Who destroyed the Nord Stream pipelines? Ask the KGB archivist
The Kremlin has made it clear they believe Russia is at war with NATO, not simply Ukraine. The destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines appears to be a return of the KGB's Cold War sabotage tactics.
When news emerged on September 26, 2022 that explosions occurred at points along the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipelines, the information space lit up quickly. The loudest, most insistent talking point that emerged came both from pro-Kremlin mouthpieces and right-wing pro-Trump Americans. They claimed that the United States covertly—either through the shadowy “Deep State” or “The Regime” or a clandestine CIA operation—carried out the attacks on Joe Biden’s order. The reason given for this action varied. It included speculation that this was done to punish Russia for continuing their war of choice in Ukraine. Others asserted that this was done to intentionally provoke Russia and push us closer to World War III by those who somehow see this as a favorable outcome. Other explanations included the claim that the United States was punishing Germany for its overreliance on Russian gas and hoped this shock to the system would encourage the Germans to up their assistance to the Ukrainian cause. The supposed justifications are too numerous to list, and they are based on scant evidence with heavy doses of conjecture.
Weeks before the pipelines were destroyed, Russia had stopped supplying Europe with gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, and Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine starting in February 2022 ensured Nord Stream 2 never came online. Since there is near universal consensus that underwater explosions, not a natural disaster, caused the destruction of these pipelines, we must discuss the reasons why you should believe the most likely culprit in these attacks was the Russian government itself. To what end? The most likely explanation is the Kremlin saw this as a way to open up a new phase of hybrid warfare against the West involving the use of Russian energy as weapon. We’ve already seen a significant development on this front. On October 12, Putin made it clear that part of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline remained operational and was available for gas transit to the European Union. In a speech in Moscow, he stated, “The ball is in the EU's court. If they want to, then the taps can be turned on and that's it.” Putin’s proposal may be dismissed today, but as energy prices continue to soar and ordinary citizens across Europe increasingly suffer, that offer will become ever more enticing. Here’s why you shouldn’t believe this opportunity happened by mere chance alone.
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The claims and supposed justifications for destroying the Nord Stream pipelines.
RT and other pro-Kremlin media figures suggested this was done to isolate or punish Germany for failing to meet its NATO obligations and for slow-walking aid to the Ukrainian forces. Others suggested this was a Neo-Con plot to drag the United States into World War III and deploy forces into Ukraine either to win the war for Ukraine or to destroy the Russian Federation in the process. Stories also popped up with the idea that Biden approved the attack so the United States could sell more natural gas to Europe directly. Breitbart ran a piece claiming the destruction of the pipelines opened the door for the Chinese to up their supply of natural gas to the European countries. Given Breitbart’s enthusiastic support for the “My Son Hunter” movie which focuses much of its energy on the Bidens’ deals in China and Joe Biden being supposedly “compromised” by Xi and the Chinese state, this played right into this ongoing theme. Charlie Kirk suggested the Biden administration may have carried out the attack to benefit the “DC war machine,” a suggestion that the military-industrial complex’s profits from the sales of arms in the upcoming World War III outweighed the risk of nuclear war inherent in such a conflict. Dan Bongino claimed the Biden administration’s need to accelerate their “green agenda” could’ve played some role in carrying out the attack.
The evidence for all this didn’t go much beyond the usual knee-jerk “just asking questions” conjecture we would expect from this crowd, but lost in the shuffle was the difference between our two countries. If Biden had approved an action this significant, if he approved an act of international terrorism, wouldn’t he have to answer for that one day? If Reagan had to answer for Iran-Contra, W. Bush had to answer for Abu Gharib and Obama had to deal with the fallout with Benghazi, surely Biden would face even greater scrutiny when the current stakes appear to be World War III and Armageddon.
But what of Putin? If Russia’s security services carried out this act of sabotage, who would Putin have to answer to for it? Lest we forget, Putin initially consolidated his grasp on power in Russia by regaining control of the breakaway region of Chechnya in the Second Chechen War, and Putin’s justification for this war was itself based on an act of terrorism against innocent Russian civilians. Hundreds were killed in a series of apartment bombings supposedly carried out by Chechen terrorists, but the hidden hand of the FSB was all over the operation. If Putin would condone murdering hundreds of his own people to maintain power and suffer no real consequences for doing so, are we really to believe he would hesitate to blow up a natural gas pipeline if he believed it was in his strategic interests to do so? Most Americans can’t imagine our own government blowing up B.P. oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico or our own critical infrastructure. Imagine the amount of bad press. Imagine the ensuing Congressional investigations. People here would be named and shamed in the media. Many would likely end up in jail. Joe Biden would probably be impeached within a fortnight. We simply don’t do these kinds of things to ourselves.
