A year ago, four explosions destroyed a central element of Europe’s energy infrastructure. About the end of a controversial gas pipeline, dangerous dependencies and highly political investigations.
It is two a.m. on September 26, 2022, when seismic stations in Denmark, Sweden and Germany register a weak tremor. At the same time, employees of the pipeline operator Nord Stream are registering a sharp drop in pressure in the 1,200 kilometer long gas pipe that connects Russia and Germany. As it became light over the Baltic Sea, huge methane gas bubbles became visible from an airplane near the Danish island of Bornholm, rising to the surface from a depth of around 80 meters.
More shocks follow. It soon becomes clear: three of the four strands of the Nord Stream pipeline were blown up. A central element of the German and European energy infrastructure has been destroyed. With the attack, the war in Ukraine, which had been raging for a good seven months at the time, finally reached German boiler rooms. And the vulnerability of oil and gas pipelines, power and data lines on the seabed is visible to everyone.
Sharp first reactions
Even a year later, it remains unclear who was behind this unprecedented act of sabotage. Instead, a wide field of conjecture, speculation and suspicion opens up. Immediately after the attack, many people still pointed the finger at Moscow. At the time, the largest German tabloid “Bild” quoted Norwegian military officials under the headline “Pipeline crime in the Baltic Sea” who saw Russia as responsible for the explosions.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoljak writes on Twitter, today
The official statements are sharp: “Any deliberate disruption of the active European energy infrastructure is unacceptable and will lead to the strongest possible reactions,” tweets the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyenafter a conversation with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen a day after the attack.
Germany, Denmark and Sweden are investigating. But very little of the results is made public. All the more attention is paid to what information investigative journalists publish.
In March 2023, a German investigative team published sensational research: According to this, traces point to Ukraine. The 15-meter sailing yacht “Andromeda” plays a central role in the report. According to the research cooperation between ARD broadcasters and the weekly newspaper “Zeit”, five men and one woman are said to have set sail on a sailing yacht from the Baltic Sea port of Warnemünde on September 6, 2022, almost three weeks before the attacks.
Investigators from the Federal Criminal Police Office are said to have found traces of explosives on board the ship – the same explosives that were found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
Action of a Ukrainian commando?
At the beginning of June, a report appeared in the Washington Post that supported this version. Accordingly, European and American secret services were warned as early as June 2022 of a Ukrainian commando’s plans to attack the Nord Stream pipelines. The intelligence information is detailed: There is specific talk of six people, of divers, of a yacht.
According to the Washington Post, the command was said to have reported directly to the top Ukrainian military officer, General Valeriy Zalushny. However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj was not informed about the plans.
After extensive research at the end of August, a research team of over 20 from the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” and the television station ZDF also came to the conclusion: “The tracks lead in one direction: to Ukraine.”
Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt is also part of the team. The journalist added to DW: “The investigators have found nothing that could prove that Russia could be behind it, or even less that the USA could be behind the attack. There is no evidence of that at all.”
In February, the American reporter legend Seymour Hersh suspected the USA of being the perpetrator of the pipeline explosion in a widely circulated report. However, Hersh’s story had inconsistencies. And above all: The US reporter based his report on only one and, what’s more, anonymous source.
US threats against Nord Stream
However, Hersh was able to point to statements made by US President Joe Biden during Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s inaugural visit at the beginning of February 2022, shortly before Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Biden said to the press: “If Russia invades, Nord Stream 2 will no longer exist. We will put an end to this.”
Top diplomat Victoria Nuland had previously made a similar statement: “If Russia invades Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 will not make any progress one way or another.” At the beginning of 2023, Nuland was also openly pleased that Nord Stream would only be “a bunch “Scrap on the seabed”.
Her boss, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, had already spoken at the beginning of October 2022, a few days after the attack, that the Nord Stream explosions offered “an enormous strategic opportunity to end dependence on Russian energy.” The German-Russian one Energy partnership was a thorn in the side of the USA long before the war in Ukraine – as it was in Ukraine and other European countries. Washington tried to prevent the construction of Nord Stream 2 for a long time and delayed it considerably through sanctions.
Radoslaw Sikorski, Polish MEP and former Polish defense and foreign minister, was probably inspired by this situation to tweet shortly after the attack with a picture of a gas bubble rising in the Baltic Sea and the text: “Thank you, USA!” A short time later the tweet was deleted.
But Russia would also have a motive to destroy the gas pipe: Because the Russian company Gazprom had already stopped gas transport through Nord Stream 1 in the summer of 2022 – and thereby violated its contractual delivery obligations. That would have opened the door for recourse claims from Western partners. Gazprom’s customer Uniper, for example, has initiated arbitration proceedings against Gazprom, demanding billions in damages. Due to the destruction of the pipeline, Gazprom could now invoke “force majeure” – and the claims for recourse would be invalid. However, this theory assumes that Russia would actually adhere to the rulings of international courts.
A war crime under international law
In terms of international law, the Nord Stream attack would be an illegal act even in the context of a military conflict under international law of war, explains Bonn international law expert Stefan Talmon to DW. “The Nord Stream pipelines are a civil infrastructure project. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the destruction of civilian infrastructure is not only a violation of international law, but even a war crime.” At least if one of the two belligerent states, Russia and Ukraine, could be proven to have committed the crime.
If a third country had blown up the gas pipes, the international law professor explains, “the whole thing would not be assessed within the framework of international law of war, but would ultimately be a terrorist attack.” Talmon is critical of possible claims for damages because of the so-called state immunity: “In a national court, both Russia and Ukraine or a third state could invoke this state immunity, which also applies to such unlawful attacks.”
However, it remains to be seen whether there will ever be a trial. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in favor of a court case in Germany regarding the Nord Stream attacks. Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser hopes that the Federal Prosecutor General will find enough evidence to charge the perpetrators. But in view of the indications that Ukrainian forces may have been responsible, the Berlin investigative journalist Wiedmann-Schmidt has completely different experiences when meeting government representatives: to him it seems as if they wanted to avoid the topic. “I mean, they can’t just dismiss such a serious crime. But they also cannot suspend support for Ukraine in a war against Russia. That’s not an option. So here in Berlin everyone avoids the question of the consequences as best they can.”
Meanwhile, the Swedish public prosecutor’s office has announced that it will complete its investigation by the end of the year. We can look forward to the results.