Nord Stream pipeline sabotage: rush to judgment

Nordstream

Ukraine is denying¬†involvement in September’s attack on the¬†Nord Stream pipelines, which were built to carry Russian natural gas to Germany (but had already been shut by Russia¬†before¬†the apparent sabotage). The denials follow¬†a March 7 report in the¬†New York Times, citing¬†anonymous US intelligence officials to the effect that¬†an unnamed “pro-Ukrainian group” was to blame. (BBC News)¬†German prosecutors simultaneoulsy announced their investigators had¬†found “traces” of explosive on a¬†yacht that had sailed to the site of the attack from Rostok just beforehand, and had been rented from a Polish-based company that is “apparently owned by two Ukrainians.” (Politico,¬†The Guardian)

A roundtable on the revelations on¬†France24 reveals how the lines are predictably drawn. A panel of mainstream journalists and wonks are all fairly noncommittal on the thesis of a Ukrainian hand in the attack, while also raising the alternative theory of a Russian covert operation against their own pipeline as a provocation. The panel’s one dissident is Georges Kuzmanovic of the Sovereign Republic party, a new populist formation in France, whose page on Conspiracy Watch¬†makes clear his pro-Russian proclivities.¬†Kuzmanovic¬†harps on a third thesis: that the attack was a covert operation by the United States. In defense of this accusation, he cites¬†a recent piece by the¬†increasingly questionable¬†Seymour Hersh, with the slightly dishonest title “How America Took Out The Nord Stream Pipeline.”

We say “dishonest” because the headline strongly implies concrete evidence‚ÄĒbut there is none, only (exactly as with the NY Times piece) anonymous and therefore uverifiable sources. The piece is nonetheless getting much wide-eyed circulation from online partisans of both the left and right. While¬†Kuzmanovic and his Sovereign Republic appear to be a vague left-right amalgam, the Hersh piece is also credulously plugged in a Feb. 16¬†editorial in The Nation magazine¬†(supposedly America’s foremost “progressive” voice), which we had to¬†call out on the CounterVortex podcast¬†for its cynical pro-Russian slant.

Hersh’s distortions are deftly exposed by the British blog¬†Bartholomew’s Notes, which keeps a very sharp eye on conspiracy theory and the culture wars. We take the liberty of quoting blogger Richard Bartholomew at length:

Several months on, the suggestion that the pipelines were bombed by the US rather than Russia has now received a boost from Seymour Hersh, who has made his case in a much-discussed¬†5000-word Substack post. Hersh‚Äôs account relies on ‚Äúa source with direct knowledge of the operational planning‚ÄĚ; as added context, he dredges up American controversies from the 1970s (the period appears to be his interpretative filter half a century later), and he includes public quotes from Joe Biden and Victoria Nuland as supposed gotchas. The story has been taken at face value by many, with coverage from [Tucker] Carlson, and pro-Russian Irish MEPs Mick Wallace¬†and¬†Clare Daly¬†raising the matter in the European Parliament. Donald Trump Jr¬†suggests¬†that recent the train derailment in Ohio may be Russian retaliation for the bombing.

The UK‚Äôs¬†Daily Mail¬†has also gone all-in, with an article¬†headlined¬†‚ÄúDid Biden give the order to destroy Putin‚Äôs Nord Stream pipeline after Ukraine invasion? Bombshell report claims Navy divers carried out mission to kill Russia‚Äôs gas stranglehold on Europe in audacious mission overseen by president‚ÄĚ, complete with graphics and maps. One wonders why the word ‚Äúreport‚ÄĚ was chosen over ‚Äúarticle‚ÄĚ ‚Äď ‚Äúreport‚ÄĚ has connotations of formal findings at the end of an investigative process. The¬†Mail‚Äės hack, one Lewis Pennock, describes Hersh‚Äôs essay as ‚Äúcompelling‚ÄĚ, and only near the end does he mention that Hersh‚Äôs ‚Äúreporting has previously been criticized for its heavy reliance on unnamed and anonymous sources‚ÄĚ.

