
The yacht has been searched and raided between January 18th and January 20th of 2023. So, during the winter in the mid of January, German investigators realized that this boat definitely played a significant role during the attacks.
And the big question then is: who is behind [it]? Who is the crew on the boat, and who authorized the crew?
[Intercepted mid-show theme music.]
JS: On March 8th, some of these details broke out into the mainstream, when Holger Stark of Die Zeit and The New York Times published exposés on the private boat that had been rented by a Polish-registered company and owned by two Ukrainians. Die Zeit, citing German law enforcement sources, asserted that the ship was loaded with explosives and diving equipment, and set sail from a German port in the Baltic Sea.
In Sweden, Erik Andersson read the report in The New York Times about an alleged pro-Ukrainian group using a sailboat to bomb the pipelines, and his immediate thought was that it was a CIA disinformation campaign planted in the U.S. paper of record.
Erik Andersson: Well, I thought it was some kind of red herring or something, because I heard about it first through the … Was it The New York Times? Or was it… It was an American newspaper. The New York Times. And I checked up the journalists who wrote it, or people who previously have spread official narratives.
You know, it was something that, somehow I… That’s my bias, you know? I thought, this is something America wants us to hear, so it’s probably not true.
JS: Andersson followed The Andromeda story closely, and he watched every interview with Sy Hersh looking for any new detail Hersh offered. Andersson grew tired of the online information wars, and speculation based on publicly available data that he believed was subject to manipulation or biased interpretations.
He had watched scores of documentaries and news reports about the Nord Stream attacks, including the handful of films featuring underwater footage of the damaged pipelines. He says he got the sense that journalists filming under the waters of the Baltic, quote, “Were not guided by some forensic interest to figure out what was going on, and only filmed superficial footage of the crime scene.”
At the same time, he did not agree with Hersh and other analysts who alleged that a sailboat with divers was not capable of such an operation. While Andersson was skeptical this was how it was done, he knew many experienced Baltic divers who had assured him it was indeed feasible.
Sitting at his home in Gothenburg, he was at a dead end. So, this was when Erik Andersson, a retired engineer, decided he would conduct his own investigation of the crime scene. In March, he began looking for a captain with a ship willing to take him on his own expedition.
Jeremy Scahill: How does one even go about that? Did you say, I want to go out into the Baltic Sea and investigate who bombed the Nord Stream pipeline? How does one even get permits for something like that?
Erik Andersson: Well, it’s international waters. So, now it’s no problem at all. At that time, when we went, there was still a requirement for a permit from the Danish Maritime Authority.
So, I wrote to the Danish Maritime Authority, and I got a pretty quick answer that it was OK. I had a scientific justification. I said I wanted to analyze the seafloor and see if there were signs of the size of the explosions, and I could compare that to the seismic reaction, seismic signals, and stuff like that.
So, the official purpose was a scientific expedition, not a forensic one.
Jeremy Scahill: So, you bought a marine drone, right?
Erik Andersson: Yeah. It was a toy. It was, you know, something you can buy in any electronics store.
[Sounds of waves, the surf against the shore.]
JS: Andersson spent $10,000 on the boat charter, and another $10,000 on the underwater drone with a high-resolution camera. Andersson began his investigation onboard a vessel named “The Baltic Explorer,” on May 22nd. He declared his mission “an act of popular oversight.”
[Audio of Erik’s expedition.]
Erik Andersson: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Crew member: Yeah.
Erik Andersson: On the inside.
Crew member: Nice.
Erik Andersson: A small, circular spot. OK, there …
Crew member: You can see a disturbance here.
Erik Andersson: Wow.
Crew member: And, also, the shadow means that there is a hole there, on that side.
Erik Andersson: But now we found it.
Crew member: Yeah.
Erik Andersson: Thanks to you guys who have this. You know, normal people who are investing normal money into the sonar and not able to see this.
Crew member: Yeah. Yeah. We are happy to help in any way we can. Normally we are trying to find fishing nets, and now we are trying to find demolition spots on the pipeline, so that is actually a little bit new for us.
