The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nord Stream intrigue raises tricky questions for Kyiv

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A six-month-old mystery could complicate Kyiv’s current-day war efforts. The undersea explosions that severely damaged the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines last September seemed like a distant memory as Ukrainian forces battled their Russian invaders this year, even if the question of the blast’s perpetrators remained.

But new reports have brought that Nord Stream attack back to the fore, bringing with them potentially risky complications for Kyiv. Western intelligence officials have said privately that they suspect that pro-Ukraine saboteurs may be responsible for explosions that severely damaged the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines, The Washington Post and the New York Times reported this week.

On Tuesday, German newspaper Die Zeit and public broadcasters ARD and SWR added to the intrigue, reporting that federal prosecutors in the country had found that saboteurs used a yacht rented from a company in Poland that was “apparently owned by two Ukrainians.”

The reports are far from conclusive and the Ukrainian government strenuously denies any involvement. But whether involved or not, Kyiv has good reason to be cautious about the intrigue, which comes as it continues its push for new support from its allies, including weaponry.

The reaction in Berlin will be particularly important to watch. At the start of the war, the German government was simultaneously dependent on Russian gas and a key European ally for the Ukrainian government, despite deep controversy over the dueling roles.

However, the Sept. 26 explosions have effectively closed the troubled pipelines for Russian gas. In the months since, Berlin has — sometimes begrudgingly — ramped up its support for Kyiv, most notably by agreeing to the export of Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine early this year. If Kyiv were to be linked to the attacks on Nord Stream, it could threaten that — potentially pushing Berlin support back after considerable progress for Kyiv.

German officials appear to be circumspect so far, even suggesting that the operation could be a “false flag” designed to discredit the Ukrainian cause.

“It would not be the first time in the history of such events,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters at a European Union defense ministers meeting in Stockholm. “As such, I’m refraining from drawing premature conclusions.”

Intelligence officials suspect Ukraine partisans behind Nord Stream bombings, rattling Kyiv’s allies

There is no doubt that Kyiv has backed some covert action during this war. In recent weeks, the Ukrainian government has taken a more open acknowledgment that it was staging military attacks outside of its own borders.

On Monday, the Ukrainian special forces unit known as Kraken released shaky footage that, with dramatic rock music and graphics attached, claimed to show an unmanned aerial vehicle flying into a military watch tower in Russia’s Bryansk Oblast and exploding. A second drone attack destroyed the tower.

The open nature of the video was unusual, but Kyiv has quietly acknowledged a number of similar covert attacks. Last December, a Ukrainian official told The Washington Post that a series of drone attacks on Russian air bases were carried out by Ukrainian drones. Most notably, attacks on infrastructure in Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula occupied by Russian forces since 2014 — have belatedly been acknowledged as the work of Ukrainian special forces.

But there have notably been other attacks where Kyiv has kept the accusations at arm’s length.

Last August, a suspected car bombing outside of Moscow killed Daria Dugina. Dugina is the daughter of Alexander Dugin, a Russian nationalist and ideological ally of President Vladimir Putin, and was driving her father’s car, leading to widespread speculation he was the intended target. The Kremlin swiftly blamed Ukraine for the attack; The Washington Post reports that Western officials blame “Ukrainian actors” for this attack.

And just last week, the Kremlin blamed Ukraine for an attack in two villages in the Bryansk region of western Russia that it described as a “terrorist attack” that had left at least two people dead.

Russia advances in Bakhmut by sending waves of mercenaries to certain death

Notably, these attacks were claimed by supposed Russian anti-government forces. Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of Russia’s Duma who opposed the Kremlin, said last summer that an underground group called the National Republican Army was behind the attack that killed Daria Dugina and that it aimed to overthrow Putin.

The attacks in Bryansk, meanwhile, were quickly claimed by fighters who said they were members of a far-right Russian anti-Putin nationalist group called the Russian Volunteer Corps. The group’s founder is reported to be Denis Kapustin, also known as Denis Nikitin, a former mixed martial arts fighter and far-right extremist who had lived in Germany, where his ties to neo-Nazis eventually earned him a 10-year ban from Europe’s Schengen zone.

Ukraine has strongly denied knowledge of either attack. However, last week, Kapustin told the Financial Times that a recent cross-border raid he’d conducted from Ukraine into Russia had the endorsement of Kyiv. “If I did not co-ordinate it with anyone [in Ukraine’s military] … I think we would simply be destroyed,” Kapustin said.

For Ukraine, covert action outside of its borders is a balancing act. Western powers have long been worried about Ukraine crossing a “red line” with Russia, with the United States initially refusing to supply longer-range HIMARS missiles to Ukraine’s military and pushing Kyiv to not target Crimea, despite the peninsula being considered Ukrainian land.

The United States has shown a willingness to budge, with longer-range artillery provided earlier this year. Last month, Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the United States considered Russian military sites in Crimea “legitimate targets” and that “Ukraine is hitting them and we are supporting that.”

If a pro-Ukraine group is found to have committed an act of subterfuge under the North Sea that imperiled an ally’s energy security and produced a significant environmental disaster, Kyiv will face far bigger questions about covert action: How it could have allowed this to happen? Or, worse yet, how it couldn’t have known?

Mark Galeotti, a political scientist who tracks Russia, speculates in the Spectator that U.S. officials could be leaking the reports to send a “friendly warning” to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “These kinds of stories make maintaining the unity of western support all the harder, so get your house in order.”

But no matter what happened, suspicions will be hard to conclusively shake. As one unnamed German official told the Wall Street Journal, the hopes of finding the culprit aren’t great. “There will never be certainty,” the official said. “No one has left fingerprints down there.”