European security officials observed a Russian naval support ship near the Nord Stream pipeline leak on Monday and Tuesday that may have been caused by an underwater explosion, according to two Western intelligence officials and another source familiar with the matter.
The sources and others said it was unclear whether the ships were involved in the explosions — but it was one of many factors that investigators will be looking into.
Russian submarines were also observed not far from those areas last week, an intelligence official said.
Three U.S. officials said the U.S. has yet to provide a thorough explanation of what happened, days after the explosion appeared to cause three separate leaks from two pipelines at the same time on Monday.
Russian ships regularly operate in the area, according to a Danish military official, who stressed that the presence of ships does not necessarily indicate Russian damage.
“We see them every week,” the person said. “Russian activity in the Baltic has increased in recent years. They are constantly testing our consciousness – both at sea and in the air.”
But the sightings still made Russia even more suspicious, as Russia is the only actor in the region believed to be capable and motivated to deliberately sabotage the pipeline, which has drawn the most attention from European and U.S. officials.
U.S. officials declined Wednesday to comment on intelligence about the ships.
Investigations are underway in Denmark and Sweden, but site inspections have not yet been completed and the exact cause of the explosion is not known. A European official said the Danish government was conducting an assessment and it could take up to two weeks for the investigation to begin normally, as pressure in the pipeline made it difficult to access the leak site – although another source familiar with the matter said the investigation was earliest May start on Sunday.
The prime ministers of Denmark and Sweden said publicly on Tuesday that the leak was likely the result of a deliberate act, not an accident, and Swedish security services said in a statement on Wednesday that “foreign powers backing it cannot be ruled out.” U.S. National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan also called the leaks “obvious sabotage” in a tweet Tuesday night.
But so far, senior Western officials have not blamed Russia or any other country for the attack.
The Kremlin has publicly denied cracking down on the pipeline. A spokesman called the allegation “conceivably stupid and absurd”.
CNN has reached out to the Russian Defense Ministry for comment on the existence of the ships.
According to European sources familiar with the matter, the Danish government is leading the investigation and has established a 5-nautical-mile no-fly zone and a 1-kilometer no-fly zone.
With the exception of Sullivan, U.S. officials have been far more cautious than European officials in drawing conclusions about the leaks.
“I think many of our partners have identified or believed this was an act of sabotage. I can’t tell you one way or another,” a senior military official said Wednesday. “The only thing I know is that we think the water depth is between 80 and 100 meters [deep] at the location where the pipe is located. Other than that, I don’t know anything. ”
But a senior U.S. official and a U.S. military official both said that Russia remains the prime suspect — assuming Europe’s assessment of sabotage is confirmed — because no other possible suspect has the ability and willingness to carry out the operation .
“It’s hard to imagine any other actor in the region having the ability and interest to conduct such an operation,” the Danish military official said.
Russia has asked the U.N. Security Council to meet this week on the damaged pipeline — which the senior U.S. official said was also suspicious. Typically, Russia does not have enough organization to act so quickly, suggesting the exercise was pre-planned, the official said.
If Russia did deliberately cause an explosion, it would effectively sabotage its own pipeline: Gazprom, the Russian state-owned company, is the majority shareholder in Nord Stream 1 and the sole owner of Nord Stream 2.
But officials familiar with the latest intelligence said Moscow might see the move as worthwhile if it helps raise the cost of propping Ukraine up in support of Europe. U.S. and Western intelligence officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking a gamble that the European public may oppose Western strategies to economically isolate Russia as electricity bills rise and winter approaches. A U.S. official said that sabotaging the pipeline could “show Russia’s capabilities.”
Russia has taken steps to manipulate energy flows in a way that causes economic pain for itself, but also hurts Europe. Russia cut gas supplies to Europe through Nord Stream 1 before suspending supplies entirely in August, blaming Western sanctions for technical difficulties. European politicians say this is an excuse to stop gas supplies.
“They have shown they are more than happy to do so,” one of the sources said. “They weigh their economic pain against Europe’s pain.”
The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline has not yet entered commercial operation. Days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine in February, Germany scrapped plans to use it to supply gas.
However, U.S., European and Ukrainian officials have been warning for months that critical infrastructure — not just in Ukraine, but in the U.S. and Europe — could become part of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The United States warned several European allies, including Germany, over the summer that the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines could be threatened or even attacked, according to two people familiar with intelligence and warnings.
The warnings were based on U.S. intelligence assessments, but they were vague — it was unclear from the warnings who might be responsible for any attack on the pipeline or when it might happen, the people said.
The CIA declined to comment.
Der Spiegel was the first to report the intelligence warning.