The Nord Stream Pipeline Explosions: Cold War vs. “Common Sense” Perspectives

Peace Advocate April 2023

by Stephen Ingle

On September 26 of last year, we were presented with some shocking news: several major underwater explosions occurred in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Bornholm Island, Denmark, disrupting three of the four Nord Stream 1 & 2 pipelines carrying natural gas approximately 750 miles from Russia to Germany. According to contemporary reporting in the New York Times, “three separate leaks were discovered” and “political leaders in Europe and the United States have suggested that the incident was an act of sabotage.” Two days later, former CIA chief John Brennan identified Russia as the most likely culprit.

Let’s start with a chronology of undisputed events:

Sept 2011: Nord Stream 1 pipeline is completed and begins delivering cheap natural gas to Germany.
June 2021: Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed but not yet in operation. Both pipelines are a joint German-Russian endeavor, with 51% ownership by the Russian company Gazprom and 49% owned by its Western European partners.
Feb 7 2022: At a press conference alongside German Chancellor Scholz, President Biden declares that if Russia invades Ukraine, “we will bring an end” to the pipeline.
Feb 24: Russian troops cross into Ukraine.
June: NATO military exercises (BALTOPS 22) take place in the western Baltic.
Sept 26: Explosions occur, rendering three of the four Nord Stream pipelines inoperable.
Sept 28: As reported in numerous mainstream news sources, John Brennan blames Russia for the explosions.
Sept 29: Russian president Vladimir Putin states that the explosions are an act of “international terrorism.”
Sept 30: Secretary of State Antony Blinken declares that the pipelines’ destruction represents a “tremendous opportunity to once and for all remove the dependence on Russian energy,” reflecting a decades-long concern with German-Russian rapprochement.
Nov 10: The results of a Swedish investigation are not released to Gazprom or the general public.
Jan 27 2023: In congressional testimony, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland announces that she is “gratified” that the pipeline is now “a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea.”
Feb 8: Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh publishes an article on Substack claiming that the United States executive branch orchestrated the sabotage.

Now let’s look at some of the media coverage. What did the mainstream media say? As noted above, the Times reported the explosions, but did not draw any conclusions as to who bore responsibility. Soon, however, speculation was aimed at Russia. Aside from John Brennan’s widely-reported opinion about the blasts, the Washington Post reported on the same day (Sept 28) that the European Union promised a robust response to what was likely Russian sabotage. There was absolutely no verifiable evidence given for this view. Opposing views were almost entirely absent from the mainstream media. An exception was Columbia University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs’ appearance on Bloomberg in early October 2022, when he identified the US as the “most likely culprit.” Tellingly, Sachs was immediately interrupted by the host and the interview was subsequently taken down from the Bloomberg website.

Professor Sachs was not alone in his thinking. Following the explosions, speculation quickly arose in alternative media that the US and NATO were most likely behind the attacks. In particular, Biden’s earlier statement promising the destruction of the pipeline was recovered and promulgated as strong circumstantial evidence of US-NATO involvement. Blinken’s and Nuland’s celebratory statements corroborated this view. This alternative view was based on a “common sense” assessment of the facts, and an evaluation of likely motive, opportunity, and means. Namely, why would the Russians blow up their own pipeline that cost billions to construct, when they could have just closed the spigot on their end? Also, the US leadership did say they were going to destroy it and later openly gloated in its destruction.

In December 2022, perhaps in response to this speculation, the mainstream story changed. The Washington Post reported that there was “no conclusive evidence” that Russia was behind the attacks. But the real media event disrupting the official narratives occurred on February 8 when Seymour Hersh published his bombshell piece on Substack. Based on a clandestine government source, the extensively detailed report claimed that US President Biden was directly responsible for and indeed approved of the Nord Stream sabotage. Moreover, according to Hersh, Biden purposely used a team of navy divers rather than special forces in order to evade congressional oversight. If true, this would be truly “explosive.” Hersh noted that this act of sabotage, if conducted by a sovereign state, constituted an act of war against Russia and Germany (the latter a purported ally). Hersh refused to reveal his source, but his credibility rested on his celebrated track record of breaking major stories (including My Lai and Abu Ghraib), as well as “common sense” explanations for a Western role in the explosions.

Hersh’s claim could be ignored, but only for so long. As FAIR notes, “by every journalistic standard, the extensive international coverage given the story, as well as the adamant White House and Pentagon denials, should have made it big news in the United States.” Like the broken pipeline, Hersh’s article started bubbling up into the mainstream media. The Times, which had ignored Hersh’s claims for nearly a month, finally responded on March 8 with a front-page story, based on information from unnamed “US officials,” that a “pro-Ukraine” group was responsible. This was one day after a similar report appeared in the German press. On March 22, Hersh published another piece, based on his same government source, claiming that this was merely a clumsy CIA cover story meant to deflect attention from his February 8 article.

So far, we have reviewed the events and looked at media coverage. Let us now consider the greater “Cold War” perspective and its implications for the peace movement.

As reflected in the mainstream and alternative media, there are two diametrically opposed views on the Nord Stream explosions. Either the US is capable of committing, or at least condoning, an act of international terrorism, or the US is not. There are intelligent and informed people on both sides. On a personal note, most of my peers (I was born in the late 1950s) either do not want to believe that the United States would engage in international terrorism, or believe that somehow there is a double standard that allows for extremism in the cause of freedom, even if this would run counter to American professed ideals of democracy and commitment to a global “rules-based order.” It seems no amount of rational arguments or “common sense” explanations will convince the Cold Warriors.

Since the end of World War II, thinking in the US has been dominated by Cold War narratives and biases. Russia and China are “communist, authoritarian, and unfree” while the United States and NATO are “capitalist, democratic, and free.” After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, it seemed that the Cold War cooled down for a while, only to reemerge with renewed fervor over the last 15 years. Of course, if it is true that the United States was responsible for secretly blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines (which would constitute attacking Germany, an ally) this would be in blatant contradiction of the Cold War narrative that we are the quintessentially “open and free” nation among nations, and not an empire hell-bent on world hegemony. Again, the facts may cause cognitive dissonance for many, but long-held Cold War attitudes preclude them from an unbiased and sober evaluation of the facts.

Fortunately, there is a shift going on in hearts and minds as the contradictions inherent in the Cold War narrative become ever more apparent. There is a growing opposition to the war across the globe, and the American people are starting to catch up. As peacemakers, we must facilitate this shift from the outdated Cold War paradigm. As Thomas Kuhn noted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigm shifts, preceded by overwhelming evidence, are inevitable, but are fiercely resisted and take place slowly. Influencing our political representatives is critical, but true change will not come via this strategy without an underlying popular upswell demanding it. And if we want to build a powerful mass peace movement that can bring about real change, communication is going to be key. We can start by listening to those we disagree with and trying to understand their perspective before convincing them of ours. They are not our opposition; indeed many of them must become our future allies. This approach is a sine qua non for any paradigm shift occurring and for peace to succeed. “Common sense” dictates that we work with the rest of the world to address climate catastrophe and the hair-trigger threat of nuclear annihilation. We’re in this together. As citizens of empire and advocates for peace, we have a unique opportunity to make a difference.

Stephen Ingle, M.A., Russian Area Studies, is a business owner living in Quincy, Mass., and a member of the No Cold War working group.