11 min read
The Nord Stream Affair And the War in Ukraine

Ilan Hulkower

Mysterious massive pressure drops in both Nord Stream One and Two pipelines were recorded, coupled with three separate leaks being detected near the Danish island of Bornholm on September 26 of last year. The damage to the gas pipelines that run between Germany and Russia under the Baltic Sea was extensive and an act of sabotage. The Nord Stream One pipelines were built, Russia-Germany") in 2012 and the Nord Stream Two pipelines were completed in 2021 for the purposes of commercially exporting Russian gas into Germany in particular and Europe in general. Immediately Western leaders and various media outlets rushed to blame Russia as the culprit for the deed. For their part, the Russians denied they did it and accused the West of being the perpetrators. 

Curiously though, a Polish former foreign minister tweeted (and later deleted said tweet) the day after the attack thanking the United States for blowing up the pipelines. A joint Swedish-Danish investigation on the incident found it was the result of a deliberate act. Yet, they failed to name the culprit. Even the Washington Post later admitted that there was no conclusive evidence that proved that Russia was behind the attack. Then on February 8th, Seymour Hersh, a veteran investigative journalist, released a bombshell article alleging that the United States and Norway were responsible for sabotaging the Nord Stream (both One and Two) gas pipelines and detailed a covert operation that was run off the books so as to bypass Congressional oversight. 

Blanket denials were issued from the CIA and the White House. While the American government vociferously deny that they sabotaged the pipelines, such denials alone does not by itself repudiate the story. After all, when Mr. Hersh documented that there was torture of Iraqi inmates taking place at Abu Ghraib prison back in 2004, the government at the time too denied the charge. Hersh’s charge turned out to be true and the American Civil Liberties Union in 2005 obtained over 60,000 pages of the government’s own documents on the Iraqi prison scandal. 

It should be noted that other analysts have contested the details of the alleged covert operation that was highlighted in Hersh’s article. Hersh for his part has said in an interview with a German newspaper that, “I worked with the same experienced fact-checkers I used to have at the New Yorker for the current story. Of course, there are many ways to verify obscure information shared with me.” Whether it emerges that Hersh is right or wrong about what his critics deem to be the faults within his article, those who find the fault pointing to the West have a basis in doing so. 

Those who pin the pipeline incident on the United States note that where the explosion happened was closer to NATO-aligned waters than Russian waters and that NATO training exercises took place in the general area a few months before the explosion points toward a Western plot. Another basis for American involvement is that American government officials expressed discontent over the Nord Stream project from its inception, threatened Nord Stream, and celebrated its demise. As one such official, Biden’s Undersecretary of State, put it, “I am, and I think the administration is, very gratified to know that Nord Stream 2 is now, as you like to say, a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea.” 

Another clue that hints towards Western involvement in the Nord Stream sabotage was the geopolitical gain the US gained by weakening Russia’s leverage by reducing its ability to deliver its gas supplies to Germany, increasing the time and cost of delivery. Since the advent of Willy Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik in the late 1960s and the orientation of German policy after the end of the Cold War such as by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Germany has sought to have a relaxed commercial relation with Russia (and its predecessor the Soviet Union). Chief among the commercial exchanges was the export of cheap oil and gas to Germany for the purposes of making German industry competitive. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2021 upset this relationship, but the prospect of available cheap Russian gas was a leveraging point over the Germans. Chancellor Schultz was (and still is) accused of flagging on the issue of Ukraine and even of quietly hoping for a Russian victory. The removal of the Nord Stream pipelines ended the prospect of a quick resolution to Germany’s major energy crisis. All these combined factors coupled with the lack of any official Western investigation naming a culprit offer a potential answer to the question of cui bono (who benefits) from the crime in question. 

This is not to suggest that Hersh’s article cannot possibly be without error or that evidence could emerge that sheds a different light on the events and motivations in question. If it was proven that the United States played a role in the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines, then this would not be the first time that the United States has elected to engage in covert operations to blow up Moscow’s gas pipelines. At the very least there should be an investigation of whether an American operation sabotaged Nord Stream and whether Congress was aware of such an operation. On the latter point, Mike Lee, the senior Republican Senator from Utah, commented that he “checked with a bunch of Senate colleagues…none were ever briefed on this. If it turns out to be true [that an American covert operation was done], we’ve got a huge problem.” He further endorsed the notion that an investigation should take place and if it was found that Joe Biden authorized such an operation without informing Congress that this would constitute an impeachable offense

The Nord Stream affair has the hallmarks of an international crisis because it was not just an American attack against a country that the United States is not officially at war with, it was also an attack on German-Russian built pipelines that supplied a fellow NATO ally with commercial gas. It also carries with it the prospect of becoming a constitutional crisis within the United States if the Senate was not consulted about this attack. Previous analogous episodes of the United States engaging in similar acts without Congressional warrant, such as the Iran Contra scandal, led to rumblings of impeachment against the president. 

With or without Nord Stream, the tragic and bloody Ukraine war continues to rage on. Major NATO members' promises, to change their bandwagoning ways and become active contributors in their own defense by meeting the minimum NATO defense spending requirements, have gone unfulfilled. Analysis of German military spending shows that they are failing to meet their pledged 2 percent for this year and this pattern of suboptimal spending will continue for the foreseeable future. This once more puts the immense burden of the defense of Europe squarely on the Americans. 

