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Who blew up the Nord Stream pipelines?

Who blew up the Nord Stream pipelines?
Who blew up the Nord Stream pipelines? | Quick Take | GZERO Media

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Quick Take to kick off your week, and I want to talk about Nord Stream one and two. These are the pipelines, the gas pipelines that the Germans had wanted and the Russians had built, multi-billion dollar pipelines to bring gas from Russia into Germany and Europe. The United States had been very critical of these pipelines for years. The Trump administration particularly vocal about it, and only shut down after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and then sabotaged, blown up.

So who did it? It's a big question. And the presumption immediately after the explosions back in September that came from the West and Ukraine was that it was the Russians. And there was no evidence, but you're blaming the Russians for everything since they invaded Ukraine and they're committing all these war crimes. But this one always struck me, Nord Stream, as not having enormous credibility, trying to figure out why would the Russians blow up their own multi-billion-dollar pipelines?

Especially because, when you talk to Russian advisors, the presumption was that, over time, over years, Russia's focused on Ukraine. The Europeans perhaps not so much. The expense for the Europeans and providing support goes up. The costs, as they get colder over time, goes up and they get weary. And so having an option of getting Russian gas turned back on could be attractive for a potential peace movement. Not saying it's going to happen, but certainly was seen as an option by the Russians that they wouldn't want to suddenly take off the table by blowing up their own pipeline. So then after the pipelines were blown up, there have been a couple of investigations that the Europeans have conducted for months now. And there has been not a shred of evidence that has pointed to the Russians being responsible for this sabotage. And you'd know that if they found anything that pointed to Russia, because they'd want the world to know, they would tell us.

And especially after the extraordinary intelligence from the United States on Russia's plans to invade Ukraine, as well as various faults, flag efforts that the Russians were scheming up as the drumbeat of war was increasing, that the Americans made known to allies and some of which they made public. The fact that the United States has come up with nothing, I mean, I'm not just talking about fingerprints or signature on the explosions, I'm also talking about any communications, signals intelligence and email, anything from anyone involved in this effort. We have no idea who's behind this. So it doesn't smell right to me that the Russians are responsible. So then who is?

And, well, enter Seymour Hersh, a very well-known journalist. He got a Pulitzer Prize for his work uncovering the Mỹ Lai massacre by the United States in Vietnam. And he writes this extraordinary piece independently published on his Substack newsletter that fingers the United States and Norway in a covert operation blowing up these pipelines. It got huge attention, especially and predictably with Russian state media and the Russian government now saying that they're planning on taking steps to retaliate. The question is, does the story hold up? If it does, it's an extraordinary story. It would risk driving a wedge in the NATO coalition. It's worth taking a look at. And I've done that now, and I will say that, as skeptical as I am that the Russians are behind Nord Stream one and two exploding, the Hersh story doesn't hold up at all.

First of all, the core concept that the United States would target infrastructure partially owned by a key ally without telling the Germans about it runs very counter to what the United States has been doing in the war. I mean, at the same time that this occurred, the US was pursuing much deeper ties with Germany on a lot of issues like tech regulation and China decoupling and strengthening transatlantic ties to reverse the pullback and cooperation that you saw in the Trump administration. Blowing up Nord Stream risks all of those initiatives for a very questionable benefit to the United States, which is breaking Russia-Germany ties, while also risking spiking energy prices in the EU.

Partnering with Norway, a chartered NATO member, to sabotage Nord Stream also risks fracturing internal NATO cooperation, which Biden and his entire team have made very clear, both publicly and privately, has been the single most important gain that they have seen since the invasion has started. The fact that NATO, which was fragmenting, now has a reason for being. It's expanding, it's very coordinated, consolidated under US leadership. You risk that. Biden administration strikes me as much more risk averse than that. But okay, that's a practical and theoretical argument. Now, need to talk about some of the things Hersh said in the piece itself. Explanation that he lays out for hiding the operation from Congress isn't actually internally consistent. Hersh's claim that the operation was devised without using special operations personnel in order to avoid notifying Congress is actually incorrect.