[Audio of Erik’s expedition ends.]
Jeremy Scahill: What was the purpose of you spending your money and going out there and doing this? Like, what did you hope to achieve by doing this, and why did you feel it was necessary?
Erik Andersson: Well, I felt that the particular things that we were doing — like mapping the seafloor, mapping the topography of the sites — that would bring an understanding to the mechanics of the whole thing. You know, how the pipeline ruptured, and the chain reaction that blew away 250 meters, in one case, and 60 meters in the other case.
You know, all this, the physics of it, I could sort out and talk about, and I thought that could limit the amount of narratives that were spreading around. It was also very clear to me from the beginning that the most interesting site was the smallest site, that most of the media actually was forgetting about, because it was so hard to explain its existence. But there was this small place where the pipeline didn’t rupture at all; it was just a crack in it. And that’s because it had lost most of its pressure. And when the bomb exploded, you could actually see the direct effect of the bomb.
So, that was really … Without having that opportunity, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I was afraid that the investigators had cut off the pipeline and taken away this whole piece of the pipeline, which had this evidence. So, the evidence was gone. So I was very, very happy to actually find exactly that, the primary impact of the bombs.
[Audio of Erik’s expedition continues.]
Erik Andersson [on the expedition]: Well, we’re looking for the small leak now. I think, I mean, this is really my main thing. I think this is the holy grail of this whole investigation. If we can find a small hole in Nord Stream 2, Line A, Swedish zone. I call it NS-2S.
But it’s not so easy to find. We didn’t see it on the boat-mounted sonar, so we have to send down the fish; that’s what the guys are doing now. And then, hopefully, we’ll see something, and what we want to see is, really, the primary impact of the explosives.
[Audio of Erik’s expedition ends.]
Jeremy Scahill: Describe the significance of that, what you saw, and what it said, then, or what it proved, about the assertion that this must have been a large quantity — perhaps 500 to a thousand-kilogram bombs — of military grade explosive.
Erik Andersson: Yeah. I think we said we wanted to know the size of the bomb, the placement of the bomb, and the type of the bomb. And I think what we found was that the pipeline was bent inwards over an area of two-and-a-half meters and the concrete was blown away, which meant that it was not one of these very advanced cutting charges. It looked much more like a slab of explosives. Maybe 20, 30, 40 kilos, I don’t know exactly. The experts are saying different things. But we could also say that it was dug down in the mud next to the pipeline, a little bit under the pipeline. You could see that by the location of the hole.
And I think that that was very consistent with one of the theories, almost like Seymour Hersh had described it. That the divers were working quickly, and they were digging down the bombs in the mud. So, it was consistent with any story. Andromeda, also. You know, a diver who had a limited time — like 15, 20 minutes — could have done it.
JS: For three days, Andersson’s vessel traversed the crime scene in the Baltic Sea, and he created extensive sonar maps of each of the blast sites. He filmed the damage from the explosions, and the sites where sections of pipelines ruptured. He discovered craters from gas explosions, and found evidence suggesting that the bombs had been dug into the mud, indicating that divers, not drones, likely placed explosives under or along the lines.
Perhaps the most important finding in Andersson’s expedition was that one of the bombs had hit an already-depressurized part of the pipeline, which meant the puncture wound from the bomb was still intact. He not only found the spot but, using his drone, he filmed what is the only private footage of primary damage from an explosive device used in the bombing.
[Audio of Erik’s expedition continues.]
Erik Andersson [on the expedition]: It’s right on the seam. So, this is the first evidence that they actually put the explosives on the seam. OK, let’s come up. They knew about the seam.
Crew member: This must be the leak.
Erik Andersson: I have hypothesized that they were digging in under the pipeline, putting the bombs under the pipeline to make them completely invisible. But that seems not to be the case. It seems to be maybe buried a little bit in the mud, but clearly on one side of the pipeline, because the crater is on the side, it’s not going on both sides of the pipeline.