The American military arsenal is not inexhaustible. It has already been extremely strained to keep munitions and supplies flowing to Ukraine. Such is the strain, which has included pulling munitions from American depots in foreign countries, that a number of military analysts fear that the rate of depletion is endangering American military’s own military readiness. The Europeans have also proven unable to keep up with the military demands of the war. As Ben Wallace, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defense, put it when he denied sending more jets to Ukraine “he had a duty to ensure the UK and Nato had the aircraft needed for their own defence.” Despite this effort, the Russians are now acknowledged to be winning the munition manufacturing game. Predictions of the Russians running out of weapons and critical missile shortages have so far proven to be wrong. The alarming revelations of the depletion of the vaunted arsenal of democracy in the strongest of the world’s democracies should be cause for recalculation. The United States and its allies should pursue policies that encourage its manufacturing sector to become strong again and this will in turn allow for greater military munitions production.The sanctions regime against Russia has also failed to bankrupt or seriously impair Russia’s war making capabilities. The Russian economy has actually been projected by the IMF to grow slightly in 2023. Europe continues to buy energy from Russia albeit in a more expensive and indirect way. Russian-European Union bilateral trade increased by 30.1 percent in 2022 despite the sanctions with imports from Russia to the EU surging by 69.9 percent. Russia’s account surplus has swollen to a record of $227 billion. An article from the Wilson Center put it bluntly when it asked and answered the question “Is there any chance that Putin will run out of money for his war? Not in the near term.” 

President Biden’s emotional appeal that Putin cannot stay as leader of Russia has similarly not bore fruit. The Russian leader continues to enjoy widespread popularity according to independent nongovernmental pollsters. In fact, Putin’s popularity has increased of Russia?") from 77 percent in September 2022 to over 80 percent in January 2023. In short, the chances for regime change in Russia look bleak. Even if this were a more achievable aim, as I mentioned in a previous article all this may do is bring in a more dangerous government than Putin’s. 

There are indications that the grueling war of attrition being waged in Ukraine is not going in Ukraine’s favor. An examination of Russian causality rates by independent sources like the BBC looking at open-source information could only confirm that 12,225 Russians were killed by January 23rd, 2023. While they mention that the real number could be 40 to 60 percent higher than their list of identifiable names this puts the total maximum estimates of those killed to between 17,115 to 19,560. As of February 13, the number of confirmed Russian war deaths by this study by BBC and Mediazone has increased to 14,093 (revising the potential maximum total deaths to be between about 19,730 to 22,549 deaths). Even among Western sources there has been a noticeable downward revision of Russian deaths from the Ukrainian claims of over 100,000 losses to between 40,000 to 60,000 deaths. As with most things concerning the fog of war, the information the public has is obscured. Nevertheless, the general thrust is that this is a war of attrition that favors the Russians in terms of men and material even with Ukraine receiving Western support. 

Beyond losses of at least 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers, the war has taken its toll on the Ukrainian economy. The Ukrainian economy, which has been plagued by mass corruption and underperformance since independence, has become totally dependent on the West in its ability to finance and carry out the war. Ukraine, which had early in the war already conducted a massive conscription campaign (including out of prisons), has increasing signs of major morale problems. Russia, for all its mobilization issues, has a deeper manpower reserve than Ukraine as well as a stronger economy that can afford greater losses. The Ukrainian Chief of Staff Valery Zaluzhny admitted in a December interview with The Economist that “the Russian mobilization has worked” and mused “that it is not yet time to appeal to Ukrainian soldiers in the way that Mannerheim appealed to Finnish soldiers [on cessation of hostilities with the Soviet Union and the cession of Finnish land to the Soviet Union].” Perhaps it may not yet be time for such an appeal but the fact he is thinking of delivering one should be of concern. 

Given the military situation, viable diplomatic options should be submitted before as Zalukzhy put it a Mannerheim type speech needs to be given. On this score, the West has blocked diplomatic options to end the war on terms that Ukraine is not likely to receive again. The closest that Russia and Ukraine came to ending war was during talks in Istanbul which both sides at the time hailed as constructive. Yet, as revealed by Ukrainska Pravda, Ukraine elected not to go forward with the peace settlement due to the pressure raised by Great Britain to continue the war and news about Russian atrocities. This narrative was reinforced by Naftali Bennett, a former Israeli Prime Minister, who said that he felt that there was a roughly 50 percent chance that a deal could be struck but that powerful countries in the West thought that it would be better to continue to “keep striking Putin”. Bennett also mentioned that after what was revealed in Bucha, he thought any chance of a peaceful settlement had been shot down. 

Whether it be the Nord Stream affair or the depletion of the Western arsenal in Ukraine, there are a lot of unresolved questions from these bloody episodes. Here are but a few of them. One is whether the Biden administration sabotaged the pipeline. The second is whether Biden acted in a constitutional manner when he allegedly ordered the attack on the pipelines. The third is whether German public opinion is swayed against further commitments to Ukraine based on Hersh’s charges. The fourth is whether the West will rebuild its manufacturing sector so that it can counter Russia’s (and China’s) manufacturing base. The fifth is whether the Ukrainians can afford to keep up with such steep losses against the Russians. If not, then a sixth question is whether the Ukrainian political class can make a peace settlement with the Russians. Even if so, will such a settlement be permanent and sustainable or will it go the way of the Minsk Accords remains a valid concern.

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