A covert action pursued under Title 50 authority, that's the part of US Code that allows the CIA to pursue covert action regardless of what assets are used, would still be briefed to Congress. And that never happened. Specifically, CIA can request DoDEA personnel through the Defense sensitive support system. And those requests are briefed to Congress every month. And in Hersh's telling, the CIA would've asked the US Navy for deep water divers via that system, and Congress would've been notified. Whether those divers were special operations or not actually is immaterial to that process. He then suggests that the operation was downgraded to avoid congressional notification. That's not actually a thing. If it was a covert action, there would've been a finding before DoDEA assets were requested or before operational planning got past the initial stage. So the argument here kind of is nonsensical. Okay.

Also, the publicly verifiable facts, which are critical, don't line up with Hersh. He specifies that a Norwegian Alta-class minesweeper was used to support the divers that were planting explosives during the Baltops exercises. Now, public tracking shows that none of Norway's five Alta-class ships were in the region during the exercise. Further, Hersh claims that a Norwegian P-8, that's an aircraft that does marine tracking, dropped a sonar buoy on the day of the explosion that triggered the explosives. But none of the five P-8s that Norway operates were in the area that day per flight tracking. That these don't show up on public tracking is critical because Hersh's whole claim is that the reason that the Norwegians were used is so that the flights and ship activity wouldn't need to be covert. This doesn't align with the data. The other thing I would say is that Hersh's own anti-establishment and specifically anti-intelligence community bias should draw some skepticism.

As I mentioned, Hersh, the work he's done on Mỹ Lai was extraordinary and a true public service, and he got a Pulitzer for it. But more recently, he's done work claiming that the Osama bin Laden killing was a coverup, that the Syrian government didn't use chemical weapons. And they're both notable for being unbelievable and designed really to rebut specific claims made by the US intelligence community. And unfortunately, this article really lines up with that ideologically, and also without having the information to back it up. So, what then is really going on here? Who was behind it? I mean, the fact that Hersh is wrong doesn't mean that that NATO wasn't in some way behind this. And it's, by the way, not inconceivable that Hersh's anonymous source, gave him details that are disprovable in order to undermine the central argument in the piece. I mean, if you dismiss it as "I'm doing right now" as clearly factually wrong, it colors future claims that the United States was responsible that are potentially more credible.

I personally think that the Ukrainians are the most likely culprit. I mean, in the sense that they're the ones that have the most to gain. And they're also the ones that are the most risk acceptant. I mean, this war is an existential risk to them, and they're willing to do almost anything to ensure that their country still exists. And if the NATO alliance starts to break, that's an utter disaster for them. They need to make sure that that energy can't go to the Germans going forward. They don't want that to be a possibility because it's their future, literally their future as human beings that's on the line. Now, the main problem with the Ukrainian argument is, do they have the capabilities, the technical capabilities? And six months ago, I would've been very skeptical. But I also wouldn't have thought they'd be able to blow up the Kerch Bridge connecting Russia to Crimea, and they did. And that was pretty sophisticated operationally.

They also, of course, attempted to assassinate Alexander Dugin, ended up killing his daughter just outside Russia. Also pretty sophisticated assassination just outside Moscow. They also have been involved in shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant that was occupied in Ukraine, the largest nuclear plant in Ukraine, but occupied by the Russians. I mean, if those shells had gone awry, you could have had a nuclear accident. So the willingness of the Ukrainians to take big risks is significant. I suspect they're the most likely. Could it have been with some NATO support, for example, Poland? Who knows that, if it wasn't for the Ukrainians fighting, they'd be fighting themselves.

They're therefore by far the most hawkish in orientation towards Russia. That is plausible. They're the ones that have been pushing the hardest for getting fighter jets to the Ukrainians to fight the Russians, for example. It's certainly possible. The Americans, of course, would have the most operational capability to pull off such an attack. And that is at face what makes Hersh's article very interesting. But again, at least, as he's argued, it strikes me as completely wrong, and frankly very irresponsible. So that's why I wanted to use my platform to go through the facts as they stand.

I hope everyone finds this useful. I look forward to talking to everybody real soon.


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