JS: When The Intercept and Die Zeit showed Andersson’s footage to underwater demolition experts, they estimated that the bombs could have been much smaller than the dominant estimates of hundreds of kilos. It could have been done with bombs as small as 10 to 50 kilograms. That meant that the circle of possible suspects could be much wider than large nation states like the U.S. or Russia.
Despite his initial skepticism of The Andromeda sailboat story, Andersson’s expedition convinced him it was a solid — if not the most plausible — theory.
Erik Andersson: Oh, I think it’s quite feasible. You know, I didn’t know too much about all this, but I’ve, now, after doing the expedition and talking to several very advanced divers and their confidence in doing it … I mean, then I think it makes a lot of sense. If you want to be discreet in this very highly-surveilled sea, it makes total sense to use a sailboat, and it definitely could be done.
Jeremy Scahill: In fact, I spoke to one of the top divers in Sweden, if not one of the top divers in the world, Peter Anderson; no relation to you, but he’s also of Sweden. And he said that there’s actually a kind of quiet brilliance to the idea of using a sailboat to conduct this attack, versus using almost any other kind of ship, in part because no one would suspect that you were doing this from such a sailboat.
Erik Andersson: Yeah, of course. I mean, when we went out, we got a phone call from Switzerland, from the Nord Stream 2 company, because they saw us go there with a dive ship and they got very nervous. So, of course, it looks very suspicious if a ship that’s typically associated with dive operations would be placed right over the pipelines. And we had a steel boat, it would be very visible on the radar. But sailboats, on the other hand, there are lots of them going back and forth, and there are crazy people who like to go out in bad weather. So, it’s a good cover.
JS: The Andromeda is a 50-foot pleasure yacht owned by a German company and based in the Baltic Sea port of Rostock. It was chartered for a September 2022 voyage by a Polish-registered company owned by Ukrainians. It had all the markings of a front company.
Holger Stark: So, renting a yacht in Germany is similar to renting a car. You need a kind of driving license; in this case, a sailing license. You need a passport, some kind of ID.
JS: Again, Holger Stark.
Holger Stark: So, what happens is that this email coming from Ukraine — as an analysis finds out — this email, when The Andromeda was reserved, contained two passports. One of the alleged skipper, turned out that it’s a guy called Mihail Popov, with a Bulgarian passport, and a second guy with a Romanian passport under the name of Stefan Marku.
Investigators find out those two passports are entirely forged on a professional level, and they identify a Ukrainian soldier from the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, who, allegedly, is the person on the passport under the name of Stefan Marcu. The person denies strongly, and says, ‘My identity, obviously, has been stolen.’ The investigators are not entirely sure if that’s true or not but, at least, that’s one of the suspects so far.
The second guy — the skipper Mihail Popov, allegedly a Bulgarian guy — we know from several harbors where the ship made stopovers that he was on board. So, he obviously was the person which sailed the boat for the entire time. The identity has not been verified so far, but investigators are in the process of finding out who that person is.
JS: As German and Swedish authorities have investigated The Andromeda’s journey, they have interviewed eyewitnesses who described strange behavior on the part of its crew that made them stand out to other ships and port workers. In several locations, they were observed moving large amounts of cargo onto the vessel and they seemed to completely reject many of the norms of conduct common among sailors.
Holger Stark: A lot of equipment has been brought on board of The Andromeda. And then, the next day, the boat, on September 8th of 2022, the boat leaves the harbor of Rostock and sails to the east, to another small harbor called Breege, on an island called Rügen, which is a popular small harbor when you want to take the route to Sweden or Denmark.
And, again, a car comes up, and several people are carrying bags, probably with groceries, on board, so it looks like the crew is preparing for a really long and extensive trip. So, the question is, why do they bring a lot of equipment in the first harbor, and then, again, a lot of equipment in, like, the groceries in the second harbor. That is also unusual. Why is there a car in the second harbor as well? So, usually you just deliver stuff in the first place, and then you start sailing.
