The Nord Stream Pipelines and the perils of containment

Feb 8, 2024
Nord Stream leak on map, sites of explosions of natural gas pipelines, illustration. Baltic Sea in North Europe plan. Theme of energy crisis, terrorist attack, Gazprom, war, damage and power.

The sabotage in the Baltic Sea was the result of a long-standing US policy of driving a wedge between Russia and Western Europe.

Thursday marks one year since I reported President Joe Biden’s decision in the fall of 2022 to send a signal of resolve to Vladimir Putin by destroying Nord Stream 1 and 2, the Russian natural gas pipelines. Nord Stream 1 had turned Germany into the most powerful economic force in Western Europe.

I won’t dwell on the failure of the mainstream media to follow up on that story—some reporters, as I learned decades ago, have inside sources and others do not. But I will relate a lesson I learned about presidential signaling of the sort that is going on now against the Houthis in Yemen; against the Iranians, who are believed to be behind much of the anti-Americanism in the Middle East; and, of course, against Moscow in the Ukraine war.

It’s a Cold War story I was told by someone who was steeped in the history of the early days of American intervention in Vietnam. After the Second World War, the United States backed the wrong side in China, and the communist forces led by Mao Zedong declared victory in 1949. This was seen as yet another setback for America’s effort to contain worldwide communism. Containment was the overriding US policy then, and there was worry about Mao’s support for Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader who defeated the French in 1954, in the battle at Diem Bien Phu, despite much off-the-books American help for France. A little-noted international peace conference that year in Geneva concluded, in a triumph for rational diplomacy, that Vietnam would be divided, with Ho dominating the North and a non-communist regime to be set up in the South.

American fear of communism determined what happened next in the South, as the Eisenhower administration, buttressed by support from the Catholic Church and many in the US Congress, including newly elected Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, as well as his powerful father, businessman Joseph Kennedy, installed the French-speaking devout Catholic southerner Ngo Dinh Diem as president. Diem had little in common with the Buddhists and Catholics in the South who hated the French, but his installation as president was a signal to Ho Chi Minh and the Chinese that America was in the South to contain the spread of communism throughout the peninsula, to Laos and Cambodia.

We think we understand what happened in the next nineteen years as America fought its war of containment, but mostly we do not. After the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans, Saigon fell to the North on April 30, 1975. The brutal scene of desperate Vietnamese clinging to the landing gear of the last American helicopter fleeing the rooftop of the embassy in Saigon is an image my generation will never forget. Cambodia, whose various regimes had been supported by thousands of American bombs, fell to the communist Khmer Rouge in the last days of April, with a new government in place by the end of May. And in August the communist Pathet Lao consolidated a victory won months earlier in the battlefields by formally taking over the government.

And what happened next?

We lost a war, shrugged it off, and moved on.

Cambodia was taken over by the fanatical Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, that initiated a wave of murders and atrocities that horrified the world. The communist winners in South Vietnam began a purge of thousands who were deemed, fairly or not, to be Western sympathizers, many of them southerners who had been drafted or dragooned into the South Vietnamese army. They were flung into re-education camps that combined physical labor with mental torture. The jailed included many members of North’s loyal allies known to Americans as the Viet Cong who were not communists but nationalists.

Today consolidated Vietnam is non-communist and America is its largest trading partner, and it is a major tourist stop for Americans and Europeans. The same can be said for Cambodia’s Ankor Wat, with its array of thousand-year-old temples. I played golf at a resort there a few years ago and went sightseeing with my family. Communist Laos remains relatively remote, but is modernising rapidly and is a major trading partner of China.

All that America fought, died, and killed for was gone within a few months. So much for containment. And so much for signalling. It was a lesson not known, or not interesting, to the Biden administration in early 2022, when it seemed clear that Vladimir Putin was going to lead Russia to war with Ukraine. Biden had long been a strong opponent of Russia, and before that Soviet communism, throughout his political career, and he especially reviled Putin.

It is now widely accepted that Putin would have delayed or canceled the invasion if Secretary of State Antony Blinken had assured him that Ukraine would not be permitted to join NATO. That promise was not made. Instead, Biden publicly warned Putin two weeks before the Russians attacked that America would destroy the newly constructed pipeline, Nord Stream 2, that was prepared to funnel Russian gas to Germany. Putin had already slowed down and then cut off the earlier pipeline, Nord Stream 1, that began delivering gas to Germany a decade earlier.

The cheap gas helped propel Germany into becoming the dominant manufacturing entity in Western Europe. Since the late 1950s, the United States and its Western European allies had worried about the political impact of Russian energy.

