First on CNN: European security officials spot Russian Navy ships near Nord Stream pipeline explosions


European security officials were seen on Monday and Tuesday guarding Russian Navy ships in the Nord Stream pipeline over possible leaks caused by underwater explosions, two Western intelligence officials and another source familiar with the matter said.

It’s unclear whether the boats had anything to do with those explosions, these sources and others said, but it’s one of many factors investigators will look into.

Russian submarines were also spotted last week not far from those areas, one of the intelligence officials said.

The three U.S. officials said the U.S. does not yet have a definitive explanation for what happened, adding that Monday’s explosion caused three separate, simultaneous leaks in two pipelines.

Russian ships are routinely operating in the area, according to a Danish military official, whose presence does not necessarily indicate that Russia has caused damage.

“We see them every week,” this person said. “In recent years, Russian activities in the Baltic Sea have increased. They are often testing our conscience, both at sea and in the air.”

But the sightings cast even more suspicion on Russia, which has drawn the most attention from both European and US officials as the only actor in the region believed to have the ability and motivation to deliberately damage the pipelines.

U.S. officials declined to comment Wednesday on information about the ships.

Denmark and Sweden are investigating, but an inspection of the site has yet to take place and details of exactly what caused the explosion are sketchy. A European official said an assessment by the Danish government is underway and it could take up to two weeks before an investigation can properly begin because pressure in the pipelines makes it difficult to get close to the spill site, another source familiar with the matter said. He said the probe could begin as soon as Sunday.

The prime ministers of Denmark and Sweden said publicly on Tuesday that the leaks were the result of deliberate actions, not accidents, and Sweden’s security service said on Wednesday that it cannot be ruled out that “a foreign power was behind it.” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan also said on Tuesday evening that “it appears sabotage” he called the leaks in a tweet.

But senior Western officials have so far stopped short of blaming Russia or any other nation for the attack.

The Kremlin has publicly denied hitting the pipeline. A spokesman called the allegation a “stupid and absurd prediction”.

CNN has reached out to the Russian Defense Ministry for comment on the ships’ presence.

The Danish government is taking the lead in the investigation and has established a five-nautical-mile exclusion zone and a 1-kilometer no-fly zone, European sources familiar with the matter said.

Apart from Sullivan, US officials have been far more cautious in drawing conclusions about the leaks than their European counterparts.

“I think many of our partners have decided or think it’s sabotage. I’m not here to say one way or the other,” said a senior military official on Wednesday. “The only thing I know there is that we think the water is between 80 and 100 meters [deep] where the pipeline is. Other than that, I don’t know anything else.”

But a senior US official and a US military official said Russia remains the prime suspect – assuming the European assessment of deliberate sabotage is confirmed – because there are no other credible suspects capable and willing to carry out the operation.

“It is hard to imagine any other actor in the region having the ability and interest to carry out such an operation,” said the Danish military officer.

Russia has called for a UN Security Council meeting this week about the damaged pipeline – which a senior US official has also said is suspicious. Normally, the official said, Russia is not organized enough to move so quickly, suggesting the maneuver was planned in advance.

If Russia caused the explosions on purpose, it would effectively sabotage its own pipelines: Russian state company Gazprom is the majority shareholder of Nord Stream 1 and the sole owner of Nord Stream 2.

But officials familiar with the latest information say Moscow may see the move as worth the price if it helps Ukraine raise the costs of helping Europe. US and Western intelligence officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is gambling that as electricity costs rise and winter approaches, the European public may turn against the West’s strategy to isolate Russia economically. Pipeline sabotage “could show what Russia is capable of,” a US official said.

Russia has already taken steps to manipulate energy flows in ways that have not only caused economic pain to itself, but also harmed Europe. Russia cut gas supplies to Europe via Nord Stream 1 before cutting off flows altogether in August, blaming Western sanctions for technical difficulties. European politicians say this was an excuse to stop supplying gas.

“They’ve already shown they’re perfectly happy to do that,” one of the sources said. “They grow their economic pain against Europe.”

The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline had not yet entered commercial operations. A plan to use it to supply gas was rejected by Germany days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine in February.

US, European and Ukrainian officials have been warning for months, however, that critical infrastructure – not only in Ukraine, but also in the US and Europe – could be targeted by Russia as part of its war against Ukraine.

The US warned several European allies this summer, including Germany, that the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines could be threatened and even attacked, according to two people familiar with the intelligence and warnings.

The warnings were based on U.S. intelligence assessments but were vague, the people said; the warnings were unclear about who was responsible for the attacks on the pipelines or when they might occur.

The CIA declined to comment.

Der Spiegel was the first to report the intelligence warnings.