On Sept. 26, 2022, aerial images showing gas welling up to the surface of the Baltic Sea above the Nord Stream pipelines — the two 1,200-kilometer offshore pipelines connecting Russian natural gas reserves to the European Union — were circulated around the globe. Initial investigations revealed the leaks were likely caused by explosions.
Sweden, Denmark and Germany all launched investigations, but with the exception of an early Swedish assessment that the explosions were probably caused by “gross sabotage,” none of their findings have been released to date. On February 21, as the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the attack, the three countries submitted a joint letter to the United Nations saying their separate investigations “have not yet been concluded” and “it is not possible to say when they will be concluded.”
The identity of the perpetrator has high stakes in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Immediately after the attack, some Western media outlets argued that Russia had carried out the attack to undermine the West’s willingness to aid Ukraine at a time when Russian forces were experiencing setbacks on the battlefield. Russia instead pointed at the United States and the U.K., claiming it had no interest in destroying infrastructure important to its own economy and hinting that the West sabotaged the pipelines because they gave Russia geopolitical leverage.
As investigations and recriminations dragged on, an initial mainstream media narrative that Russia was the likely culprit gave way to doubt and head scratching in Europe. In December, the Washington Post and New York Times followed suit, publishing stories acknowledging there is no conclusive evidence of who is to blame, either way.
Then came a series of bombshell allegations on February 8 in a self-published report from veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Based on an anonymous source “with direct knowledge of the operational planning,” Hersh alleged that the sabotage was a covert operation by the United States’ CIA, working in partnership with Norway. According to Hersh’s source, Navy divers planted remotely-triggered explosives on or near the pipelines last June, under the cover of a NATO training exercise, and those explosives were subsequently triggered by a sonar buoy in late September.
The response to Hersh’s 5,000-word report was mixed and inevitably politicized. The Biden administration dismissed it as “utterly false and complete fiction,” while a Kremlin spokesperson called it “remarkable” and suggested America has “questions to answer.” Mainstream U.S. press has largely ignored the story, but it received widespread attention in independent media and European mainstream media, including in Germany, where German MPs across the political spectrum have been calling on the executive branch to release findings from its official investigation.
German MPs call for answers
In January and early February, a number of German politicians from across the political spectrum, including from parties in Germany’s current coalition government, spoke with In These Times.
“Do you think that a terrorist attack like this, in international waters, in a sea that is observed by many different surveillance systems, that this could happen without anybody taking notice?” asked Dr. Ralf Stegner, a member of the governing center-left Social Democrats (SPD) party and chair of the Committee of Inquiry and the Subcommittee on Disarmament, Arms Control and Nonproliferation in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. “That’s hard to believe. It wasn’t an attack on Mars, it was in the Baltic Sea.”
Stegner, who also serves on the Bundestag’s Foreign Committee, said he has twice asked the government for information and was told they “don’t know anything.”
“The argument that national security is in danger is used more often than I would like,” Stegner said. “Most of the time, it’s only used not to have to make things public, although there is no good reason.”
But no matter what German investigators uncovered, the government appeared to have preemptively decided by mid-October to keep some of its findings secret. After a German MP asked the executive branch in October about reported Russian concerns that Ukraine might attack Russian infrastructure, an executive branch representative responded, “After careful consideration, the federal government came to the conclusion that a disclosure of information regarding this question cannot be issued — not even in classified form — due to considerations regarding the welfare of the state.”
So far, three German political parties have submitted formal inquiries regarding the pipeline attacks to the executive branch: the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which received the second-most votes in the last national elections and is the party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel; the small, left-wing Die Linke (“The Left”); and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). These “Small Requests” — a German parliamentary process by which parties can submit limited inquiries to the executive branch — asked detailed questions about the movements of U.S. and NATO aircraft and sea vessels in the days surrounding the explosions, what intelligence Germany has or that its allies have shared, and pressed the government to release its investigative findings.
The AfD Small Request asked why the government had cited state interests in declaring it would not publicize the results of the investigation. In its formal response in November, the executive branch answered in a similar vein to its October statement, stating the results “touched upon necessarily protected confidentiality interests in such a way that” normal parliamentary access to information and “the right of members of the Bundestag to ask questions was necessarily second to the confidentiality interests of the federal government.”
That response was greeted with skepticism. In an internal AfD document shared with In These Times, Eugen Schmidt, the lead MP on the AfD request, noted that the German government “obviously knows more than it wants to say.”