However, Hersh‚Äôs article does not fare well under scrutiny. An OSINT [Open Source Intelligence] analysis of specific details of the supposed ‚Äúoperation‚ÄĚ has been published by¬†Oliver Alexander, while Hersh‚Äôs underlying assumptions and narrative framing have been picked apart by the historian and energy researcher¬†Simon Pirani. One small detail¬†spotted¬†by the military affairs reporter Wesley Morgan is that Hersh‚Äôs source describes the attack planning as a ‚Äúgoat fuck‚ÄĚ ‚Äď an unusual expression that just happens to have appeared previously in Hersh‚Äôs reporting. Norway is supposed to have been part of the US conspiracy, and¬†Harald S. Klungtveit, an editor at¬†Filter Nyheter, has further criticisms.

As regards the two ‚Äúgotcha‚ÄĚ quotes, Pirani deals with one:

Hersh refers to¬†a press conference¬†by US president Joe Biden and German chancellor Olaf Scholz on 7 February 2022, where Biden said: ‚ÄúIf Russia invades ‚Ķ there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will put an end to it.‚ÄĚ

‚ĶBiden was answering the question, ‚Äúdid you receive assurances from chancellor Scholz that Germany will pull the plug on this project if Russia invades Ukraine?‚ÄĚ Everyone in the room understood, and anyone who views the clip will see, that this is a conversation about whether the United States could convince Germany to nix the project.

And on 22 February, that‚Äôs what happened. The Kremlin formally recognised the ‚Äúpeople‚Äôs republics‚ÄĚ of Donetsk and Luhansk ‚Äď the clearest signal yet that it intended to invade Ukraine ‚Äď and Scholz announced that German approval for Nord Stream was withdrawn. That meant the pipeline could not be used for the foreseeable future.

Any serious account of what led up to the explosions would have to explain this vital reversal of German policy. Hersh does not mention it.

Hersh similarly misleads on Nuland:

More recently, Victoria Nuland expressed satisfaction at the demise of the newest of the pipelines. Testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in late January she told Senator Ted Cruz, ‚ÄúLike you, I am, and I think the Administration is, very gratified to know that Nord Stream 2 is now, as you like to say, a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea.‚ÄĚ

This echoes Sergei Lavrov’s interpretation of her comment, which had already been addressed by Newsweek:

Her comment clearly meant that the Biden administration was pleased that the $11 billion Russian-owned pipeline‚ÄĒwhich the U.S. had opposed for years on the grounds that it increased European reliance on Russian energy‚ÄĒis not being used. Germany halted the recently finished project just before the invasion last February after Russia formally recognized two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

The magazine also notes that she previously used the phrase in January 2022, and there‚Äôs also¬†an example¬†from March 2022 ‚Äď in other words, the US administration already regarded Nord Stream as useless and defunct months before the bombings. If something that basic falls apart after a moment‚Äôs investigation, why should we believe anything else in Hersh‚Äôs piece? And why didn‚Äôt the¬†Daily Mail¬†spot this?

It‚Äôs doubtful that criticisms or calls for caution will have any effect ‚Äď one of the best ways to con someone is to flatter them into thinking that they‚Äôve seen through a con, and American denials will feed into this tendency. This may apply to Hersh himself ‚Äď has he simply made up his source, or is he being manipulated by someone who has come to him with a tall tale that he was predisposed to accept?

The willingness to believe anonymous, unverifiable sources by boosters of ether Hersh or the New York Times indicates that propaganda partisans are deciding what to believe on the basis of political convenience. And while a US, Ukrainian or even Norwegian motive in the sabotage may seem obvious, there are plausible Russian motives too. As Barthomew notes:

In fact, there are several reasons why Russia might have done it, and an analyst named Emma Ashford came up with¬†several suggestions: (1) Putin signaling that he can damage European energy infrastructure at will; (2) Putin ‚Äúwas tying his own hands and that of any future Russian leader by making it harder to back down from the war in Ukraine‚ÄĚ; and (3) a ‚Äúforce majeure‚ÄĚ basis to counter lawsuits against Gazprom for failure to supply. A further possibility was (4) Russian hawks acting independently of Putin, although Ashford regarded this as ‚Äúimprobable‚ÄĚ.

