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Who blew it up? The mystery behind the Nord Stream pipeline explosions

Theories abound as to who planted the underwater explosives last September that severed the 700-mile pipeline linking Russia and Germany. Was it Russia, the U.S. or even Ukraine? (Leer en español)
Publicado 8 Mar 2023 – 02:53 PM EST | Actualizado 8 Mar 2023 – 03:15 PM EST
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In this Handout Photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on September 27, 2022. Crédito: Handout/Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images

Early on September 26 last year a mysterious underwater explosion sent a sudden upwards burst of methane gas bubbling to the surface of the Baltic sea.

Swedish seismologists detected two separate underwater explosions within a few hours of eachother, near the Danish island of Bornholm.

Soon after a pressure drop was reported in two key gas pipelines running between Germany and Russia, known as Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2.

Arial images showed a circular froth on the sea surface the size of several football fields where an estimated 778 million cubic meters of methane was released.

It soon emerged that two large underwater explosions had severed the 700-mile long pipelines, sparking an international incident and a flurry of accusations over who was responsible. Coming only seven months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, suspicion immediately fell on Russia which was threatening to cut off gas supplies to clients in Europe in retaliation for their support for the government of president Vlodymyr Zelensky in Kiev.

Nord Stream: a mystery spy thriller

Five months later, the incident remains unsolved, bearing the hallmarks of an international spy thriller.
Investigations have so far revealed little doubt that the damage to the pipeline was caused by sabotage, presumably by skilled divers, a submarine or a submersible drone.

Russia was quick to accuse the United States and Britain, while others have pointed the finger at Moscow itself. Another theory is that Ukraine - or pro-Ukrainian saboteurs - conducted the operation.

But figuring out who has the best motive isn’t easy due to the complicated nature of Russia’s oil and gas exports. Nord Stream 1 had been supplying Germany with cheap, reliable gas since 2011, while Nord Stream 2 had just been completed but was not yet operational.

Why is the Nord Stream pipeline so important?

On the one hand, Russian president Vladimir Putin had an interest in finding ways to hurt Europe, especially in the winter months when families are more reliant of gas heating for their homes. The Swiss-based joint venture behind Nord Stream, which is 51% owned by the Russian state energy firm Gazprom, supplied 18% of all of Europe’s gas imports and the explosions also sent energy prices skyrocketing, meaning more money for Russian exports.

But why would Russia bomb its own pipelines? After all, it now faces multi-million dollar repair costs and has to pay Ukraine for gas transit rights for its only other land based pipeline.

Putin had already cut off Nord Stream gas

For their part, Europe and the United States have imposed sanctions on Russian oil and gas and have been looking for any means possible to cripple Moscow’s finances. But the pipelines were already effectively offline before the explosions, making the sabotage unnecessary, at least in the short term.

Russia took Nord Stream I offline in late August, blaming mechanical issues. In early September, the Kremlin said that the pipeline would be shut indefinitely. Nord Stream 2 never entered service as Germany suspended its certification process shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a potential motive for Ukraine might be to make Putin reliant on its only other land-based pipeline across Ukraine, for which it reportedly earns about $1 billion a year in transit fees. The U.S. and other critics of Nord Stream, had long argued that its construction left Ukraine more vulnerable to pressure from Moscow by making the land pipeline redundant.

Others argued that Nord Stream would make Europe too reliant on Russian gas, giving Moscow leverage over the European Union with its ability to turn off supplies.

Could Ukraine have done it?

“It’s an open secret in Washington that Ukraine did it,” said Univision military analyst, Roger Pardo-Maurer, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the administration of George W Bush with close ties to sources in the defense and intelligence community. “Everyone is wondering why it’s taking so long to come out officially. We categorically had nothing to do with it. But we know who did it,” he added.

So do the Ukrainians, said Pardo-Maurer, adding that German police had uncovered evidence regarding documents used to rent the vessel involved.

The New York Times reported this week that U.S. intelligence sources believe a team of pro-Ukrainian saboteurs carried out the mission, though it is not clear if the Ukrainian government knew about it or sanctioned it.

Ukraine has denied any involvement.

U.S. officials have spoken openly about official efforts to undermine Russia’s oil and gas industry. Speaking to the United Nations in late February, U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, accused Putin of “weaponizing” energy, without referring to the pipeline.

The investigation is "on-going"

A couple of things are now clear. The U.N. ambassadors of Denmark and Sweden informed the U.N Security Council last months that their investigations have established the pipelines were extensively damaged “by powerful explosions due to sabotage” equal to “several hundred kilos of explosives.”

"Investigations on the exact circumstances are still going on. As long as investigations are on-going we cannot draw definitive conclusions," Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told reporters on Wednesday at a meeting of European defense ministers in Stockholm.

"I don't want to speculate. This is an on-going inquiry by a prosecutor and being conducted (with the) support of the Swedish security services," added Sweden's Minister for Defense, Pål Jonson.

The operation clearly required sophisticated planning and expertise. The pipelines are four feet in diameter, built of steel and encased in concrete in order to withstand underwater pressures. Each of the 100,000 or so sections of the pipeline weighs 24 metric tons. Blowing them up would require a substantial charge of carefully detonated plastic explosives.

The section of the pipeline that was damaged was in relatively shallow waters - around 50 meters deep – well within the range of military divers.

“We certainly have provided that kind of underwater demolition training to the Ukrainians. But, it was their own idea and there was no coordination whatsoever with our people,” said Pardo-Maurer. “The Ukrainians deserve a hearty round of applause for a job well done. It’s a legitimate military target,” he added.

Last month Russia called for a resolution calling for an urgent United Nations investigation into the explosion.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev told the state-controlled Russian TV station, RT, that he had no information on who exactly sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines.

Patrushev was responding to a question from a reporter who asked him to comment on an investigative report by veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh, who claimed the pipelines were targeted in a U.S.-staged clandestine operation.

Hersh’s report was strongly denied by U.S. officials. “This is utterly false and complete fiction,” Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, told the media in a statement.