“The question of who destroyed Nord Stream 1 and 2 is a fundamental question in this ever-developing war between Russia and NATO and Ukraine,” says Die Linke MP Andrej Hunko, one of the signatories to his party’s Small Request. “I think answering the question is absolutely essential and necessary for the public to know: It was an attack on the vital infrastructure of Germany and Western Europe.”
Within Germany, both AfD and Die Linke are perceived by some as overly sympathetic to Russian interests. Members of AfD, which has also drawn widespread criticism for its overtly anti-immigrant and nationalist policies, have opposed sanctioning Russia and last September, five of the party’s MPs were criticized for visiting Russia and making plans to visit Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, in what opponents called a “propaganda trip.” (National AfD officials distanced themselves from the trip and one regional AfD group voted to expel a member who had participated in it.) Similarly, last fall, Die Linke nearly splintered over internal debates on Russian sanctions.
Both AfD and Die Linke deny characterizations that they are “pro-Putin” or “pro-Kremlin.”
“There are no links between Die Linke and the Kremlin, and I was one of the few pointing out Russian repression of left-leaning politicians in Parliament,” says Hunko. “Die Linke has no sympathy for the current political and economic system of Russia.”
Hunko has been personally criticized for opposing sanctions on Russia after the country’s alleged 2015 cyberattack on the Bundestag and for a pair of trips he made the same year to contested regions of Ukraine, in the months after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. On one of those trips, Hunko and a fellow Die Linke MP were photographed alongside a pro-Kremlin separatist leader. Hunko emphasizes that the trips were to deliver funds he’d raised in a campaign for medical aid to the region and that his encounter with the separatist leader was unplanned. He also tells In These Times that he and Die Linke object to “double standards in politics,” noting that Germany did not impose sanctions on the United States in 2013 after the Obama administration was caught having tapped Angela Merkel’s phone.
But it’s not just outlying parties asking questions. The CDU also submitted a Small Request regarding Nord Stream, asking about the government’s “investigatory results, findings and information … regarding the alleged acts of sabotage” on the Nord Stream pipelines. (In These Times contacted more than a dozen CDU MPs for comment, but none responded.)
And SPD’s Ralf Stegner was troubled by the rationalizations for secrecy. “There might be very limited cases where national security is in danger that you could argue that it’s okay not to reveal some things, but I can only imagine very, very few cases when that is a valid argument,” said Stegner. “Otherwise, the public has a right to know in a democracy and the parliament has a right to know.”
Speculation in the absence of information
Not all parliamentarians think information is being withheld. Dr. Nils Schmid, chair of the Foreign Committee and another SPD MP, sees the Hersh report as unconfirmed speculation, but says, “It would be helpful to come to a swift conclusion of the investigation in order to avoid this kind of speculation.” He adds, “If an ally carried out this kind of operation, I would rather expect the ally to tell the relevant authorities in Germany and then for a new investigation to conclude this.”
Sandra Bubendorfer-Licht of the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) tells In These Times she believes that “no investigative progress has been made so far, which is not surprising considering the fact that the investigation is being conducted on the 70-meter-deep bottom of the Baltic Sea, that is subject to the tides.” But, she continued, if evidence was found, “I would expect a notification of the parliamentarians and the public, but at least of the members of the parliamentary committees concerned with the subject. It would be dangerous to withhold information from the public and thus encourage conspiracy theorists.”
In the absence of information, however, speculation has flourished, drawing on circumstantial evidence to make the case for U.S. or Russian culpability.
The United States’ longstanding opposition to Nord Stream, and to Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, has repeatedly been cited as a rationale for suspecting U.S. involvement. In 2019, President Donald Trump warned that the construction of Nord Stream 2 would make Germany “a hostage of Russia,” and placed sanctions on any company assisting Russia to complete the pipeline. In 2021, then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden “continues to believe that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal for Europe,” reiterating the president’s 2016 statement that the pipeline was a “fundamentally bad deal for Europe,” even though Russian gas is cheaper than American LNG.
Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said during his confirmation hearings in 2021 that he was “determined to do whatever I can to prevent” the completion of Nord Stream 2, assuring Sen. Ted Cruz (another vehement opponent of the pipeline project) that Biden “would have us use every persuasive tool that we have to convince our friends and partners, including Germany, not to move forward with it.”
When Russia began preparations to invade Ukraine in early 2022, U.S. leaders doubled down on implicit threats against Nord Stream 2. In January 2022, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, former CEO of the hawkish national security think tank Center for a New American Security, said, “If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward.” The following month, Biden echoed the seeming threat, saying in a press conference with German Chancellor Scholz, “If Russia invades…there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. … We will bring an end to it.” After being pressed on how the U.S. would ensure that, the president smirked, adding, “I promise you: We will be able to do it.”