The idea of blowing up Nord Stream 1 and 2 had come from the American intelligence community, spearheaded at the time by the CIA. The community had been asked in late 2021 for options—American actions—that could convince Putin to back off. It was with this understanding that a most secret CIA unit was organised to find a way to do what President Biden wanted: to present Putin with a threat that could stop the Russian president from going to war. Bolstered by the CIA’s confidence, Biden stunned the intelligence community by threatening to blow up Nord Stream at a White House news conference on February 7, 2022, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz standing at his side.

The CIA team, ensconced in secrecy in Norway, continued to work on its assignment, and found a way to get the complicated job done by early spring. The understanding then, in the view of some of the planners, was for Biden to pull the trigger and publicly tell Putin that he had done what he threatened to do and he, Putin, had to understand that he was dealing with an American president whose words were to be taken seriously. But Biden changed his mind at the last minute—a time had been set for the underwater detonation of bombs that had been planted earlier—and the operation was put on hold. The CIA team was given no explanation, and the American bombs were left in place, to be triggered whenever Biden chose to do so.

The American team was disbanded, with some of them angered by the president’s refusal to do what they were told was the purpose of their mission was: to show Putin that his actions would have immediate consequences. The mines were detonated remotely at Biden’s request on September 26, six months into the Ukraine war, for reasons never made clear—because the Biden White House insisted then, and to this day, that it had nothing to do with the detonations.

After the explosions, which became an international sensation, it took four days for a White House correspondent to bring up the Nord Stream issue. Biden called the bombings “a deliberate act of sabotage” and claimed that the Russians were “pumping out [dis]information and lies about it.” A reporter subsequently asked National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at a news conference whether he and others in the press corps should take the president’s statements to mean that “the US now believes that Russia was likely responsible for this act of sabotage?”

Sullivan—who, as I reported last February, was the major player in generating a secret potential pre-war threat to Russia—provided an answer that was breathtaking in its obfuscation. “First,” he responded, “Russia has done what it frequently does when it is responsible for something . . . which is to make accusations that it was really someone else who did it. We’ve seen that repeatedly over time.” He said that the president was also clear—which he was not –that “there is more work to do on the investigation before the United States government is prepared to make an attribution in this case.” The White House, he said, would not make a “definitive determination” until its allies in the region concluded their work.

Sullivan said that Russia’s suggestion that the US was involved in the bombing was “flat out false. Russian know they’re false. But, of course, that is part of their playbook.”

Sweden and Denmark, whose governments had every reason to know what had taken place, announced within days of the explosions that they would work together to investigate the explosions. On October 2, Germany said it would work with Sweden and Denmark on the inquiry. Twelve days later the Russian foreign ministry expressed its “bewilderment” at being excluded from the inquiry. On that day, too, Sweden said it would not join in the inquiries because it would involve the transfer of information related to Sweden’s national security.

Nothing more about the cause of the underwater bombings has been heard since from either Sweden or Denmark, although both nations knew, as I have written, that the US was practicing underwater diving in the Baltic Sea for months before the explosions. The failure of the two nations to complete their inquiry may have stemmed from the fact, as I was told, that some senior officials in both countries understood precisely what was going on.

The United States has since vetoed at least one attempt by Russia to get an independent United Nations investigation into the explosions. And the US intelligence community has provided support, along with German officials, to journalists writing alternative accounts of the pipeline bombing. Such stories invariably cite a 49-foot yacht said to be the vessel for the high-risk technical diving involved.

There is no evidence that President Biden, in the sixteen months since the pipelines were destroyed, has “tasked”—a word of art in the American intelligence community—its experts to conduct an all-source investigation into the explosions. And no senior German leader, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is known to be close to President Biden, has made any significant push to determine who did what. A subsequent investigation sought by some members of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, was undertaken but its conclusion has been withheld from the public for what are said to be security reasons.

The last word on all of this belongs to Emmanuel Todd, a French demographer and political scientist who became widely known in Europe in 1976, when he was twenty-five years old, for his prediction, based in part on increasing rates of infant mortality, that the Soviet Union was doomed to fail. He has become more and more critical of American foreign policy, especially its continuing support for Ukraine, which he has caustically described as “a defeat for the West without being a victory for Russia.”

He argued in a recent interview that “one of the great goals of American politics, and therefore of NATO, was to stop the inevitable reconciliation of Russia and Germany” as Russia, despite American sanctions, was winning the war in Ukraine and once again “evincing economic stability.”

“This was a great source of fear,” Todd said, “and that is why the Americans”—he cited my Nord Stream exposé—“blew up the Nord Stream pipeline.”

At the time Biden ordered the destruction of the pipelines, the American fear was that Chancellor Scholz, who at the request of Washington had shut off 750 miles of Russian gas in the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was ready in the fall of 2021 to be delivered to a port in Germany, might change his mind and let the gas flow, easing German economic worries and reinstating an important energy force for German industry. That would not be allowed to happen, and Germany has been in economic and political turmoil since.


Republished from February 7, 2024

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