The Washington Post

Pro-kyiv group is suspect in bombings

Official says individual­s had discussed carrying out Nord Stream attacks


Intelligen­ce and diplomatic officials in the United States and Europe suspect that pro-ukraine saboteurs may be responsibl­e for explosions in September that severely damaged the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines, an attack that could erode support for Ukraine among the Western nations that have come to its defense against Russia.

Questions about Ukrainian culpabilit­y first surfaced last year when investigat­ors found no evidence to directly tie the attacks to the Russian government. Within days of the three undersea explosions on Sept. 26, officials in Washington and European capitals had publicly pointed the finger at the Kremlin.

As the weeks wore on, no evidence to support that claim materializ­ed, according to multiple officials familiar with ongoing investigat­ions and intelligen­ce reviews. But officials in several countries said Ukraine could have been motivated to attack the pipelines to stiffen Western resolve in the face of Russian aggression,

and their suspicions soon turned to Kyiv.

There is still no forensic evidence from the blast site that concretely ties the sabotage to any country, officials have said. Intelligen­ce agencies in the United States and Europe have not intercepte­d communicat­ions of Russian or Ukrainian officials taking credit for the attack or suggesting that they’re trying to cover up their government­s’ involvemen­t.

But recently, more informatio­n shared with officials in Washington and Europe suggests that a pro-ukraine group, perhaps operating without Kyiv’s direct knowledge, may have carried out the attack, according to officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive informatio­n with significan­t diplomatic implicatio­ns.

A senior Western security official said government­s investigat­ing the bombing had uncovered evidence that pro-ukraine individual­s or entities had discussed the possibilit­y of carrying out an attack on the Nord Stream pipelines before the explosion. The official referred to “signals” that such an operation was discussed or considered. The official emphasized that these communicat­ions were only discovered after the attack as Western spy agencies began scouring intelligen­ce data for possible clues.

The informatio­n was offset by other intelligen­ce suggesting the possibilit­y that Russia was responsibl­e. Separate intelligen­ce, for example, showed that Russian naval vessels were detected at or near the locations of the attack in the weeks leading up to the explosions. The official considered it unlikely that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or members of his inner circle would have sanctioned such an operation, noting that they have been careful to avoid jeopardizi­ng the Western support that has been a lifeline for Kyiv.

U.S. officials have regarded the recent intelligen­ce pointing to Ukrainian saboteurs cautiously.

“My understand­ing is that we don’t find this conclusive,” a senior Biden administra­tion official said.

In Washington and Europe, some said they were worried a Ukrainian-linked attack would weaken NATO support for Ukraine, particular­ly in Germany, where many citizens remain sympatheti­c to Russia and skeptical about arming Kyiv. The pipeline attacks have heightened anxieties about the vulnerabil­ity of the energy sector across the continent.

“This was an attack against critical infrastruc­ture for Europe, but there are ongoing investigat­ions and inquiries, and it wouldn’t be right to speculate who is behind that until the investigat­ions and inquiries have been concluded,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenber­g said at a news conference in Stockholm on Tuesday.

The Nord Stream bombing provoked a significan­t and continuing NATO response. “We have doubled our military presence in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea,” Stoltenber­g said. “We have also increased the cooperatio­n between NATO countries to exchange informatio­n and to strengthen preparedne­ss to better stop further such attacks in the future.”

Spurred by the attack, the alliance is also working on a plan to improve underwater security at an annual summit this summer.

The mystery over who blew up the pipelines has persisted in part because it is not clear who had the technical capabiliti­es to pull off the operation.

Some officials continue to say only a nation-state would have the requisite expertise and tools to carry out a complex underwater sabotage operation. But others counter that given the relatively shallow depth of the damaged pipelines — approximat­ely 80 yards at the site of one explosion — a number of different actors could theoretica­lly have been behind the attack, possibly with the use of submersibl­e drones, divers or surface ships. The list of suspects isn’t limited only to countries that possess crewed submarines or deep-sea demolition­s expertise, these officials have said.

Speaking alongside Stoltenber­g, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersso­n cited an ongoing investigat­ion when he declined to comment on an article in the New York Times, which first reported the recent intelligen­ce suggesting a pro-ukraine group had carried out the attack.

The Ukrainian government denied any involvemen­t in the sabotage. “Ukraine absolutely did not participat­e in the attack on Nord Stream 2,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, the top adviser to Zelensky, questionin­g why his country would conduct an operation that “destabiliz­es the region and will divert attention from the war, which is categorica­lly not beneficial to us.”

Podolyak said that in September, when the Nord Stream explosions occurred, Ukraine was focused on a counteroff­ensive in the Kharkiv region. The adviser said an attack on the pipelines would have distracted from the war and Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, and given Moscow a talking point to try to pin sabotage attacks on the West.

The Kremlin has blamed, at various points, Ukraine, Britain and the United States for the explosions.

White House spokespers­on John Kirby didn’t comment directly on who might be to blame for the attack, telling reporters, “We need to let these investigat­ions conclude, and only then should we be looking at what follow-on actions might or may not be appropriat­e.”

Podolyak argued that Russia not only has the capability to commit the pipeline attacks and obscure responsibi­lity by blaming unidentifi­ed pro-ukraine groups, but also a motive to drive a wedge between Kyiv and its Western backers.

Investigat­ors have also been mindful of the possibilit­y that Russia or another government could have planted evidence to sow confusion.

But Ukraine has been linked to clandestin­e attacks involving unconventi­onal methods, such as bombings and assassinat­ions, that appear designed for political effect more than battlefiel­d gains.

Western officials say Ukrainian actors are responsibl­e for a car explosion in August that killed the daughter of Alexander Dugin, a Russian nationalis­t and ideologica­l ally of President Vladimir Putin. Some officials said that Dugin was the intended target and that Kyiv was admonished over the attack by its Western allies.

Drone strikes attributed to Ukraine have hit targets in Russia, including air bases near Moscow.

Ukraine’s special services were behind a spectacula­r explosion on Crimea’s Kerch Strait Bridge in October, a stunning blow to a symbol of Putin’s ambitions to control Ukraine.

German news reports on Tuesday raised more questions about potential Ukrainian links to the Nord Stream attack. German authoritie­s reportedly had made a “breakthrou­gh” in their investigat­ion, according to a joint investigat­ion by multiple German media outlets, and had identified a small team of saboteurs using a yacht rented from a company in Poland that was “apparently owned by two Ukrainians.”

A German official said that the government was aware of the news reports and that an investigat­ion into the explosions continues, led by the country’s attorney general.

 ?? DANISH DEFENSE COMMAND/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? An image from Danish military shows the gas leak at the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline on Sept. 27. Within days of the three explosions at the pipelines, U.S. and European officials had publicly pointed the finger at the Kremlin, with no evidence tying Russia to the sabotage.
DANISH DEFENSE COMMAND/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES An image from Danish military shows the gas leak at the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline on Sept. 27. Within days of the three explosions at the pipelines, U.S. and European officials had publicly pointed the finger at the Kremlin, with no evidence tying Russia to the sabotage.

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