And the yacht, again, pops up in an harbor in Sweden called Sandham, and that is significant, because there are several witnesses describing the yacht and the crew, very detailed.
JS: During an incident at the harbor in Sweden, The Andromeda left a big impression on some other sailors. A sailboat with just one man on board pulled into the harbor to escape bad weather, and was calling for assistance docking his boat. It is part of the sailor’s code for others to come to the assistance of a vessel needing help, particularly one skippered by a so-called short-handed or one-handed sailor.
Holger Stark: It’s one of those days where the Baltic Sea is kind of rough, there’s a lot of wind. The waves are up to, like, two meters high, two-and-a-half meters, even. And the yacht, The Andromeda, is already in the harbor. There’s a German sailor next to The Andromeda. And, suddenly, another boat comes into the harbor.
The sea outside is rough, so the person is really kind of exhausted. But the crew of The Andromeda is just taking no notice at all, although the one-handed sailor is next to them. So, everybody expects them to help, to give him a hand, but they just ignore him.
JS: Two other sailors at the dock that evening, one of them German, witnessed the incident, and they later confront the crew of The Andromeda for their refusal to assist.
Holger Stark: He counts five men and one woman again. Two more people, two more witnesses confirm his account. They say that two of the men are something like, between 35- and 40-something years old. Well trained, they all have, like military haircuts, look really sporty and in good shape.
And the next morning, on September 14th, The Andromeda disappears from that Harbor. And the assumption is that, sometime between that day, September 14th, and around, let’s say, September 20th, the devices have been brought to the site and have been installed at the time. So, Sweden probably was the last international harbor.
Afterwards, the yacht also has been observed to be first on Christiansø, which is a very small Danish island. It’s a perfect place, to be seen, because there are just a few boats, and no one is really taking care of them.
JS: On September 19th, The Andromeda docks in the Polish harbor of Ko?obrzeg, and the harbormaster finds the crew suspicious, so he calls in the Polish customs authority, who perform a search of the ship and the crew’s documents.
Holger Stark: So, the boat comes into the harbor, and one of the crew members goes to the harbor office and wants to pay for the night. The night is like 80 zloty, 17 euro, which might be some 20 bucks or so. And the way how the crew member speaks with an Eastern accent, it might be Ukraine, might be Russian. The harbormaster can’t remember well. But he remembers it [as an] Eastern European accent, and that makes him suspicious, because he sees the yacht is a German boat under a German flag, and then he sees the crew and they all speak with the same accent.
But it’s a German boat, so he said, well, maybe they stole the boat or something. And he alarms customs and customs control, and writes down like five names, allegedly all Bulgarian, seems to be all fake IDs. But one of these names is Mihail Popov.
So, the skipper, the Bulgarian guy who rented the boat in Rostov in the first place.
JS: Stark says that this incident became a point of suspicion in his investigation — and that of the German authorities as well — because of how quick the Polish authorities were to insist that there was no reason to be suspicious of the crew or its movements in the Baltic Sea the preceding days.
Holger Stark: So, the big question mark here is, if the Polish authorities somehow observed what The Andromeda was doing, maybe they had a tip or something and tried to cover it up. Because Poland always has been a political opponent of Nord Stream 1 and 2. They never wanted Germany to conduct that kind of business with the Russians. They always were on the American side when it came to the question if there would be sanctions, should sanctions be imposed, or so.
So, Poland always had a vital interest to [destroy], basically, those pipelines. And even though they might not be involved directly, the strong assumption — not only by us as reporters, but also by German investigators — is that the Poles know something about that, they are just not willing to say so.
JS: If one were to look at the Nord Stream bombing and list the countries with a motive, Poland would be high on the list. It also stands to benefit financially from its destruction.
On September 27th, 2022 — literally one day after the bombing — Poland held a ribbon cutting ceremony to open its own Baltic pipeline, which was built as a competitor to Nord Stream. It’s set to begin delivering gas from Norway in October 2023.
