Ukraine, Nord Stream enigma: one year after the explosions it is still a mystery

Investigations by three countries have attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to piece together the puzzle of this thriller in the Baltic Sea

It is gone a year since a series of underwater explosions seriously damaged the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, exacerbating the geopolitical tensions already strong due to the invasion of Ukraine. Investigations by three countries have attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to piece together the puzzle of this thriller in the Baltic Sea, in a context in which all parties to the conflict – namely in Moscow and Kiev – appeared to have a motive or could have benefited from the incident. Sabotage remains an enigma to this day.

A year ago the explosions

On September 26, 2022, four huge gas leaks occurred off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm, preceded by underwater explosions within a few hours of each other, on Nord Stream 1 and 2, the gas pipelines connecting Russia to Germany and which transported most of the Russian gas to Europe. The explosions were immediately denounced by Western authorities as a dangerous act of sabotage. According to the Danish Energy Agency, the three damaged sections contained 778 million cubic meters of natural gas and the resulting leak was probably one of the largest leaks of methane gas into the atmosphere.

The implications of the sabotage were significant: An attack on the critical infrastructure of a NATO member state threatened to drag the European Union and the Alliance into war. Furthermore, the timing of the attack was highly suspicious since at that stage Europe was trying to escape its dependence on Russian energy.

The attack caused a global sensation, but actually had no immediate effect on Europe’s energy supply. At that time, in fact, the Russian state energy company Gazprom had interrupted the supply of gas via Nord Stream 1, while the twin Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, completed at the end of 2021 and for many years the subject of contention between Berlin and Washington, did not never entered service. The latter was an $11 billion project that the Ukrainians, as well as the Americans, feared would give Russia too much influence over Europe’s energy security.

The hypothesis

A year later, it is still unclear who blew up the Nord Stream gas pipelines. While some officials argue that the operation was so complex that it could only be carried out by one state, others believe that the shallowness of the pipelines made it possible for non-state actors to intervene. What everyone agrees on is that the attack was deliberate. “These are deliberate actions, not an accident,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told reporters soon after the incident.

Moscow and Kiev have both denied any responsibility. US and European officials initially blamed Russia, but that view changed as the investigation developed.

In December 2022, a European official told the Washington Post that there was no conclusive evidence at that point to suggest Russian involvement, an opinion that was confirmed in the months that followed. And this despite some Western secret services having demonstrated the presence of Russian warships around the sites of the attacks in the weeks preceding the explosions.

In February, American journalist Seymour Hersh claimed in an article on Substack based on an anonymous source that US Navy divers, operating undercover during a NATO exercise with Norway in the Baltic Sea, planted explosives on the two gas pipelines in the summer of 2022, subsequently receiving orders to detonate them in response to Russia’s invasion. The Biden Administration has categorically denied the accusation.

In March, Western officials told the Washington Post that some information – based on intelligence communications – suggested the hand of a pro-Ukrainian group, which may have been operating without Kiev’s knowledge. The same newspaper revealed – according to intelligence documents leaked and shared on the Discord platform – that months before the explosions the CIA had learned from an ally that the Ukrainian army had planned a secret attack on the Nord Streams.

The hypotheses followed one another almost without interruption. A former British naval intelligence officer suspected a Russian scientific vessel, the Sibiriakov, while the Danish newspaper Information pointed the finger at the SS-750, another Russian vessel specialized in marine underwater operations and present in the area shortly before the explosions . “The main hypothesis is that a state was behind” the sabotage, Swedish prosecutor Mats Ljungqvist said in April, adding that the perpetrators knew “very well that they would leave traces.”

The Ukrainian track

German investigators, specifically, instead focused on the role of a boat rented under a false identity and suspected of having been used to transport the explosives used in the attack. Following this lead, the German media Der Spiegel and Zdf rented this 15 meter long sailing boat, the ‘Andromeda’, to reconstruct the journey that – according to them – a Ukrainian crew made up of five men and a woman would have made from the German port of Rostock to the Danish island of Bornholm. The conclusion reached by Der Spiegel and Zdf is that all leads point to Kiev, defining the results as “politically sensitive”.

Ukrainian involvement would be very difficult to manage for Kiev’s Western allies, while for Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Center for Eastern European Studies in Stockholm, a scenario involving Russia is “the most probable”. Since Moscow had cut off flows to Europe in alleged retaliation for Western sanctions, the sabotage could have allowed it to “kill two birds with one stone”, Umland believed. On the one hand, freeing Gazprom, the majority shareholder of the gas pipelines, from claims for compensation from its customers by invoking a case of ‘force majeure’. On the other hand, the expert continues, to cast suspicion on Kiev and “destroy Ukraine’s reputation”.

The ‘complex’ investigations of three countries

Germany, Denmark and Sweden have separately opened investigations into the attack and continue to cooperate on the matter, but have so far reached no concrete results. “The nature of the acts of sabotage is unprecedented and the investigations are complex,” the three countries said in a letter sent to the United Nations Security Council in July.