After the leaks in the pipelines were discovered last September, Secretary Blinken initially said the sabotage was “in no one’s interest,” but then called it a “tremendous opportunity,” noting the United States was “now the leading supplier of LNG to Europe.” In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Under Secretary Nuland said that she and the Biden administration were “very gratified to know that Nord Stream 2 is now … a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea.”
The United States seems to have done little to investigate the attack, despite the fact that, several days after the attack, President Biden
said that, at “the appropriate moment,” the U.S. would “be sending divers down to find out exactly what happened.” In late February, Hersh pointed to this discrepancy, arguing
in a podcast appearance, “If he [Biden] wanted to know who did it, he can task the intelligence community.” The fact that the Biden administration had not issued such an order, Hersh continued, was due to one reason: “They knew who did it.”
On the other hand, some of Russia’s actions have raised suspicions as well. In late December, Nord Stream 2 AG, which is owned by Russia’s energy giant Gazprom, was granted a six-month “stay of bankruptcy.” But despite these evident financial troubles, Nord Stream AG — a separate international consortium in which Gazprom holds a controlling 51% stake, alongside four European energy companies — has evinced little urgency to release findings from its own October investigation into the pipeline sabotage. While the company initially claimed that its attempts at investigation were stymied by other countries’ operations or the weather, it appears that Russia could have accessed the pipelines as early as it wished. (It doesn’t appear that Russia has yet launched an independent governmental investigation but it and China have recently called for an impartial United Nations investigation — a request the U.S. has opposed.)
These omissions have led some to suspect that Russia sabotaged its own infrastructure, in order to “send a signal that Russia has the capability and will” to destroy its own pipelines — and potentially those of other nations — and thus “instill fear in the population in Europe,” as Tobias Liebetrau, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Military Studies, put it.
University of Copenhagen international relations Prof. Christian Bueger agreed Russia was the most likely perpetrator, saying, “If the intent was to create uncertainty and a feeling of vulnerability, then this was a spot-on attack,” because “it caused literally the fear across NATO countries that they cannot protect their infrastructure.”
However, if unsettling Europe was the intended effect, says Germany MP Bubendorfer-Licht, it backfired. “Building up pressure through decreasing the energy supply to stop the war support for Ukraine didn’t work before, either,” she said, referring to Russia’s unsuccessful effort to use its gas exports to blackmail Europe. “Germany can now support Ukraine without always considering the Russian leverage of energy supplies.”
Others have pointed out that the list of entities with the technological capacity to carry out the sabotage is long. “You see what drug traffickers have nowadays, what kind of submarines — those are almost nation-state capabilities,” observes Bart Groothuis, a Member of the European Parliament who previously worked at the Dutch Ministry of Defence. “So if you ask me, ‘Is anyone capable of doing something below sea?’ Yes, probably.”
“I wouldn’t bet a good bottle of wine either way,” Groothuis continues, refusing to speculate on who was to blame. “I haven’t seen or heard any conclusive evidence yet.”
On February 10, two days after the publication of Hersh’s story, the Bundestag held its first debate on the Nord Stream sabotage, at the request of AfD. German Chancellor Scholz was absent and the debate — taking place on a Friday afternoon, when most MPs have returned to their home districts — was poorly attended. MPs from CDU and the governing coalition (SPD, the Greens, and the FDP) cautioned against “speculation” based on Hersh’s report, while their peers from Die Linke and AfD accused the German government of contributing “zero” to clarifying who is behind the sabotage and having “no interest in investigating the matter.”
While a 25% vote threshold could create a parliamentary Committee of Inquiry empowered to independently investigate facts that are now the responsibility of the executive branch, it doesn’t appear there is enough awareness of or interest in Hersh’s report to set up such a body.
“The debate in the German parliament about the article by Seymour Hersh was very disappointing,” says Hunko. “There was no real dealing with the substance of the article by the vast majority of parliamentarians; instead, they only tried to discredit the author or those of us who called for a serious debate.”
SDP parliamentarian Ralf Stegner came back to the anomaly of government silence on so significant an attack.
“It’s very unusual that for an attack like this — a spectacular attack like this — that after months, you have no piece of information that is public,” said Stegner. “I cannot remember any comparable event where we have seen something similar.”
This reporting was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.