Reporter, Euronews Now: In a move that Europe hopes will ease its energy crisis, leaders have inaugurated a new pipeline delivering gas from Norway to Poland. The Polish prime minister was joined by counterparts from Denmark and Norway, as well as E.U. representatives.
It comes at a convenient time, as Europe is trying desperately to find new energy sources, and after Denmark and Sweden’s discovery of a massive leak on the Nord Stream pipeline.
JS: Poland has been the most aggressive proponent of expanding NATO action against Russia during the Ukraine war, and its forces have conducted covert operations with the assistance of the CIA. While none of this is proof Poland was involved in the Nord Stream bombing, it does make the actions of Poland surrounding The Andromeda investigation all the more suspicious.
Jeremy Scahill: What you’re saying is that the German officials are frustrated that they feel that Poland is actually not being fully transparent with Germany, and that when Poland was asked about their own customs officials’ interaction with this ship that may well be at the center of a massive international crime, not only did Poland sort of downplay it, but Poland seemed to have gone out of its way in a public statement to say, oh no, they don’t have anything to do with terrorism at all. These were tourists.
This is an extraordinary thing for a government to do, given the sensitivity of this investigation. I just want to put a fine point on that. That, for some reason, Poland found it appropriate to almost serve as defense attorney for the crew of this ship in the middle of a multinational terrorism investigation.
Holger Stark: Yeah. And look, Jeremy, for Poland, they look eastwards to Russia and see an adversary, and they look westwards and see Germany. And, even though those two countries are in the European Union, it doesn’t mean they’re best friends. I would not go so far to say, like, Germany is an adversary of Poland, but there’s a lot of suspicion in Poland when it comes to Germany. Given the historical past, of course, but also the current situation. And Nord Stream always was geopolitical, also for the Poles. And, as you described, there’s this other competing gas pipeline that the Poles are now supporting, and using, and benefiting from.
So, the Poles have a strong interest that Nord Stream 1 and 2 never become operational again. So, I’m not going so far to say that Poland is a coconspirator here and part of the operation, even though we know that Polish covert operation forces are incredibly capable. They have huge interest in doing operations against Russia whenever possible. They are closely together with the Americans, and support Ukraine wherever it’s possible.
But what’s obvious is that the Poles want to somehow distract from that ship, from The Andromeda, and from the crew, and somehow do not want that these guys on the ship will be identified or seen as the potential perpetrators here. And that makes me wonder why the Poles insist so much.
JS: James Bamford said he believes Poland deserves much more scrutiny in the Nord Stream investigations, and argues that, next to Ukraine, it should be viewed as a prime suspect, in large part because they had the most to gain from the destruction of the pipeline.
James Bamford: As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister of Poland and the Prime Minister of Ukraine jointly wrote a long piece in Politico not long before the bombing, saying that we should do away with the pipelines, that they’ve got to go.
It was perfect timing, actually, for Poland, because the day after the explosion of the Nord Stream pipeline, as the bubbles were still pouring to the surface, the Polish government christened their own pipeline, the Baltic pipeline. They had a big ceremony, and they were very happy to do away with the Nord Stream pipeline, because it would’ve been competition. This way, they get rid of the Nord Stream pipeline at the same time they get their own pipeline coming in with cheaper gas.
So, it was very ironic to see, on the very next day after the blowing-up of the Nord Stream pipeline, that you get the inauguration of the Baltic pipeline, to the happiness of the Polish government, and so forth.
And so, you get the Polish government and the Ukrainian government, the two people most pleased by the explosion at the Nord Stream pipeline.
JS: Ukraine has emphatically denied it had anything to do with the Nord Stream attacks, and Poland has said there is no Polish connection whatsoever to the bombings, but the trail of forensics quite dramatically undermines these assertions.
In a new investigative story released on the anniversary of the bombings, Stark and his colleagues reported on the man they believe was in control of the front company used to charter The Andromeda.