To truly understand this mentality, it’s best to remember Russia’s Soviet past.
Who was Vasili Mitrokhin, and how can he inform us about the present?
Vasili Mitrokhin was a long-serving KGB archivist whose career began in 1948 as a Soviet foreign intelligence officer. He remained active throughout the Cold War until his retirement from the security service in 1985. He never defected, but he became disillusioned with the Soviet system after Nikita Krushchev’s famous 1956 speech in which the horrors of Stalinism were first publicly acknowledged by the party leadership. The brutal Soviet repressions of protest movements in Hungary (Hungarian Revolution in 1956) and the Czech Republic (Prague Spring in 1968) further solidified his position that the Soviet system was fundamentally broken and unfixable. When he was transferred from active field service into his role as Soviet archivist in 1972, he was tasked with checking, sealing and transferring old KGB archives into a new facility. This work was often done alone and involved long hours. Mitrokhin began making duplicate copies of these files—the original was sealed and transferred, the handwritten copies went home with Vasili. He hoped that one day the information contained in these files would be useful in exposing the horrors the KGB had committed against its own people and across the world, but all he really had was hope. He told no one what he was doing—not even his own family, for their protection—and kept the files hidden under the crawlspace of his summer dacha.
Thankfully, Mitrokhin managed to get the material to the UK with the help of MI6 in 1992. Together with the historian Christopher Andrew, the material in these documents was turned into two books titled The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West and The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB in the World, published shortly after Mitrokhin’s death. Both books describe in vivid detail the activities of the KGB during the Cold War—everything from repression at home, influence operations, active measures and assassinations the KGB carried out abroad. For our purposes, let’s focus on the KGB’s role in sabotage operations against the West in case war broke out between the Western NATO Alliance and the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact countries. The KGB were not responsible for war planning, but they were expected to play a major role in the event of hostilities. As stated in The Mitrokhin Archive:
Sabotage operations replaced assassination as the most important “special actions” of the Thirteenth Department during and beyond the Khrushchev era. The main priority of these operations consisted of the identification of targets in the West and preparations for their destruction by Soviet sabotage and intelligence groups (DRGs) and the local Communist “resistance” in the event of an East—West conflict.” One of the DRG’s first actions was to setup secret arms caches for these “resistance” groups in various Western countries.
Potential sabotage targets and landing sites for Soviet sabotage and intelligence groups (DRGs) are recorded in KGB files with the same meticulous detail as the location of secret arms caches. By 1959, if not earlier, the most vulnerable points of power-transmission lines, oil pipelines, communications systems and major industrial complexes in most, if not all, NATO countries were being systematically reconnoitered and marked on the Thirteenth Department’s maps.
This included arming “resistance” movements in Western countries and attacks on critical infrastructure in Western countries. This could mean anything from ammunition depots to water treatment plants or, as it turns out, oil and gas pipelines supplying those NATO countries. This was not theoretical planning. Plans were made to bring down this infrastructure at its most vulnerable points through planted demolitions.
Details of these operations were expanded upon on subsequent pages. They include information concerning KGB sabotage targets on the US border with Mexico and Canada. Their southern targets included military bases, missile sites, radar installations and an oil pipeline. The KGB’s northern targets included the Hungry Horse Dam and Flathead Dam (now known as the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam) in Montana, various sources of power supply to New York state and even the port of New York.
Mitrokhin and his co-author Andrew also state:
[i]n the event of war with NATO, Moscow planned a massive campaign of sabotage and disruption behind enemy lines. But sabotage on a more modest scale was also envisaged in crises (not precisely defined in files seen by Mitrokhin) which stopped short of war. Within Europe, residencies in NATO countries and some neutral states (notably Austria, Sweden and Switzerland) were all expected to make detailed plans for the sabotage of four to six major targets a year.”
Their targets included oil pipelines, fuel and lubricant depots, electrical substation, a NATO transit base, a West German government war bunker and a US army depot. Additionally, DRG saboteurs were supplied explosives for blowing up railway tracks and high-voltage power transmissions pylons along with 6-meter-long fuses and detonators working on a two-hour delay.
