Status: 26.09.2023, 10:22 a.m.
Gas leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. © ABACAPRESS/Imago
Exactly one year ago, the two important gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 in the Baltic Sea were damaged. Investigators assume sabotage – but who is behind it? What we know so far.
A year ago, the Nord Stream pipelines, which are designed to transport natural gas from Russia to Europe, were severely damaged by underwater explosions, further fueling geopolitical tensions already exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine.
The September 26, 2022 attack, which broke the line between Russia and Germany, was quickly condemned by Western authorities as a brazen and dangerous act of sabotage. The impact was significant: an attack on a member state's critical infrastructure threatened to drag the European Union and NATO into the war, at a time when Europe was still working to break away from its dependence on Russian energy.
Shortly after the attack, an expert compared the situation to an Agatha Christie thriller, in which all parties involved - namely Russia and Ukraine - seemed to have a motive or could benefit from the outcome.
In recent months, however, official investigations in three countries have yielded few answers, and the question of who is behind the attacks remains.
A year later, we know the following about the investigation.
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What happened to Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2?
On September 26, 2022, the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea were damaged by explosions, leaving only one gas pipeline of the network intact. According to the Danish Energy Agency, the three damaged sections contained 778 million cubic meters of natural gas, and the resulting leak was likely one of the largest single leaks of methane gas into the atmosphere, experts said. The explosions occurred in international waters off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm.
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"These are deliberate acts, not an accident," Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told reporters after the incident. "The situation is as serious as it can be." The attack caused a worldwide sensation, but had no immediate impact on Europe's energy supply.
Russia's state-owned energy company Gazprom had stopped gas supplies via Nord Stream 1 in early September 2022, when the pipeline was still in operation. The Nord Stream 2 project was suspended in February 2022 after Germany halted approval for the pipeline ahead of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline was controversial, and both Ukrainians and the U.S. feared that the project would give Russia too much influence on energy security in Europe. Ukraine, which for a long time played the role of intermediary, forwarding Russian gas to Europe in exchange for transit fees, feared that Russia would use the project to further isolate them.
Who blew up the Nord Stream pipelines?
That remains unclear. While some officials claim that it was a complex operation that could only be carried out by a nation-state, others point to the shallow depth of the pipelines, which points to the possibility of non-state actors. Everyone agrees that the attack was deliberate. Both Moscow and Kiev have denied responsibility for this.
U.S. and European officials initially blamed Russia, but that opinion changed as the investigation accelerated.
In December 2022, a European official said there was no conclusive evidence of Russian involvement at the time, as reported by the Washington Post, a view shared by nearly two dozen diplomats and intelligence officials in nine countries. Some other Western intelligence has shown that Russian naval vessels were spotted near the sites of the attacks in the weeks leading up to the attacks.
Questions have also arisen about the guilt of Ukraine, which has long resisted the Kremlin-backed pipelines.
German investigators focused on the role of a 50-foot yacht called Andromeda, which had been chartered under a false identity. Authorities suspected that the boat was used to transport the explosives used in the attack.
In March, Western officials told The Post that some information, based on intelligence communications, pointed to a pro-Ukrainian group that may have been operating without the direct knowledge of Kiev.
The Post reported in June that months before the explosions, the CIA had learned from an ally that the Ukrainian military had been planning a covert attack on the Nord Stream pipelines, according to leaked intelligence documents shared on the Discord chat platform.
Last month, Der Spiegel, together with ZDF, published a month-long investigation from around the world. All indications, the report said, pointed to Kiev and called the results "politically sensitive."
German investigators described the operation as an attack on the internal security of the state," Der Spiegel said, adding that it was aimed at causing permanent damage.
In February, American journalist Seymour Hersh claimed in an article on Substack that U.S. Navy divers planted explosives on the two pipelines as part of a NATO exercise with Norway in the Baltic Sea in the summer of 2022 and later received orders to blow them up in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden administration categorically rejected this claim. Hersh's account was based on a single anonymous source and has not been confirmed by any other media source.
What is the status of the investigation into the acts of sabotage?
Germany, Denmark and Sweden have independently launched investigations into the attack and continue to cooperate on this matter.
"The nature of the acts of sabotage is unprecedented and the investigations are complex," the three countries said in a letter to the UN Security Council in July. The Russian authorities have been informed about the developments, it said.
The investigations in Germany are led by the Attorney General of the Federal Court of Justice together with the Federal Police. The investigation is ongoing, and it is not yet possible to establish the identity of the perpetrators or whether the act was committed by a state or a state actor, Germany said in the letter to the United Nations.
The Swedish security agency, led by prosecutor Mats Ljungqvist, is leading the investigation and says it has carried out "extensive seizures" at the scene.
"We hope to conclude the investigation soon, but there is still a lot of work to be done and nothing will happen in the next four weeks," Ljungqvist told Reuters last week. Earlier, he said that the "main scenario" includes the involvement of a state actor, the report said.
In the meantime, security, intelligence and police authorities have been involved in the Danish investigation and are cooperating with foreign authorities.
Russia has requested a U.N. investigation into the matter.
What will this mean for the war in Ukraine?
Stefan Meister, an expert on EU-Russia relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email that Europe will not stop supporting Ukraine, regardless of who is responsible. The pipelines are history, now it depends on Russia's actions in Ukraine, he said.
"We're in a different phase now... with Russia and Ukraine, where this gas connection is less important," he wrote, adding that it is more important that Ukraine does not lose the war.
However, the attack has caused Europe to rethink the security of its critical infrastructure, Meister said.
About the author
Niha Masih is a reporter in the Seoul bureau of the Washington Post, where she covers breaking news from the United States and around the world. Previously, she was the Post's India correspondent, where she covered the rise of majority nationalism, the conflict in Kashmir, the Covid crisis and digital surveillance of citizens.
We are currently testing machine translations. This article has been automatically translated from English into German.
This article was first published in English by "Washingtonpost.com" on September 25, 2023 - in the course of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to the readers of IPPEN. MEDIA portals.