Holger Stark: The traces are quite clear, it’s the lead of the money. There is this company in Poland — in Warsaw, the capital of Poland — it’s called Feeria Lwowa. It seems to be a shell company. Officially, it’s run by two Ukrainian women, but if you look into the registers, into court documents and other stuff, you’ll see that the beneficiary behind it is a Ukrainian businessman called Rustem A. He lives in the northern part of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in some kind of gated community, and one of our reporters knocked on the door there and called him as well. So, they’re kind of like, playing back and forth a little bit, until the guy hears why we want to talk to him. We say Nord Stream, we say The Andromeda. The very moment he hears those two subjects, he starts getting aggressive. He threatens the reporters, even threatened with death and some physical punishment.
So, that very person who is in control of that company, Feeria Lwowa in Poland, is obviously behind the money, or at least the charter, the money that has been wired to rent the yacht. And the key question here is: for whom did he do it? Did he do it because he’s a part of the conspiracy? Did he do it because other people asked him to do it? Or was he used without knowing anything?
What we hear from sources in his surrounding is that he has been approached by one of his clients, one of his business partners, to rent the yacht. So he did it on behalf of someone, but he’s a strong person of interest for the German investigators, because he could lead to the guys who are pulling the strings behind the scene.
JS: At this very moment, somewhere in the world, there is, without a doubt, a small group of people who know exactly what happened one year ago deep under the waters of the Baltic Sea. More importantly, they know why it happened, and who ordered it. They could be almost anywhere — in Kyiv, or Moscow, in Warsaw or Washington D.C. — but who these people are is, in many ways, less important than unmasking who sent them on a mission to commit one of the most audacious international crimes in modern history: the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines.
Holger Stark: I think it’s very important to be honest and to say that there are still a lot of question marks and unknowns here. And many experts doubt that the Russians would be capable of something like that. But, given the huge resistance that we’re seeing here from almost every actor, given that the Danes and the Swedes, the prosecutors and the investigators there, are radio silent and do not say anything at all. Given the political implication, what it would mean if Ukraine is responsible for such an attack.
Germany is one of the strongest supporters delivering weapons, over billions and billions of euros, as much as they can. Same with the United States. So, having a case where that very country that gets your support on one hand, on the other hand, tries to sabotage one of your energy supply lines, would raise huge question marks in Germany.
Finally, when we broke the story in March that the leads point to Ukraine, everyone was denying it. Ukraine obviously was denying it, the Germans said there is nothing we can say here so far, the Americans commented in a quite similar way. And even the Russians said, no, not Ukraine, but it’s the CIA or it’s the U.S. who is behind it.
So, this is a story, and this is a lead no one really wants to uncover. And, as a reporter, that makes me believe that this is the right direction we are looking in.
JS: For his part, Erik Andersson’s expedition — along with the reporting from Stark and others on The Andromeda plot — has changed his view on how the Nord Stream pipelines were bombed, but he is not ready to exonerate the United States.
Erik Andersson: My current working theory is that this Andromeda story is probably true, but I think that America has its hand behind it, or I don’t think it would be done without the blessing of the United States, one way or another. I think there is a lot more to be uncovered there.
[Music cue ends.]
JS: Holger Stark’s new reporting can be read in both German and English at Zeit.de. He worked with a consortium of international news outlets on this investigation. They include ARD, and Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, Expressen in Sweden, NOS Newshour in the Netherlands, Intelligence Online in France, Frontstory in Poland and Delfi in Lithuania. Also, be sure to check out The Intercept’s reporting on the Nord Stream bombing, and my in-depth profile of Erik Andersson and his expedition, Fishing for Secrets in the Nord Stream Abyss.
[Intercepted outro theme music.]
JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.
Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show, and this episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
If you want to support our work, you can go to theintercept.com/join. Your donation, no matter what the size, makes a real difference. And, if you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted, and definitely leave us a rating or a review wherever you find your podcasts. It helps other listeners to find us as well.
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Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.