Nord Stream pipeline sabotage: rush to judgment

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—but 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’s account relies on “a source with direct knowledge of the operational planning”; 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’s Daily Mail has also gone all-in, with an article headlined “Did Biden give the order to destroy Putin’s Nord Stream pipeline after Ukraine invasion? Bombshell report claims Navy divers carried out mission to kill Russia’s gas stranglehold on Europe in audacious mission overseen by president”, complete with graphics and maps. One wonders why the word “report” was chosen over “article” – “report” has connotations of formal findings at the end of an investigative process. The Mail‘s hack, one Lewis Pennock, describes Hersh’s essay as “compelling”, and only near the end does he mention that Hersh’s “reporting has previously been criticized for its heavy reliance on unnamed and anonymous sources”.

However, Hersh’s article does not fare well under scrutiny. An OSINT [Open Source Intelligence] analysis of specific details of the supposed “operation” has been published by Oliver Alexander, while Hersh’s 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’s source describes the attack planning as a “goat fuck” – an unusual expression that just happens to have appeared previously in Hersh’s 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 “gotcha” 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: “If Russia invades … there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will put an end to it.”

…Biden was answering the question, “did you receive assurances from chancellor Scholz that Germany will pull the plug on this project if Russia invades Ukraine?” 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’s what happened. The Kremlin formally recognised the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk – the clearest signal yet that it intended to invade Ukraine – 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, “Like 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.”

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—which the U.S. had opposed for years on the grounds that it increased European reliance on Russian energy—is 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’s also an example from March 2022 – 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’s investigation, why should we believe anything else in Hersh’s piece? And why didn’t the Daily Mail spot this?

It’s doubtful that criticisms or calls for caution will have any effect – one of the best ways to con someone is to flatter them into thinking that they’ve seen through a con, and American denials will feed into this tendency. This may apply to Hersh himself – 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 “was tying his own hands and that of any future Russian leader by making it harder to back down from the war in Ukraine”; and (3) a “force majeure” 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 “improbable”.

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