Intelligence suggests pro-Ukrainian group sabotaged pipelines, U S officials say
the Ukrainian government. U.S. officials found no evidence that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy or his top lieutenants were involved in the operation, or that the perpetrators were acting at the direction of the Ukrainian government.
Written by Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Adam Goldman
New intelligence reviewed by U.S. officials suggests that a pro-Ukrainian group carried out the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines last year, a step toward determining responsibility for an act of sabotage that has confounded investigators on both sides of the Atlantic for months.
U.S. officials said that they had no evidence President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of
or his top lieutenants were involved in the operation, or that the perpetrators were acting at the direction of any Ukrainian government officials.
The brazen attack on the natural gas pipelines, which link Russia to Western Europe, fueled public speculation about who was to blame, from Moscow to Kyiv and London to Washington, and it has remained one of the most consequential unsolved mysteries of Russia's year-old war in Ukraine.
Ukraine and its allies have been seen by some officials as having the most logical potential motive to attack the pipelines. They have opposed the project for years, calling it a national security threat because it would allow Russia to sell gas more easily to Europe. Ukrainian government and military intelligence officials say they had no role in the attack and do not know who carried it out.
U.S. officials said there was much they did not know about the perpetrators and their affiliations. The review of newly collected intelligence suggests they were opponents of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, but does not specify the members of the group, or who directed or paid for the operation. U.S. officials declined to disclose the nature of the intelligence, how it was obtained or any details of the strength of the evidence it contains. They have said there are no firm conclusions about it, leaving open the possibility that the operation might have been conducted off the books by a proxy force with connections to the Ukrainian government or its security services.
Some initial U.S. and European speculation centered on possible Russian culpability, especially given its prowess in undersea operations, although it is unclear what motivation the Kremlin would have in sabotaging the pipelines given that they have been an important source of revenue and a means for Russia to exert influence over Europe. One estimate put the cost of repairing the pipelines starting at about $500 million. U.S. officials say they have not found any evidence of involvement by the Russian government in the attack.
Officials who have reviewed the intelligence said they believed the saboteurs were most likely Ukrainian or Russian nationals, or some combination of the two. U.S. officials said no American or British nationals were involved.
The pipelines were ripped apart by deep sea explosions in September, in what U.S. officials described at the time as an act of sabotage. European officials have publicly said they believe the operation that targeted Nord Stream was probably state sponsored, possibly because of the sophistication with which the perpetrators planted and detonated the explosives on the floor of the Baltic Sea without being detected. U.S. officials have not stated publicly that they believe the operation was sponsored by a state.
The explosives were most likely planted with the help of experienced divers who did not appear to be working for military or intelligence services, U.S. officials who have reviewed the new intelligence said. But it is possible that the perpetrators received specialized government training in the past.
Officials claimed that there were still significant gaps in the information U.S. spy agencies had and what their European partners knew about what happened. Officials said that it could be the first significant lead from several closely guarded investigations. The conclusions could have important implications for the coalition supporting Ukraine.
Any suggestion of Ukrainian involvement, whether direct or indirect, could upset the delicate relationship between Ukraine and Germany, souring support among a German public that has swallowed high energy prices in the name of solidarity.
U.S. officials who have been briefed on the intelligence are divided about how much weight to put on the new information. All of them spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence and matters of sensitive diplomacy.
U.S. officials said the new intelligence reporting has increased their optimism that U.S. spy agencies and their partners in Europe can find more information, which could allow them to reach a firm conclusion about the perpetrators. It is unclear how long that process will take. U.S. officials recently discussed the intelligence with their European counterparts, who have taken the lead in investigating the attack.
A spokesperson for the CIA declined to comment. A spokesperson for the White House's National Security Council referred questions about the pipelines to European authorities, who have been conducting their own investigations.
Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, as the two pipelines are known, stretch 760 miles from the northwest coast of Russia to Lubmin in northeast Germany. The first cost more than $12 billion to build and was completed in 2011.
Nord Stream 2 cost slightly less than the first pipeline and was completed in 2021, over objections from officials in the United States, Britain, Poland and Ukraine, among others, who warned that it would increase German reliance on Russian gas. During a future diplomatic crisis between the West and Russia, these officials argued, Moscow could blackmail Berlin by threatening to curtail gas supplies, on which the Germans had depended heavily, especially during the winter months. (Germany has weaned itself off reliance on Russian gas over the past year.)
