NATO guarded as attacks on Nord Stream blamed on a pro-Ukrainian group

9 March 2023

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declined to comment on a 7 March report in the New York Times that suggested a pro-Ukrainian militia could have sabotaged the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline last year. “What we know is there was an attack, there was sabotage, and this was an attack against critical infrastructure for Europe,” Stoltenberg said, speaking through a translator during a press conference alongside the Swedish prime minister. He declined to talk more about the attack until after the conclusion of several ongoing national and regional investigations but reinforced how important the assault on European infrastructure has been for the military bloc’s current collective defence.

Stoltenberg reiterated this response in a statement ahead of the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union on 8 March. “There are ongoing national investigations and I think it’s right to wait until those are finalised before we say anything more about who was behind it”, he said.

Unidentified European and US intelligence officials have obtained tentative intelligence to suggest a pro-Ukrainian saboteur group may have been behind the bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year, according to reports in the New York Times and German newspaper Die Zeit. At the time, the Russian government was widely blamed in Western media and official circles for the attack. Die Zeit said the attack had been carried out by five men and a woman who rented a yacht using false passports.

On 8 February, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh published an article claiming that a covert US military operation in June 2022 was responsible for the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines. The claim was met with scepticism by other journalists and denials from US government officials. The claims appeared to be largely based on an anonymous single source.

Russia said media reports about Nord Stream underscored the need to answer Moscow’s questions about what happened. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said those responsible for leaks to the media wanted to divert the public’s attention and avoid a proper investigation. Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the media reports were a “little bit strange” and had “nothing to do” with the Ukrainian government. German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius warned against “jumping to conclusions”, before adding that the likelihood was “equally high” that it could have been a “false flag operation staged to blame Ukraine”.

The explosions on the pipelines connecting Russia and Germany took place on 26 September 2022 in the exclusive economic zones of Sweden and Denmark. Both countries have concluded the blasts were deliberate but have not said who might be responsible. Investigations by Denmark, Germany and Sweden into the attacks have not yet concluded, the three countries said on 21 February as the UN Security Council met to discuss the incident. Russia, which called for the meeting, wants the Council to set up an independent inquiry.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on 15 February 2023 the creation of a Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell at NATO Headquarters. “The centre will facilitate engagement with industry and bring key military and civilian stakeholders together”, Stoltenberg said, adding that the centre will also share best practices, leverage innovate technologies and boost the security of allied undersea infrastructure”. The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines highlighted the vulnerability of undersea energy pipelines and communication cables. In response, NATO member states increased their military presence around key infrastructure, including with ships and patrol aircraft. In January 2023, NATO and the EU also set up a joint task force to protect critical infrastructure.

According to the Dutch intelligence agency MIVD, Russia has been trying to gain intelligence to sabotage critical infrastructure in the Dutch part of the North Sea. A Russian ship was detected at an offshore windfarm in the North Sea as it tried to map out energy infrastructure, before being escorted by Dutch marine and coast guard ships before any sabotage effort could become successful, MIVD head, Gen Jan Swillens, said on 20 February.