Now it’s Ukrainians

The Nord Stream story continues to grow ever more complex and strange. Daniel Lazare attempts to cut through the confusion

When German chancellor Olaf Scholz flew to Washington on March 3 for an emergency face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden, it was a good bet that he had three things on his mind: the fall of Bakhmut in Ukraine; the February 25 ‘Rise up for peace’ rally in Berlin, which organisers say drew 50,000 people or more, and Nord Stream.

The first, which is plainly imminent, will be the most important Russian victory in the war so far and will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on morale from Kiev to Washington. The second is important, because it is an indication that anti-war sentiment is on the upswing and will likely continue rising in the months to come.

But the third is the most critical of all, because the mystery of who blew up the pipeline on September 26 continues hanging over the Atlantic alliance like a modern-day sword of Damocles. If investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is correct that the United States was the guilty party - as he charged in a blockbuster article on February 8 - then it means that America will stop at nothing in its drive to maintain global hegemony, up to and including engaging in an act of war on an energy facility owned by one of its closest allies. Although history buffs are hard-pressed to come up with a parallel, the one that comes most readily to mind is Winston Churchill’s decision to bomb the neutral French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria in July 1940 to prevent it from falling into German hands - and even that does not quite fit the bill, since Britain was at war, which the US so far is not.

So, with questions continuing to multiply, thanks to Hersh’s article, Scholz decided to fly to Washington on March 3, because he needed something - anything - to tell voters back home about Nord Stream that would get both him and the US off the hook.

Now we may have an idea of what that something is, and it is extraordinary. According to a strange and cryptic article that The New York Times posted on its website on March 7, anonymous intelligence sources have disclosed that the culprit was neither the United States nor Russia. Rather, it was a group of non-state actors who support Ukraine and are “most likely Ukrainian or Russian nationals, or some combination of the two”. The article says that “the new intelligence provided no evidence so far of the Ukrainian government’s complicity in the attack on the pipelines”. But it adds:

The review of newly collected intelligence suggests they were opponents of president Vladimir V Putin of Russia, but does not specify the members of the group, or who directed or paid for the operation. US officials declined to disclose the nature of the intelligence, how it was obtained, or any details of the strength of the evidence it contains. They have said that there are no firm conclusions about it, leaving open the possibility that the operation might have been conducted off the books by a proxy force with connections to the Ukrainian government or its security services.1

Simultaneously, the German newspaper Die Zeit went public with a report that a Ukrainian-owned boat may have been used to transport a six-member dive team three weeks prior to Nord Stream’s destruction, which then mined two steel-reinforced double pipelines with explosives. “The nationality of the perpetrators is apparently unclear,” the report says, but it added that the team used “professionally-forged passports” and that investigators found traces of explosives in the ship’s cabin.2


All of which tells us … what? That the Ukrainian government may have been in on the secret or totally in the dark, that Washington’s role is unclear as well, and that the saboteurs’ identity remains a mystery. All of which is positively mind-boggling for at least three reasons.

One is that, if true, it suggests that the pro-Ukrainian cause is either riddled with reckless elements which the Kiev government is unable to control or, conversely, that it knows perfectly well what they are up to, but prefers to look the other way. The operation may have been totally free-standing, of course, but everything we know about the amorphous Ukrainian power structure suggests that someone in the government was in the know.

Second, it means that Scholz has not gotten himself off the hook, but is in fact in deeper trouble than ever, because the regime he has gone out on a limb to support is either at war with Germany or is surrounded by elements who are waging war on their own. At best, it suggests that Washington and Kiev are both incompetent, when it comes to controlling dangerous rogue elements, and that Germany is going to war on behalf of a government it can no longer trust. The effect on political sentiment in Germany is bound to be dramatic.

Third, if not true, the report suggests that the White House is so panicked by Hersh’s report that it is desperate to shift the blame onto others, regardless of the consequences. “US has used Ukrainians for a proxy war against Russia,” tweeted Aaron Maté, a Canadian journalist who has done top-notch reporting on Russiagate and the war. “Now using them to take the blame for Nord Stream.”3

But is it the administration that is trying to shift the blame or rogue elements within US intelligence? The answer is unknown. The only certainty is that Hersh has opened up a can of worms with his 5,000-word report and that US intelligence, the Ukrainian government, Scholz’s ‘traffic-light coalition’ in Berlin, and Nato in general may soon be pointing a finger at everyone else. The entire war effort is in deepening disarray as a consequence.

