The launch of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “biggest ever” air exercise in Germany on June 12 triggered old speculations about this 30-member defensive military alliance’s alleged role in sabotaging Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea last year. Boosted by Russian state media, such dubious claims are integral to the Kremlin’s anti-NATO disinformation.
Take the claim retired U.S. Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski made in a June 12 interview with the Russian state news agency Sputnik, saying that military drills “always” cover for more nefarious activities.
“All publicized military and government exercises and activities always provide cover for other activities that are less well publicized, as we have seen with last summer BALTOPS 22, and the subsequent remote detonation of pre-planted explosives designed to sever both Nordstream gas pipelines.”
However, ongoing investigations have not yet named who was responsible for the Nord Stream attack. While a few other sources made similar claims since the pipelines’ rupture, they haven't been verified or supported by reputable sources.
Designed in a classic anti-Ukraine disinformation style, the Sputnik report accused NATO of waging a “de-facto proxy war” on Russia by aiding Ukraine. It ignored the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine and that NATO is providing Kyiv with means to defend itself.
Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, each consisting of two undersea pipelines, were built to deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. On September 26, 2022, the pipelines were hit with several subsea blasts that disabled three of them. One pipeline was not damaged in the attack but remains offline.
From day one, Russia pointed fingers at “the West,” directly accusing the United States and its NATO allies of sabotaging its pipelines. Moscow, however, did not provide any evidence to support its claims.
Sweden, Denmark and Germany launched investigations that are ongoing and have not yet named a culprit.
In November 2022, a Swedish prosecutor confirmed explosive traces had been discovered at the site.
Swedish investigators said a state actor is the primary suspect in the attack, which was carried out using hundreds of kilograms of a common explosive compound trinitrotoluene or TNT. The blast was detected by Swedish and Danish seismologists.
Kwiatkowski’s claims echo the hypothesis voiced by Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. journalist Seymour Hersh, who held Washington responsible for the attack in a self-published article posted on Substack in February.
In it, Hersh claimed:
“Last June, the [U.S.] Navy divers, operating under the cover of a widely publicized mid-summer NATO exercise known as BALTOPS 22, planted the remotely triggered explosives that, three months later, destroyed three of the four Nord Stream pipelines, according to a source with direct knowledge of the operational planning.”
Critics said Hersh relied on a single anonymous source whose claims are not supported by evidence.
The Associated Press says that relying on a single source is acceptable in “rare cases” when the “material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.”
However, Hersh did not provide such material in his article.
Russian state media amplified Hersh’s claims, but he has not been able to confirm his source’s credibility, telling Russia’s state TASS news agency only that his source was “a person, who, it seems, knows a lot about what's going on.”
The fact-checking website Snopes described Hersh’s story as “merely a pile of purported second-hand information allegedly collected by someone connected in some unknown way to deliberations of a highly secret, multi-agency task force.”
The White House called Hersh’s self-published article “utterly false and complete fiction,” and some analysts claimed Hersh’s report “bears all the hallmarks of disinformation.”
More recent reports have implicated Ukraine, not Washington or any other NATO member, in the sabotage.
On June 13, Western media reported that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Ukraine months before the Nord Stream attack not to target the pipelines. Cited in a joint investigation by Dutch and German news outlets, the reports said the warning followed a tip from the Netherlands' military intelligence.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that “[t]hree months before saboteurs bombed the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, the Biden administration learned from a close ally that the Ukrainian military had planned a covert attack on the undersea network, using a small team of divers who reported directly to the commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces.”
That report, which described a team comprised of “six members of Ukraine’s special operations forces using false identities,” was passed from an unidentified individual in Ukraine to an unspecified European spy agency, which then informed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Post wrote.
According to The Washington Post, the “European intelligence report was shared on the chat platform Discord, allegedly by [U.S.] Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira.”
Teixeira has been charged with unauthorized retention and transmission of national defense information, as well as willful retention of classified documents.
On June 11, The Wall Street Journal reported that German investigators are looking into reports that Poland was used as a base to carry out the attack.
In January, German authorities searched a 15-meter cruising yacht, called the Andromeda, on suspicion "the vessel in question may have been used to transport explosive devices,” German investigators told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a VOA sister organization, in March.
The Andromeda was rented from a German charter company by a Poland-based firm owned by Ukrainian citizens.
When those reports surfaced in March, there was speculation the attack could have been carried out by a Ukrainian sabotage group with or without the knowledge of the Ukrainian government.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius also said the likelihood was "equally high" that it could have been a "false flag operation staged to blame Ukraine,” Reuters reported.
Following the Wall Street Journal report, Stanislaw Zaryn, deputy to Poland’s minister coordinator of special services, said the “Russian apparatus of influence” regularly seized on these types of media reports “to create the impression/presumption among the recipients that Warsaw and Kyiv were behind this incident.”
In October 2022, Russia separately accused the United Kingdom of carrying out the attack.
In May, other reports put Russian naval vessels capable of carrying out underwater operations which engaged in “highly unusual” actions and movements near the attack site from June to September 2022.
Danish media reported the Russian rescue ship SS-750, which carries a submarine on board, was photographed in the Baltic Sea four days before the Nord Stream attack.
Like the other theories, the theory that Moscow carried out the attack has not been proved.