Mehr als 150 Journalistinnen und Journalisten berichten rund um die Uhr für Sie über das Geschehen in Deutschland und der Welt.
The Russian Navy is believed to have operated a mini-submarine at the Nord Stream sites days before the explosions. This calls into question previous theories.
For many years, the scene of the Nord Stream attacks northeast of the Danish island of Bornholm was nothing more than a random spot in the Baltic Sea. Located just outside the Danish and Swedish radar zones. There is nothing but water as far as the eye can see. And beneath it, at a depth of nearly 80 meters, four gas pipelines whose exact location was known only to insiders at most.
Alarm before the attacks
Danish patrol boats almost never strayed there. When a Swedish radar aircraft took off from Malmen military airfield at about the same time every morning to fly over the Baltic Sea, the crew tended to secure the strategically important island of Gotland. Northeast of Bornholm, there was apparently little to control.
That changed shortly before the explosions on September 26, 2022, that ruptured the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. It was the abrupt end of a very exclusive German-Russian energy cooperation. At the evening of September 21, extraordinary things started to happened there.
The patrol boat "Nymfen" of the Royal Danish Navy unexpectedly left Rødbyhavn at 7:50 p.m. and set course for Bornholm. More precisely: to the spot that would become known only five days later as the scene of the Nord Stream sabotage. Something there was obviously in need of an urgent inspection.
When the ship reached its destination on the morning of September 22, it was soon joined by Swedish military forces by sea and air. The course of one of the Swedish pursuers in the coming days: the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad at the Baltic Sea.
Chasing a ghost
Presumably, the patrol boats were chasing Russian military vessels. As t-online learned from sources in the security community, a unit of the Russian navy is said to have operated under strict shielding in the area of the later crime scene. It is said the unit operated "like a ghost" by for example not transmitting its position data. The ships would have had the necessary equipment to place explosive devices at the pipelines. Publicly available data indicate the information as accurate. (Update, April 27th 2023: The ships were photographed by the Danish navy.)
The Russian Navy's activities in the days leading up to the explosions could be an important lead in a mysterious criminal case: the attack on gas pipelines in the midst of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. At the same time it calls into question some theories about other possible culprits that have caused a worldwide stir in recent weeks.
One of them was: The U.S. was the mastermind behind the Nord Stream sabotage. But many details of the report by Seymour Hersh have since been refuted. Most recently, however, a joint investigation by ARD, SWR and "Die Zeit" and also a report by "New York Times" brought a different sequence of events into play: The German Federal Prosecutor was following the tracks of a possibly pro-Ukrainian group that could have carried out the attacks with a sailing yacht named "Andromeda" and two divers. In fact, the German Federal Criminal Police Office searched the suspicious boat.
Experts suspect "false flag"
However, the theory of a terrorist sailing trip on a private Ukrainian mission has experts shaking their heads. It is not very plausible, they say. There is a lot to be said for a "false flag operation“, such as for tracks to be found and to conceal the real perpetrators. Most likely, submarines or underwater drones were used, hundreds of kilograms of military explosives. All this speaks to a state actor.
Some members of the German Bundestag's Parliamentary Oversight Panel, who were only recently briefed by German investigators, believe the same. "Maximum caution" must be exercised with the clues revealed so far in the media, said panel chairman Konstantin von Notz (Green Party). Also deliberately misleading indications are conceivable.
An investigation by t-online is now suggesting, there could be a lot more behind the operation than just a sailing yacht.
One week before the explosions, extensive maneuvers of the Russian Baltic Fleet began on September 19, which could conceivably be used as cover for a real mission. Frogmen of the 313th Spetsnaz Special Forces Unit from the Baltiysk base in Kaliningrad also officially moved out to join the maneuvers. They are elite soldiers trained for underwater explosive and sabotage operations. In the following days, these suspicious ships were detected in the area of the crime scenes above the Nord Stream pipelines.
Mini submarine and cargo cranes
The onboard equipment is of explosive nature: It includes a deep-submergence rescue vehicle and cargo cranes for lifting heavy cargoes. A frigate, a corvette and a smaller spy ship would have been capable of providing military cover for the operation. Using position databases and satellite images, t-online was able to track the movements of the specific ships to some extent.
The patrol boat of the Danish Navy moved out to the later crime scene at 7:50 p.m. on September 21. At that time, three ships suspected to be involved in the Russian operation may have already arrived there. At the same time, also at that very hour, a communications ship of the Russian Fleet Command left the base in Kaliningrad – later it was to meet two of the ships involved on their return.
Ships in the night
The timing on the evening of September 21 would have been favorable for the hot phase of a clandestine operation: Night was falling on the Danish island of Bornholm. Darkness made visual surveillance kind of difficult. A convoy of U.S. warships had passed through the area several hours earlier on their way to the Atlantic Ocean. The Swedish Air Force radar aircraft would not take off again until the next morning. This would have allowed the convoy to operate through the night largely undisturbed.