Mitrokhin and Andrew added:
A full-time career illegal working for the KGB’s Thirteenth Department, Igor Vitalyevich Voytetsky, worked in Scotland to identify “vulnerable sections of oil pipelines and other targets and selected agents for carrying out sabotage operations. Over the next decade, before becoming an illegal trainer in 1975, Voytetsky carried out similar assignments in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the United States—probably the first ever saboteur’s world tour.”
Where did the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipeline explosions occur? The underwater explosions happened in international waters, but they were specifically inside the economic zones of Denmark (which is a NATO member) and Sweden (which will be a NATO member by the end of the year). Sound familiar?
Did the Cold War really end?
Let’s be entirely clear about one detail. The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union lost. Today, in 2022, it appears we have entered the beginnings of a Second Cold War. What didn’t end in 1991 was longstanding Russian animosity towards the West. The country’s brief flirtation with democracy didn’t last. The nation has returned to its authoritarian roots and the same Cold War hang-ups and mentality. The United States is the Main Adversary once again, and according to the Kremlin, the U.S. has put Russia’s very existence on the line with our support of Ukraine. I say all this because when Vladimir Putin and pro-Kremlin propagandists say they believe that Russia is at war with NATO, not simply Ukraine, they mean it. They believe it. When Putin gave his fiery speech after Russia illegally annexed new Ukrainian territories, his rhetoric was aimed squarely on NATO’s doorstep. He didn’t even mention Ukraine in the first fifteen minutes of the speech. When viewed in the framework of Cold War thinking, this is understandable. Putin, the former KGB man, is a proud Chekist whose worldview was shaped by Soviet propaganda, which saw every setback, every impediment to Soviet expansion as a plot carried out by or under the supervision of the CIA. They were everywhere. They were blamed for every wrong. It was easier to blame the CIA than it was to admit the KGB’s and the Soviet Union’s own missteps. It wasn’t the reality, but it was the perceived reality. That mindset has returned. We’ve seen Russia’s efforts in cyberspace—disinformation operations, botnets and malware campaigns. Perhaps the Kremlin finally decided to up the stakes.
In this context, Russia’s asymmetrical operations have evolved since the first Cold War because of technological advances, but what of the technologies that haven’t changed? What of the attacks on critical infrastructure against Western, NATO aligned countries? Take, for instance, the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, stating in April 2021 that officers of Russia's military intelligence (GRU) "caused the explosions of two ammunition depots in the southeastern town of Vrbětice in October 2014." This was surely an escalation on Russia’s part, but US media paid little attention to it. Why would this be a one-off event? Consider too the assassinations Russia’s intelligence services have carried out against dissidents and defectors abroad. This was long-standing Soviet policy that targeted “traitors” to the state, and Putin has continued that tradition.
Like it or not, the Cold War mentality has returned with Russia playing a secondary role to Xi’s China, but the Main Adversary remains the same—the United States.
Russia’s tactics in the present day.
Hours after the Nord Stream pipelines were destroyed, Gazprom released a statement regarding the transit of natural gas supplies from Russia via Gazprom into Ukraine via their state-owned gas company Naftogaz (and to be clear, yes, the supply of natural gas has continued throughout the ongoing war). The Russians criticized Naftogaz's "bad-faith behavior" and said, if it continues, it could cause the Russian state authorities "to have every reason to introduce sanctions against Naftogaz of Ukraine,” which will "mean a ban restricting Gazprom from fulfilling its obligations to the sanctioned entities". In practice, this would mean Gazprom would cease doing business with Naftogaz and could stop supplying Ukraine and the rest of Europe through the Ukrainian pipelines altogether. (Complicating matters is the fact that Ukrainian state-owned Gas TSO in Ukraine already shut down one gas transit point in Ukraine after they lost operational control over a station in the Russian-occupied Luhansk region.) If Gazprom went this route, they would take sole control of the supply—whether Ukraine wanted to pump the gas to Europe or not.
The timing of Gazprom’s statement does seem key here, being so shortly after NATO countries had already pinned the blame for the Nord Stream explosions directly at the feet of the Russian Federation. If Russia was willing to blow up two of its own pipelines to make a point about its intentions, is there anyone out there really willing to bet they wouldn’t shut off their pipelines traveling through Ukraine? Europe is finally exploring alternatives to Russia in a more robust and serious fashion, but the coming winter may very well lead to shortages in supply throughout these NATO countries. If Russia turns off additional taps, which they’re threatening to do here, the shortages may prove dire, and where there aren’t shortages per se, there will likely be significant price spikes the ordinary citizens of these countries will have to deal with.
