A year has passed since a series of underwater explosions destroyed the Nord Stream 1&2 pipelines ending Russia’s delivery of gas to Germany. Who was behind the attack on a major piece of European energy infrastructure remains unknown, but a German investigation has concluded that “all signs point to Ukraine,” Der Spiegel reported on August 26.
Germany has been discreetly probing the explosions that devastated the Nord Stream 1&2 pipelines. Leaked results from this investigation were disclosed to Der Spiegel that carried out its own six-month investigation into the explosion together with German public broadcaster ZDF using a dozen journalists that travelled the Continent to verify as much of the information as possible.
The result was inconclusive, but the evidence strongly suggests a link to Ukrainian nationalists, the magazine concluded.
The investigation indicated that a specialised commando unit comprising Ukrainian divers and explosives experts chartered the ship Andromeda approximately a year ago. In a covert operation, they sailed unnoticed from Warnemünde in northern Germany to reach the site of the explosions which then occurred on September 26, 2022, destroying three of the four strands of the two pipelines.
This deliberate assault on energy infrastructure has changed the energy balance in Europe and cut Germany off from its own main source of gas, essential for both energy and the industrial complex. It was categorised as an attack on Germany's national security, so the reproductions for the perpetrator could be severe.
Germany’s federal criminal office (BKA) and secret service (BND) have conducted an extensive investigation, but the results have not been made public, nor even shared widely within the government, Der Spiegel reports, due to the political sensitivity of the results.
The Nord Stream operation’s intention was to "inflict lasting damage to the functionality of the state and its facilities."
“These are the legal terms employed by the German Federal Court of Justice's investigative magistrates in the ongoing pursuit of identifying the perpetrators, a task that has proven elusive despite a global effort involving criminal investigators, intelligence agents and prosecutors from numerous countries,” the magazine said.
The investigation's details, much of which have emerged from German authorities, are classified as strictly confidential, with a directive from the Chancellery to prevent any public disclosure. A senior security official told the magazine that this investigation carries immense political implications, dubbing it “the most significant in post-war Germany.”
The specialised Department ST 24 within the BKA, tasked with investigating the Nord Stream case, is subject to stringent confidentiality measures. Investigators are even restricted from discussing the matter with colleagues outside the scope of the probe. This level of confidentiality is highly unusual, even within the BKA, Germany's equivalent of the FBI, Der Spiegel said.
The implications of an attack on the critical infrastructure of a Nato member state, as stated in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, underscore the gravity of the situation. Should the attack be proven to have been directed at such infrastructure, it could invoke the alliance's mutual defence clause.
The potential political consequences of identifying the culprits are substantial. If Ukrainian nationalists were found responsible, it could strain Germany's support of Ukraine, while accusations involving Washington, as suggested by veteran US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, could have transatlantic repercussions.
The role of the Andromeda yacht emerged as pivotal, prompting Der Spiegel and ZDF to charter the vessel for further scrutiny once it was released by the BKA. Following the paths taken by the saboteurs, six reporters followed their trail across the Baltic Sea to the explosion site in international waters. While this voyage did not fully unveil the secrets of the attack, it provided insights into the possible course of events.
While the exact operational details remain uncertain, interviews with experts concluded that such an operation would have been technically possible but challenging to execute. Diving 80m means frequent decompression stops would be necessary, turning the ascent after laying the mines into a three-hour ordeal that could only be performed by professionals.
The investigation has indicated that the evidence largely points towards Kyiv, with “clues and information seemingly too perfectly aligned to be coincidental.”
Once the Andromeda was identified as linked to the attack, police bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed and confirmed the presence of octogen explosive, which works effectively underwater on the boat.
Key events in September 2022 shed light on the activities of the saboteurs. The Andromeda was chartered by a crew under the guise of a Warsaw travel agency, Feeria Lwowa. This company, headed by Nataliia A. from Kyiv, arranged for the yacht's rental. A Romanian passport issued to Ştefan Marcu was presented during the yacht's check-in, and was confirmed by the team to be fake after they travelled to Moldova and met with Marcu, a middle aged man with a dark moustache. The journalists presented Marcu with the passport number used to book the yacht, who confirmed it was the number of his passport but said it was an old passport that he has not used for years.
This document had seemingly been used to create a new version of the passport with the same number used to charter the Andromeda, complete with a new photograph of a clean shaven youth in his 20s, later identified as Valeri K. who was identified as from Dnipro, Ukraine. The team travelled to Dnipro and interviewed Valeri K.’s neighbours, determining he had served in the army in Ukraine and had also received training as a diver.
“The most striking thing about the younger Valeri K. is that he is a follower of the openly nationalist youth organisation VGO Sokil. It offers young men training in shooting and diving Among the names for Valeri's number is: "K. 93rd Brigade,” Der Spiegel reported.
However, questions remain. In May, police searched Valeri K.’s apartment. A DNA sample was then compared with traces found on the Andromeda. But there was no match.
Nevertheless, the authorities concluding there was a Ukrainian link have gleaned more information from studying phone, email and computer records that they have not shared and were part of the basis for the conclusion there was a strong link with Ukraine.
“One top official says that far more is known than has been stated publicly. According to Der Spiegel's sources, investigators are certain that the saboteurs were in Ukraine before and after the attack. Indeed, the overall picture formed by the puzzle pieces of technical information has grown quite clear,” the magazine reported.
But crucial questions remain unanswered. “From how high up was the attack ordered and who knew about it? Was it an intelligence operation that the political leadership in Kyiv learned about only later? Or was it the product of a commando unit acting on its own? Or was it a military operation in which the Ukrainian General Staff was involved?” Der Spiegel asked. Intelligence experts and security policy experts, interviewed by the magazine, consider it unlikely that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy knew about the operation, which supports other reports that the attack was carried out by a band of Ukrainian nationalists acting independently and under their own steam.
The German report remains unreleased and was called a “tick political time bomb” by one Ukraine watcher that may be released later this year. In the meantime, Der Spiegel reports the report is being held very closely to the government’s chest.
“The federal government is keeping all the findings under wraps. Even most members of [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz’s cabinet as well as the deputies in the Parliamentary Control Committee, which is tasked with oversight of the work of the intelligence services, don't know much more than what is publicly reported about the attack” says Der Spiegel.