A new development in the Nord Stream sabotage affair has turned the spotlight on Russia.
Nord Stream is a pipeline system laid under the Baltic Sea to deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany. On 26 September last year someone blew up three of the four pipes in an attack which has a lot of political ramifications. Nord Stream was not operational at the time, having been shut down amid disputes with Russia over Ukraine.
One explosion was reported at a spot south of Denmark’s Bornholm island and three more followed in a small area northeast of Borholm. Germany, Denmark and Sweden all began official investigations but so far they have been notably tight-lipped about their findings.
In a sensational article last month, American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh blamed the United States for the attack, though flaws soon appeared in his account of how it was allegedly carried out.
The latest twist in the story came on 25 March when T-Online, a German news portal, received “information from security circles” identifying six Russian naval vessels which were said to have been spotted close to the area northeast of Bornholm where three of the pipelines were wrecked by explosions five days later.
T-Online then worked with OSINT analyst Oliver Alexander in an effort to retrace the ships’ movements using data from open sources. T-Online’s articles in German are here and here (there’s also an English translation of the latter article). Oliver Alexander’s accounts of the open-source research are here and here.
Vessels on the list supplied to T-Online included SS-750 — a rescue ship — and two rescue tugboats, the Aleksandr Frolov and SB-123. These three had on-board equipment that could potentially have been useful for planting explosives. The two tugs have lifting equipment while the larger SS-750 rescue ship carries AS-26, a Priz-class mini-submarine with manipulator arms that can reportedly lift up to 50kg.
Although the open-source data gives some grounds for suspicion, information is lacking at the most crucial point and it doesn’t show whether any of the ships actually visited the sabotage site. The SS-750 wasn’t using the automatic identification system (AIS), while the two tugs had turned theirs off and “gone dark” in mid-voyage. The site was also at the outer limits of Danish and Swedish onshore radar — which may be one reason why the bombers (whoever they were) chose that location.
There are signs that the Danish and Swedish authorities were aware of the Russian activity at the time, and Alexander’s research shows Denmark had despatched a patrol boat, apparently to investigate.
According to journalist Holger Stark, who has written about the Nord Stream affair for Die Zeit, official investigators checked out the Russian naval activity months ago and since then their interest in it seems to have waned. Following publication of T-Online’s story, Stark posted a tweet which, translated from German, says:
“The Russian convoy was the first hot lead investigators followed in the autumn, right after the attacks. Meanwhile, according to my information, due to various contradictions the authorities consider the trail to be less hot than it originally seemed.”
Investigators have also focused on six people who rented a 15-metre yacht, the Andromeda, from a company in Rostock, Germany. The group is said to have included two divers and two diving assistants — and there are suspicions they could have planted the explosives. During a two-week trip starting on 7 September the Andromeda called at Christiansø, a remote and tiny island which is the closest land to the spot where the three pipelines were hit.
One important question, though, is whether the Andromeda was capable of carrying enough explosives along with its crew and all the diving gear. According to estimates from seismologists and security officials, the whole operation used a tonne or more of explosive. That’s a lot of weight for a 15-metre yacht and the divers would probably have had a difficult task manouevring such large quantities of explosives into position on the seabed.
Exactly what the Andromeda group were up to, and whether they were working alone, is a continuing puzzle. Possibly they were laying a false trail to divert investigators away from the real saboteurs … or maybe their voyage had a completely unrelated purpose. According to German investigators, though, they were using forged passports — so a legitimate sailing trip seems the least likely possibility.
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