No matter whose “side” you are on here, we counsel: cool your jets and don’t believe the hype.

Map: Wikipedia

  1. Ukraine plot to attack Nord Stream pipeline revealed

    The Biden administration knew that Ukraine planned to attack the Nord Stream pipeline three months ahead of the actual attack on the gas line, according to documents reviewed by the Washington Post. According to a June 6 report from the Post, the Central Intelligence Agency received information from a Ukrainian national describing a planned bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline sceduled to take place in mid-June 2022. While the planned attack never occurred in June, the Nord Stream pipeline would be badly damaged in an explosion on Sept. 26.

    According to the documents, the bombing was to be carried out by the Ukrainian military in an operation headed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny. The report emphasizes that “the would-be attackers were not rogue operatives.”

    The documents reviewed by the Post were among those leaked by a serviceman and member of a Discord chat group, Jack Teixeira.

    There are several ongoing investigations into the Nord Stream attack, including by Sweden, Denmark and Russia. In February, Russia proposed the UN open an international investigation into the attack, but the vote failed to pass the Security Council‚ÄĒonly China and Brazil supported Russia, with the other 12 members abstaining. (Jurist)

  2. US airman indicted in document leak

    The US Department of Justice on June 15 announced the indictment of Jack Teixeira, the airman suspected of leaking classified intelligence documents. Teixeira faces six counts of willful retention and transmission of classified information. Each of the six charges carries a sentence of up to 10 years prison and a potential fine of $250,000. Teixeira remains in federal custody, following a failed attempt by his legal counsel to obtain his release. (Jurist)

  3. US airman pleads not guilty in document leak

    Jack Teixeira, the US airman suspected of leaking classified government documents, pleaded not guilty on June 21 before a federal judge in a Massachusetts courtroom. Teixeira is charged with six counts of willful retention and transmission of classified information. (Jurist)

  4. Sweden drops investigation into Nord Stream rupture

    Swedish prosecutors annnounced Feb. 7 that the country has dropped its investigation into the 2022 explosions on Nord Stream pipelines.

    The prosecutors concluded that they did not have jurisdiction over the pipeline. According to the official decision, sabotage against the Nord Stream pipeline was not a crime “against the security of the kingdom.”¬†The prosecutor’s office said they gave their findings to Germany, which¬†is still conducting its own investigation.

    The Washington Post reported in November that Ukrainan colonel Roman Chervinsky coordinated the attacks on the Nord Stream pipeline. Chervinsky’s attorney denied Chervinsky’s involvement on the attack on the pipeline. Currently, Chervinsky is in Ukrainian jail for allegedly sharing coordinates of a Ukrainian airfield to a Russian pilot, which authorities claim led to an attack on the airfield, killing one and injuring 17 soldiers. (Jurist)

  5. EU imposes 13th sanctions package on Russia

    The EU unanimously¬†adopted Feb. ¬†21 its 13th package of sanctions against Russia over the ongoing war in Ukraine. The move comes days before the two-year anniversary of Russia’s massive invasion.

    The sanctions aim to further degrade Russia’s war-making capabilities by expanding restrictions on exports and imports. The sanctions include an export ban on goods and technology suited for use in the oil and gas sectors. The sanctions also impose a ban on new investments in the Russian energy sector, a ban on Russian coal, seaborne oil and petroleum product¬†imports into the EU, and a G7+ coordinated price cap on Russian oil transported to third countries. (Jurist)

    Kyiv’s envoy to the EU found the pacage too weak. “This 13th package is definitely not very ambitious, [but] rather [is] symbolic because it’s adopted just a few days before the anniversary,”¬†Vsevolod Chentsov told reporters at a briefing. (DW)

  6. Denmark ends investigation into Nord Stream rupture

    Danish police concluded investigations into the 2022¬†Nord Stream pipeline explosion¬†on Feb. 26. Although police concluded that there was “deliberate sabotage,”¬†they declared that there were insufficient grounds to pursue a criminal case in connection with the incident. The police also clarified that they would not provide further comments on the investigation. (Jurist)