All’s fair in love and war, which I suppose means we can forgive Ukraine if Kyiv, or operatives acting on its behalf, did indeed sabotage the Nord Stream pipeline last year.
Six months after a series of suspected detonations engendered bitter recriminations between Moscow and the West, credible media reports suggested US intelligence believed a “pro-Ukrainian group” was likely behind the incident.
The attack on the gas links spawned innumerable conspiracy theories, including a fantastical narrative penned by controversial investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who claimed the vandalism resulted from a “covert sea operation” orchestrated by the Biden administration, a claim The White House dismissed as “complete fiction.”
In September, I aggressively dismissed the suggestion of US involvement as spurious. It now appears the truth is somewhere in-between. Allow me to pose a series of questions before you read further. Does foreknowledge count as involvement? Or is foreknowledge merely complicity? Is there a distinction between involvement and complicity? And what if you lie about your foreknowledge?
Officially, the Nord Stream attack remains a mystery, but new reporting from The Washington Post suggests that to the extent Western officials intended to convey Russian culpability without making it clear that Ukraine was the more likely culprit, voters were misled. The attack was probably carried out by Ukraine, and both the US and Europe knew the details of the plan beforehand.
“Three months before saboteurs bombed the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, the Biden administration learned from a close [European] ally that the Ukrainian military had planned a covert attack on the undersea network, using a small team of divers who reported directly to the commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces,” the Post reported on Tuesday, citing a summary leaked on Discord by Jack Teixeira.
The Post was able to verify that the summary “accurately stated what the European service told the CIA.” The reporting didn’t disclose the name of the country which tipped off the White House. Kyiv didn’t respond to the Post‘s request for comment. Neither did the CIA.
As the article went on to note, the Biden administration has backed away from blaming Moscow, preferring instead to deflect when queried on what the US knows about the incident. In Europe, the strategy is generally the same.
The Post‘s reporting plainly indicates that both The White House and Brussels have engaged in what I’ll generously describe as obfuscation. A less generous interpretation would be to suggest voters in Western democracies were systematically lied to out of concern the truth would undermine support for Ukraine’s defense.
Either way, it was a bad gamble in my judgment, particularly as it relates to US voters, most of whom would choose “A weather pattern” or “A creek in Canada” before “A gas pipeline” on a multiple choice question asking “What is the Nord Stream?” The point: Most Americans don’t care how, or even if, Europe gets its natural gas, but in the current bull market for paranoia, they care quite a lot about government coverups, or the perception thereof.
According to the Post, the team of operatives Europe identified ahead of the attack reported directly to Ukraine’s highest-ranking military officer, but not to Zelensky. The idea, obviously, was to give Zelensky plausible deniability.
Although the operation was delayed for unknown reasons, German investigators see parallels between the attack as it occurred and the original plans. Indeed, “parallels” feels a bit euphemistic. The Ukrainian informant responsible for tipping off the Europeans (who then tipped off the CIA) said a half-dozen Ukrainians planned to rent a boat using aliases, then dive to the floor of the Baltic. Although the emerging story from a German investigation of the actual event differs in some ways, it starts with six people using fake passports to rent a boat.
It’s probably fair to call Tuesday’s reporting by the Post the most conclusive known evidence pointing to Kyiv in the Nord Stream bombing. There’s little point in skirting the issue: Ukraine is fighting first and foremost to survive as a state and, more importantly, as a people. Vladimir Putin is intent on assimilation or, failing that, genocide. In the West, we expect that in exchange for military and financial aid, Kyiv will refrain from actions with the potential to draw NATO into an existential conflict. That may be an unrealistic ask.
The Post‘s report came on a day when thousands of Ukrainians were subject to emergency evacuations after an explosion destroyed The Kakhova dam, setting the stage for yet another humanitarian crisis and a potential environmental disaster. Kyiv and Moscow traded blame for the incident which, at least as of this writing, appeared to be the work of Russian troops hoping to stymie Ukraine’s nascent counteroffensive, although the Pentagon conceded there was no way to know for sure.
Russia mercilessly bombarded Kyiv in May, including a ballistic missile volley carried out in broad daylight. It was virtually impossible to keep track of the near daily barrage across the country. The Kremlin blamed Ukraine for two drone attacks on Moscow last month, one of which Russia characterized as an attempt on Putin’s life.
In addition to Kyiv’s suspected involvement in the Nord Stream sabotage, the US reportedly believes Ukraine was responsible for the assassination of Daria Dugina. Kyiv denied any role, but Ukraine hasn’t been shy about other high-profile incidents, including a spectacularly brazen attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge carried out just days after the gas links were bombed. All of these episodes, as well as a hodgepodge of cross-border attacks variously attributed to Ukraine, are generally seen as evidence that Washington is unable to prevent Kyiv from engaging in actions with the potential to prompt a Russian escalation of the sort that would demand a Western military response.
Ultimately, the Nord Stream episode is a reminder that not all conspiracy theories are fiction. That not all counter-narrative is propaganda, even if it can be co-opted for propaganda purposes after the fact. It’s also a reminder that the “good” guys lie too.
But more than that, it’s a testament to the selfishness behind the West’s ostensible generosity in Ukraine. All the weapons and all the money are contingent upon a promise that a people facing extinction at the hands of a tyrant fight fair, and thereby put our interests above their own survival.