For pro-Kremlin media figures who wish to get NATO out of the business of arming Ukraine, is there any doubt as to how this series of events will help that argument from a propaganda perspective? Governments which are supplying (potentially) billions of in aid to Ukraine are asking you, average citizen, to not only accept that tax burden, but you’re also meant to bear the burden of the increased cost of living which Russia’s retaliatory behavior is causing you. That’s before we consider the possibility of the vulnerable members of society—the homeless, the elderly and lower income citizens—who could freeze to death because they can’t afford to pay their bills or find a warm place to sleep that can’t pay their bills either! “Stop arming Ukraine and your life goes back to normal” will be an ever more effective argument as prices rise and children shiver in their beds. Experts have noticed this rhetoric has already started, and the frequency has begun to increase as the cold starts to set in. It’s natural for EU citizens to look out for their own personal needs and interests, so we must assume there will be a receptive audience in the West to these arguments.
Where we go from here.
The Kremlin has stated it will “consider” its own investigation into the attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines, but Sweden has confirmed they will not allow the Russians to be involved in their investigation. That’s a wise move considering Russia’s history of discrediting the future fact-based findings in similar cases in the past. Whether it was the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in the U.K., the Russians shooting down the MH17 passenger jet in Ukraine, the poisoning of the Skripals by the nerve agent Novichok in the UK or war crimes investigations in Syria, there have consistently been efforts by the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin mouthpieces to muddy the waters of these future investigations and present “conclusions” before any findings from credible organizations have been revealed. We can say with confidence the Russian government’s “findings” won’t be a reflection of the truth. They will instead act as further “verification” and amplification of already established Kremlin narratives on the loss of the Nord Stream pipelines. The credible investigations carried out by Western governments, the U.N. and other interested parties which will attempt to reach verifiable conclusions, but these will take time. Russia will lie in the present because they can.
Based on longstanding tradecraft, the Russians don’t wish to convince you their version is right. They want to “flood the zone with shit” as it were, until the truth seems unknowable to the average consumer of news. For the people paid or otherwise incentivized to advance Kremlin narratives, these fictions are good enough to keep on repeating so that they enter the international discourse and confuse the information space ad infinitum. Furthermore, the supposed “Anglo-Saxon” attack on the pipelines was cited in Putin’s speech delivered several days later where he railed against NATO and particularly the United States. For Putin, this was another example of a Western “escalation” in what the Kremlin increasingly refers to was World War III. Ever the helpful fellow purveyor of Kremlin talking points, former President Trump has asked if we’re now involved in World War III as well. His views were echoed by pro-Trump influencers who are not inherently pro-Kremlin, but they are increasingly leaning in that direction and are unconcerned about whose propaganda they are amplifying. It is all justifiable to them because they are opposing the Democrats who they see as much worse than simply their political opponents. The most fervent MAGA followers see Democrats as evil, depraved traitors. What they believe the left has betrayed varies, but this animosity is prime fodder for pro-Kremlin media. As Jessica Brandt and Valerie Wirtshcafter said in their recent Brookings paper on this issue:
Finally, the Kremlin’s messaging comes against the backdrop of broader narratives that it is pushing ahead of U.S. midterm elections, in what may be bid to politically undermine President Biden as a means of ratcheting up partisan division within the United States. Just in recent weeks, Moscow has promoted a variety of narratives attacking the president—questioning his mental fitness for office, suggesting he paid for prostitutes for his son, calling him a “totalitarian dictator,” and suggesting that he worked with Facebook to censor online content, while amplifying former President Trump’s election conspiracies and calls for a new vote.
This sort of shared messaging is now standard fare for Trump’s supporters. Anyone wishing to have a career in the media space isn’t going to question these talking points if they want a Don Jr. retweet or an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show to happen anytime soon. Everyone is chasing clout, and that wind is blowing towards Moscow.
We’re in a bad place here. There’s no getting around it, and there’s no getting around the fact that, increasingly, right-wing attacks on the left are consistently aiding the Kremlin in the information space. The clicks and advertising revenue associated with this sort of junk news is all pointing in a single direction here—more domestic infighting, more political polarization and greater distrust in once recognized sources of truth in the U.S. We can’t say where any of this is going to lead, but we can be sure the Kremlin is going to exploit these problems for their own ends. Stay vigilant.
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