Early last year, President Joe Biden, after meeting with Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany at the White House, said Putin's decision about whether to attack Ukraine would determine the fate of Nord Stream 2. 'If Russia invades, that means tanks and troops crossing the border of Ukraine again, then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2,' Biden said. 'We will bring an end to it.'
Biden was asked how this would be achieved and cryptically replied, "I promise you, we'll do it."
Scholz declared a few weeks later that his government would prevent the Nord Stream 2 pipeline's operation. Russia launched its long-awaited invasion two days later.
There has been a lot of speculation since the September explosions at the pipelines about what happened on the seafloor near Bornholm, Denmark.
The explosives were immediately planted in Russia by Ukraine and Poland. However, they did not provide any evidence.
Russia accused Britain, however, of the operation, also without any evidence. Russia and Britain deny any involvement in the explosions.
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a Substack article last month concluding that the United States conducted the operation under the direction of Biden. Hersh cited President Trump's preinvasion threat that 'bring an ending' to Nord Stream 2 and similar statements made by senior U.S officials in his defense.
Officials from the United States claim that Biden and his top aides didn't authorize a mission against the Nord Stream pipelines. They also assert that there was no U.S. involvement.
Any findings that put blame on Kyiv or Ukrainian proxies could prompt a backlash in Europe and make it harder for the West to maintain a united front in support of Ukraine.
U.S. intelligence agencies and officials acknowledge their limited view into Ukrainian decision-making.
Despite Ukraine's dependence on the United States for intelligence, military and diplomatic support, Ukrainian officials have not always been transparent with their American counterparts about their military operations against Russian targets behind enemy line. These operations have disappointed U.S. officials who feel they have not significantly improved Ukraine's battlefield position, but also risk alienating European allies, and escalating the war.
The operations that have unnerved the United States included a strike in early August on Russia's Saki air base on the western coast of Crimea, a truck bombing in October that destroyed part of the Kerch Strait Bridge, which links Russia to Crimea, and drone strikes in December aimed at Russian military bases in Ryazan and Engels, about 300 miles beyond the Ukrainian border.
But there have been other acts of sabotage and violence of more ambiguous provenance that U.S. intelligence agencies have had a harder time attributing to Ukrainian security services.
One of those was a car bomb near Moscow in August that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist.
Ukraine denied any involvement but U.S. intelligence agencies eventually came to believe that the killing was authorized by what officials called 'elements' of the Ukrainian government. In response to the finding, the Biden administration privately rebuked the Ukrainians and warned them against taking similar actions.
Five weeks after Dugina was killed, the explosions that exploded the Nord Stream pipelines occurred. There was a lot of speculation and concern in Washington about the possible involvement of parts the Ukrainian government in the Nord Stream operation.
New intelligence has not provided any evidence that the Ukrainian government was complicit in the attack on the pipelines. Officials from the United States say that the trust of Zelenskyy's senior national security staff and the Biden administration in them has steadily increased.
Days after the explosion, Denmark, Sweden and Germany began their own separate investigations into the Nord Stream operation.
Both intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies from both sides of the Atlantic had difficulties obtaining concrete evidence regarding what occurred on the seafloor in the hours, days, and weeks prior to the explosions.
The pipelines themselves weren't closely monitored by government or commercial sensors. The fact that the explosions occurred in an area with high traffic has made it difficult to find the vessel or vessels responsible.
That said, investigators have many leads to pursue.
According to a European lawmaker briefed late last year by his country's main foreign intelligence service, investigators have been gathering information about an estimated 45 'ghost ships' whose location transponders were not on or were not working when they passed through the area, possibly to cloak their movements.
Lawmaker also was told that the perpetrators used more than 1,000 pounds'military-grade' explosives.
Spokespeople for the Danish government had no immediate comment. Spokespeople for the German government declined to comment.
Mats Ljungqvist, a senior prosecutor leading Sweden's investigation, told The New York Times late last month that his country's hunt for the perpetrators was continuing.
'It is my job to find the people who blew up Nord Stream. Ljungqvist stated that he has the country's Security Service to help him. "Do you think Russia blew up Nord Stream?" It was something I've never considered. It is not logical. It's not logical.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.