European security officials on Monday and Tuesday observed Russian Navy support ships in the vicinity of Nord Stream pipe leaks likely caused by underwater explosions, according to two Western intelligence officials and another source familiar with the matter.
It’s unclear if the ships had anything to do with those explosions, these sources and others said, but it’s one of many factors investigators will investigate.
Russian submarines were also seen not far from those areas last week, one of the intelligence officials said.
Three US officials said the United States still does not have a full explanation for what happened, days after the explosions appeared to have caused three separate and simultaneous leaks from the two pipelines on Monday.
Russian ships routinely operate in the area, according to a Danish military official, who stressed that the presence of the ships does not necessarily indicate that Russia caused the damage.
“We see them every week,” this person said. “Russian activities in the Baltic Sea have increased in recent years. Very often they test our conscience, both at sea and in the air.”
But the sightings cast even more suspicion on Russiawhich has drawn the most attention from European and US officials as the only actor in the region believed to have both the ability and the motivation to deliberately damage pipelines.
US officials declined to comment on intelligence about the ships on Wednesday.
Both Denmark and Sweden are investigating, but an inspection of the site has yet to take place and details on what exactly caused the explosions remain sketchy. A European official said an assessment by the Danish government is underway and it could take up to two weeks for an investigation to start properly because pressure in the pipes makes it difficult to get close to the site of the leaks, though another source familiar with the matter said the investigation could start as early as Sunday.
The prime ministers of Denmark and Sweden said publicly on Tuesday that the leaks were likely the result of deliberate actions, not accidents, and Sweden’s security service said in a statement on Wednesday that it cannot be ruled out “that a foreign power is involved.” behind this.” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday night also called the leaks “apparent sabotage” in a tweet.
But senior Western officials have so far stopped short of attributing the attack to Russia or any other nation.
The Kremlin has publicly denied attacking the pipelines. A spokesman called the accusation “predictably stupid and absurd.”
CNN has reached out to the Russian Defense Ministry for comment on the ships’ presence.
The Danish government is taking the lead in the investigation and has established a five-nautical-mile exclusion zone and a 1-kilometre no-fly zone, according to European sources familiar with the matter.
Aside from Sullivan, US officials have been far more circumspect than their European counterparts in drawing conclusions about the leaks.
“I think many of our partners have determined or believe that it is sabotage. I’m not at the point where I can tell you one way or the other,” a senior military official said Wednesday. “The only thing I know there is that we think that the water is between 80 and 100 meters [deep] in that place where the pipe is. Other than that, I don’t know anything else.”
But a senior US official and a US military official said Russia remains the prime suspect, assuming the European assessment of deliberate sabotage is confirmed, because there are no other plausible suspects with the ability and willingness to carry out the operation.
“It is hard to imagine any other actor in the region with the ability and interest to carry out such an operation,” the Danish military official said.
Russia has requested a UN Security Council meeting on the damaged pipeline this week, something the senior US official said is also suspicious. Usually, the official said, Russia is not organized enough to move so quickly, suggesting the move was pre-planned.
If Russia deliberately caused the explosions, it would be effectively sabotaging its own pipelines: the Russian state-owned company Gazprom is the majority shareholder in Nord Stream 1 and the sole owner of Nord Stream 2.
But officials familiar with the latest intelligence say Moscow would likely see such a step as worthwhile if it helped raise Europe’s costs of supporting Ukraine. American and Western intelligence officials believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that as electricity costs rise and winter approaches, European citizens could turn against the Western strategy of economically isolating Russia. Sabotaging pipelines could “show what Russia is capable of,” a US official said.
Russia has already taken steps to manipulate energy flows in ways that did economic damage to Russia, but also harmed Europe. Russia slashed gas supplies to Europe via Nord Stream 1 before halting flows entirely in August, blaming Western sanctions for causing technical difficulties. European politicians say that was a pretext to stop supplying gas.
“They have already shown that they are perfectly happy to do that,” said one of the sources. “They weigh their economic pain against Europe’s.”
The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline had not yet entered commercial operations. The plan to use it to supply gas was scrapped by Germany days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine in February.
However, US, European and Ukrainian officials have been warning for months that critical infrastructure, not only in Ukraine but also in the US and Europe, could be targeted by Russia as part of its war against Ukraine.
The United States warned several European allies over the summer, including Germany, that the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines could face threats and even be attacked, according to two people familiar with the intelligence and warnings.
The warnings were based on US intelligence assessments but were vague, the people said: It was not clear from the warnings who might be responsible for the pipeline attacks or when they might happen.
The CIA declined to comment.
Der Spiegel was the first to report on the intelligence warnings.