German investigators appear to have made up their minds about who was responsible for the explosions that wrecked three of the four Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea last September.
Der Spiegel magazine reported last week that the public prosecutor’s team are now “certain” that a 15-metre yacht called Andromeda was used for the attack. Media reports also indicate that the Germans have discounted Russia as a possible suspect.
Russian naval vessels observed close to the sabotage area before the explosions “are no longer considered interesting by the German investigators”, the Swedish newspaper Expressen reported last week.
Evidence from open sources shows that four days before the blasts Russian ships equipped for underwater operations were in the vicinity — in other words, they had both the means and the opportunity to have planted the explosives.
However, the latest media reports suggest further tracking information from military and other sources has allowed investigators to rule out the Russian ships.
The German TV programme Tagesschau reported on Thursday:
“Some of these [Russian] ships had switched off their signals so that they could not be located. In German security circles it is said that this approach by Russian military ships is not unusual, but takes place regularly in the Baltic Sea. NATO is still able to track the movements of the ships. The German investigators also followed these tracks, evaluating satellite images and radio recordings.”
Similarly, Expressen’s report says the Russian ships’ positions “have been mapped” and “the conclusion must be that they have not been in such a place that they could have carried out the deed”.
The Andromeda’s voyage
The Andromeda is a single-masted Bavaria Cruiser 50 with a diesel engine and bunks for ten people. It was hired from a marina in Rostock, Germany, and set sail on September 6 last year with six people on board: a captain, two divers, two diving assistants and a doctor. After spending a little more than two weeks at sea it returned to Rostock a few days before the explosions.
The Andromeda’s crew had forged passports, so they were clearly not sailing the Baltic on legitimate business. A further oddity is that the hiring fee for the yacht was paid by a Polish-registered company operating from an accommodation address in Warsaw. It appears to be a shell company disguised as a travel agent.
While at sea, the Andromeda is known to have called at the remote Danish island of Christiansø which is about 40km from the main sabotage area — so if the purpose of its voyage was to plant the explosives it probably had an opportunity to do so.
On returning to Rostock, the crew neglected to clean the boat (contrary to the hiring agreement) and German police later reported finding traces of explosives in its cabin.
The big question
There are clearly reasons to be suspicious about the Andromeda and its crew but so far no one has given a conclusive answer to one fundamental question: whether it would be feasible for a couple of divers to carry out the attack from such a small boat.
Nord Stream pipes were ruptured in four places (one pipe was hit twice) and a few days after the blasts German security officials told Der Spiegel they believed “massive explosive devices with the force of 500kg of TNT” had been used. They had reached this conclusion based on seismic data, Der Spiegel said. Denmark and Sweden, which are carrying out their own investigations, were less specific, saying in a joint report to the UN that the blasts were equivalent to the power of “several hundred kilograms of explosive”.
It’s doubtful, though, whether the Andromeda was capable of transporting such a large quantity of explosives in addition to the diving gear and other equipment. There are also questions about how the explosives could be lowered from the yacht and how long it would take for divers to manouevre them into position on the seabed.
Three of the explosions occurred at a depth of almost 80m — which would be a challenge for divers, though probably feasible with the right training and equipment. Achim Schloeffel, an “extreme diver” and trainer, has given an explanation of how it could be done using rebreather equipment and pausing to decompress on the way back to the surface.
The snag, though, is that the divers would have to complete their tasks on the seabed quickly, in minutes rather than hours. That seems unlikely with a large quantity of explosives and if the job took longer the divers would need a decompression chamber — for which there was no space on the yacht.
The implication of this is that the Andromeda crew could not have carried out the attack without assistance from others — mainly because of the quantity of explosives. An alternative view, though, is that the quantity has been overestimated.
According to Der Spiegel, the explosive involved was Octogen, also known as HMX. Since it’s more powerful than TNT, only about 300kg would be needed to achieve the same effect as 500kg of TNT. Even so, for the four explosions, that would still mean transporting well over a tonne of Octogen.
There’s another factor, though, which could mean the explosive charges were a lot smaller than previously reported. The estimates of explosive force are based on seismologists’ records and the question here is how much of the seismic effect was actually due to explosives and how much was due to a sudden release of highly pressurised gas as the pipes burst open. So far, there’s no scientific consensus about that.
Connections with Ukraine
Recent media reports have highlighted several connections between the Andromeda and Ukrainians. As a long-standing opponent of the Nord Stream project, Ukraine had a possible motive for sabotaging it. However, it’s unlikely the Ukrainian government would want to be involved in such an attack because of the likely damage to relations with its allies.
By the same token, it can be argued that Russia has an interest in seeing Ukraine implicated (whether justifiably or not) and one suggestion is that the Andromeda’s role was to lay a false trail. Another theory is that a group of Ukrainians carried out the sabotage without authorisation from their government.
A story passed around in diplomatic circles shortly after the explosions was that the attack had been a private operation funded by a wealthy and prominent Ukrainian who is not connected with the Zelensky government. A name has been mentioned, but without supporting evidence.
More recently several European news organisations have reported that German investigators believe one of the men on the Andromeda was a serving Ukrainian soldier. A photo in one of the forged passports is said to have been matched to his social media profile. His name is known to journalists but has not been published.
In a further development, possibly involving the same man, police have interviewed a German woman living in Frankfurt an der Oder, a town adjacent to the Polish border. She is said to be the former partner of “a Ukrainian suspect” and is being treated as a witness. She is reported to have a child fathered by the suspect and police have taken a DNA sample from the child to compare with DNA found on the Andromeda.
Meanwhile, Feeria Lwowa, the purported travel company that paid to hire the Andromeda also has a connection with Ukraine. Its director is Nataliia Ashykhmina, described in company documents as a Ukrainian citizen resident in Ukraine. She is also director and sole owner of BB Aero, another purported travel firm with dubious credentials. According to Expressen, when contacted by phone she admitted being the company’s director but declined to answer further questions.
The registered owner of Feeria Lwowa is a 32-year-old woman from the city of Kerch on the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula. Expressen’s report says:
“In the Polish company documents, she has used her Ukrainian passport — but our review of Russian databases shows that the woman changed her name several years ago and now also has Russian citizenship. She works for a Russian authority in the city. On a Ukrainian war criminals website, she is listed as a traitor because of her collaboration with the occupying power.
“The woman says by phone that she does not know that she owns the company and denies any connection.”
The upshot of this is that the German investigators now have the names of three people, two of whom could presumably be interviewed if the Ukrainian authorities are willing to cooperate. It will be interesting to see if the Germans make such a request, and how the Ukrainian government might respond to it.