It should be added that the question of responsibility is not a matter of ‘either-or’. As The New York Times notes, “Ukrainian officials are not always transparent with their American counterparts about their military operations, especially those against Russian targets behind enemy lines.” Those operations include a strike in early August on a Russian air base on the west coast of the Crimean peninsula; a truck bomb in October that destroyed part of the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting the peninsula with the Russian mainland; and drone strikes in December on Russian military bases in Ryazan and Engels, about 300 miles from the Ukrainian border. Another such operation was the car-bomb assassination of Darya Dugina (daughter of the far-right Russian nationalist, Aleksandr Dugin) in August, which Ukraine initially tried to pin on anti-Putin forces within Russia itself, but which later turned out to be the work of Ukrainian intelligence.4

Although the Times did not mention it, a recent cross-border raid in the Russian region of Bryansk falls into the same category. Initially dismissed by Kiev as Russian propaganda, it turns out that the raid was led by a Russian neo-Nazi named Denis Nikitin, who has a long history of far-right activism across Europe and, most recently, inside Ukraine as well.5 The Times has highlighted the work of other neo-Nazi saboteurs behind Russian lines, who, in the excited prose that the newspaper favours, “sneak down darkened alleys to set explosives ... identify Russian targets for Ukrainian artillery and long-range rockets … blow up rail lines and assassinate officials they consider collaborators with the Russians”.6

It is an example of far-right derring-do that American newspapers love. But if similar units are behind the Nord Stream attack, then it suggests that the Ukrainian power structure includes a substantial grey zone, in which government intelligence agents rub shoulders with neo-Nazi saboteurs without inquiring too closely as to what they are up to. Nord Stream may be the price Scholz is paying for not inquiring too closely about such elements either. As a sign put it at a recent anti-war protest in Munich, Keiner Solidarität mit Ukrainische Bandera Faschismus (‘No solidarity with Bandera fascism’) - a reference to wartime collaborator Stepan Bandera, who is now a Ukrainian national hero.7 It is a lesson that Scholz’s Social Democrats have been distinctly slow to absorb.

A grey zone may also exist in Washington among the 17 separate agencies that comprise the US ‘intelligence community’. Some may have known what Ukrainian neo-Nazis were up to, some may have been in the dark, and some may have learned about the Nord Stream operation after the fact. Washington can be counted on to cover up the truth about its own involvement or that of Ukraine, but the question is whether Scholz will go along with a cover-up or whether he will hold Biden’s feet to the fire and force him to come clean.

Better yet, the big question now is whether a reinvigorated anti-imperialist left will hold Scholz’s feet to the fire and force him to get Biden to cough up. Someone is waging war on German energy infrastructure, and the only thing that is clear at this point is that it is not Russia - it could be Washington, Kiev or shadowy freelance operatives. Berlin should get to the bottom of it pronto: otherwise, it will not know whom to fear more - Moscow or its own allies.

The New York Times report adds a layer of uncertainty to a war that has been incoherent from the start. The entire effort rests on three leaps of faith. One is that neo-Nazi influence is a Russian fabrication, even though just about every major news outlet - the Times, BBC, CNN, etc - published alarming reports about the growing fascist role prior to the February 2022 invasion (reports that the same outlets promptly forgot, once Russian forces crossed the border). Supposedly, Kiev is now free of such dangerous elements, even though the Times report suggests that they are more powerful than anyone imagined.

The second leap of faith is that Nato is blameless; that Washington did not encourage the 2014 coup d’état in Kiev that wound up chasing out a legally elected government; that the regime that arose in its place is democratic through and through; and that sole responsibility lies with an infinitely evil Kremlin. But if the Kiev regime is filled with dangerous saboteurs, as the Times now indicates, then its good faith is now open to question, to say the least. Germany has no idea what it is dealing with in Kiev - or in Washington as well, for that matter. All it knows is that someone is blowing up its pipelines and the pressure is on to find out who.

The third leap of faith is that there was a way out of the conflict, that war aims are clear and coherent, and that the conflict will not escalate to the point of dragging in the entire region. But if US intelligence now says that it has no idea who blew up Nord Stream, but that it may have been Russo-Ukrainian operatives who are beyond control, then the entire enterprise is a ball of confusion that is likely to worsen in the coming period. Somehow, Germany has fallen into a swamp with no clear way out.

Is this the way the empire ends - not with a whimper or a bang, but with a descent into utter incoherence?

  1. www.nytimes.com/2023/03/07/us/politics/nord-stream-pipeline-sabotage-ukraine.html.↩︎

  2. www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2023-03/nordstream-2-ukraine-anschlag.↩︎

  3. twitter.com/aaronjmate/status/1633137755071864835.↩︎

  4. www.nytimes.com/2022/10/05/us/politics/ukraine-russia-dugina-assassination.html.↩︎

  5. meduza.io/en/episodes/2023/03/04/the-russian-volunteer-corps-and-its-neo-nazi-leader.↩︎

  6. www.nytimes.com/2022/08/17/world/europe/ukraine-partisans-insurgency-russia.html.↩︎

  7. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/w/thousands-anti-war-protestery-rally-outside-munich-security-conference.↩︎