Wir benötigen Ihre Einwilligung, um den von unserer Redaktion eingebundenen Facebook-Inhalt anzuzeigen. Sie können diesen (und damit auch alle weiteren Facebook-Inhalte auf t-online.de) mit einem Klick anzeigen lassen und auch wieder deaktivieren.
Arguably the most important ship in the formation for the operation would have been the submarine support ship "SS-750". It regularly participates in training simulating accidents on the seabed. Its special feature: On board there is a so-called "Project 1855", including a deep-submergence rescue vehicle named "AS-26", which is supposed to evacuate the crew of crashed submarines in an emergency. It has gripper arms that can move cargo weighing up to 50 kilograms underwater.
"Most plausible explanation"
It was precisely such mini-submarines that could have placed the explosive charges attaching it to the pipelines, experts suspected from the very start. If it was confirmed that the "SS-750" was at the scene, the Russian Navy would probably be the prime suspect from then on. "It would make absolute sense to use something like the 'AS-26' for such an attack," Danish corvette captain and military analyst Johannes Riber told t-online about this matter. "That would be the most plausible explanation so far for what happened to the Nord Stream pipeline."
Usually, "SS-750" is stationed at the Baltiysk base in Kaliningrad as part of the Baltic Fleet. However, satellite imagery shows that it left the port on the night of September 21. At a speed of nine knots, it would have been able to reach the scene by 7:50 p.m. The so-called "Automatic Identification System" (AIS), which transmits location data, had been switched off. However, its length of 95 meters would match the dimensions of a dark ship discovered by the U.S. company SpaceKnow without a position signal near the crime scene.
In a similar time frame – between midnight and 1 a.m. – two other ships suspected to be involved in the operation left the port of Kaliningrad, according to satellite imagery: the rescue tugs "SB-123" and "Alexander Frolov". Each of them have cargo cranes on deck that would be capable of lowering hundreds of kilograms of heavy explosive devices or mines into the water.
- Deep dive: The details of the investigation
Although they initially switched off the AIS, they sent position data once far to the west in the afternoon, indicating a course toward Bornholm and a speed of nine knots. By then, the ships were only five hours away from the sites of the later attack.
A little later, a U.S. military helicopter stationed in Gdansk, Poland, crossed their course. Was it warning the Danes of ships approaching without position signals?
In any case, by 7:50 p.m., the two tugs could have reached the scene. It is unclear whether their short length of 45 meters protected them from being detected in SpaceKnow's analysis of satellite imagery. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
However, according to information gathered by t-online, three other ships have been assigned to the association.
- The spy ship "Syzran": Satellite images suggest that this ship also left the port in Kaliningrad on September 21, but clouds do not allow a definite conclusion.
- The corvette "Soobrazitelny": According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, it was involved in anti-submarine exercises in the Baltic Sea from September 18 at the latest. On September 22 – the very day Danish and Swedish ships began pursuing it – the Ministry published a report late in the evening that the "Soobrazitelny" had escorted a convoy of ships for training purposes.
- The frigate "Yaroslav Mudry": According to official announcements, it joined the escort maneuver with the "Soobrazitelny" and its sister corvette, the "Stoikiy". Satellite images taken on September 22 show a ship of that size lying off the coast of Poland, together with one of the corvettes. Both had the AIS turned off.
Their position would have allowed the frigate and corvette to escort the ships returning from the scene all the way to Kaliningrad, or at least shield them from the NATO maneuver on Poland's coast. However, there is reason to believe that the frigate also sailed the direct area of the crime scenes beforehand.
Tracks of "Yaroslav Mudry"
At this place satellite image analysis of SpaceKnow had discovered not only a dark ship of 95 meters length, which could have been "SS-750" – but also a second one with 130 meters length. This is exactly the length of the "Yaroslav Mudry", the only ship in the Russian Baltic fleet. And there is another reference to the frigate at the scene.
About six months earlier, on March 14, 2022, it had apparently already triggered a patrol by Danish naval vessels there. Within five years for the only time before September 22. Also at that time it had switched off the AIS, but again can be identified on satellite images. What was the mission of the "Yaroslav Mudry" there? Was it possibly collecting data on how quickly NATO forces would react in an emergency?
In official statements, the activities of the Russian navy in the days before the attacks have so far played no role. Neither the German, Danish or Swedish investigators, nor NATO or the armed forces of the Baltic Sea states wanted to comment on them when asked by t-online. Thus, the criminal case remains unsolved for the time being, but a chain of evidence has been added. It does not point to the USA or Ukraine. Some tracks now are leading to Moscow.
- Eigene Recherchen