unsolved mysteries

Who Really Blew Up the Nord Stream Pipeline?

New clues keep surfacing, but this geopolitical true crime has yet to be solved.

Photo: Danish Defence
Photo: Danish Defence

On September 26, a series of deep-sea explosions rocked the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipelines along the bottom of the Baltic Sea near the Danish island of Bornholm. The bombings severed three of the Nord Stream projects’ four underwater pipelines, which were built to transport a direct supply of natural gas from Russia to customers in Western Europe — though none was in operation at the time of the bombing thanks to tensions over the war in Ukraine. More than six months later, multiple countries continue to conduct their own investigations into the sabotage, but the mystery of who targeted the pipelines remains unsolved. Below is what we know about the prime suspects and latest developments.

The multiple vessel theory

The Washington Post reported April 3 that German law enforcement officials now believe that the still unknown saboteurs may have used multiple vessels to carry out their operation. German investigators’ earlier theory was that a small team of perpetrators used a rented 50-foot sailboat, the Andromeda, to plant explosives on the two pipelines. But as their investigation progressed, they began to suspect that the boat may have been used as a decoy, and U.S. and European officials are also now skeptical the Andromeda played the key role. One major reason for the doubt is the craft’s size and capabilities, per the Post:

Experts noted that while it was theoretically possible to place the explosives on the pipeline by hand, even skilled divers would be challenged submerging more than 200 feet to the seabed and slowly rising to the surface to allow time for their bodies to decompress.

Such an operation would have taken multiple dives, exposing the Andromeda to detection from nearby ships. The mission would have been easier to hide and pull off using remotely piloted underwater vehicles or small submarines, said diving and salvage experts who have worked in the area of the explosion, which features rough seas and heavy shipping traffic.

According to the Post, investigators have confirmed that traces of military-grade explosives found during a search of the Andromeda in January matched the explosive used on the pipelines — but that the evidence might have been planted aboard the boat. Some investigators also doubt that a team skilled enough to blow up the pipelines while evading detection would not be sloppy enough to leave that evidence behind — while others believe it was possible they were indeed that careless.

In early March, the Wall Street Journal reported that several large questions remained unanswered regarding the possible use of the Andromeda:

A key operational question investigators are looking into is whether the small boat could have carried the explosives and other supplies needed and whether the six people known to have been aboard would have been enough to carry out the attack, the German government official said. Another possibility is that the boat was part of a larger operation. They are also asking whether the mission was state-sponsored or a private effort, the official added.

It appears those concerns were justified. Investigators reportedly came to focus on the Andromeda after getting a tip from a Western intelligence service, then ultimately theorized that a team of six people — five men and one woman — had carried out the sabotage using the yacht, which had been hired by a Polish-registered company that investigators believe was controlled by a wealthy Ukrainian. The team apparently used forged passports and embarked in the rented yacht on September 6 from the German port city of Rostock. The yacht later docked at a harbor without nighttime surveillance cameras in Wiek on the German island of Rügen, then visited the tiny Danish island Christiansø, which is very close to the site of the pipeline bombings.

German officials have publicly warned against forming conclusions based on the details revealed in media reports.

What is the mysterious object?

Denmark has reportedly found, and is in the process of salvaging, a mysterious object next to one of the damaged Nord Stream 2 pipelines. The Switzerland-based pipeline operator, Nord Stream 2 AG, has agreed to a request from Danish authorities to help identify it — though Denmark has already said the object may be a maritime smoke buoy, Bloomberg reported on March 26.

Was it some pro-Ukraine group?

This week, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials have recently seen new intelligence suggesting that a pro-Ukraine, but not necessarily Ukraine-backed, group was behind the sabotage. According to the Times, the unnamed U.S. officials who have reviewed the intelligence said that the group was likely made up of Ukrainian and/or Russian nationals who were opponents of Russian president Vladimir Putin, but there was no evidence of direct links between the saboteurs and Ukraine’s leadership. (Ukraine has repeatedly denied any involvement in the bombings.) The divers in the saboteur group were not currently working for military or intelligence services, but they may have been trained by them in the past, according to the intelligence.

The Times also reported that “U.S. officials who have been briefed on the intelligence are divided about how much weight to put on the new information,” but that they are now more optimistic European and U.S. intelligence agencies will be able to get to the bottom of what happened.

A Washington Post report on the intelligence added that “a senior Western security official said governments investigating the bombings uncovered evidence that pro-Ukraine individuals or entities discussed the possibility of carrying out an attack on the Nord Stream pipelines before the explosions.”

What about a false-flag operation?

U.S. and German officials have continued to emphasize that it remains possible the sabotage was disguised to look like it was perpetrated by someone else. Ukrainian officials have stressed this possibility — naming Russia as the likely sponsor — as well, but no evidence has been put forward to support the theory. If it was a false flag, it’s conceivable any government could have been behind it.

Why not Russia?

After the sabotage, Poland and the Ukraine immediately fingered Russia as the culprit, and both the U.S. and other NATO allies speculated as much themselves. U.S. and European intelligence agencies have reportedly been unable to find any conclusive evidence of Russia’s involvement, however. It also remains unclear what Russia would have had to gain from disabling their own pipeline, which they helped build and had already shut off.

Or maybe it was the United States all along?

President Biden warned, amid Russia’s buildup on the Ukrainian border in early February of last year, that “If Russia invades … again, then there will be longer Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” Some have interpreted that statement as a kind of advance admission of guilt, like American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who last month self-published a report on his Substack alleging the U.S. had conducted a covert strike on the pipelines. Hersh’s supposed bombshell, which was quickly endorsed by Kremlin officials and Russian state media, primarily relied on what appeared to be a single unnamed source, who Hersh wrote had “direct knowledge of the operational planning” for the sabotage. The White House has rejected his post as “complete fiction,” and some members of the OSINT community have detailed numerous holes in Hersh’s assertions.

The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill has offered a more open-minded reading of the allegations, noting that Hersh may have screwed up the facts, but not the premise. Scahill also points out the U.S. has authorized, then lied about, numerous covert actions throughout its history and that recent disclosures to the media about intelligence pointing to Ukrainian partisans may be an example of “narrative washing.” At this point, however, there is no evidence linking the U.S. to the sabotage.

Who Blew Up the Nord Stream Pipeline?