New Evidence Puts Russian Navy Vessels Near Nord Stream Blasts

Nord Stream
One of three massive leaks from the Nord Stream gas pipeline network (Danish Defence Command)

Published May 2, 2023 11:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two separate reports suggest that Russian naval vessels with subsea capabilities were near the scene of the Nord Stream blasts last September, including a rescue ship with a manned submersible. The data does not prove that Russia was behind the attack, and the Kremlin denies any responsibility for attacking its own gas pipeline system - but the news adds rare new elements to the public understanding of the events surrounding the incident. 

According to Danish outlet Dagbladet Information, Denmark's defense command is in possession of 112 photos of vessels of Russia's Baltic Fleet in the vicinity of the pipelines in the week before the attack. The agency has declined to release the images or to identify most of the vessels, but it has confirmed that one of them was the Russian subsea rescue ship SS-750. This special-purpose ship carries a deep submergence rescue vessel, a manned submersible with airlock hatches to mate up with sunken submarines. This mini-sub is also equipped with manipulator arms, controlled by an operator within the vessel. (Covert special mission submarines fitted with manipulator arms are believed to be a Russian Navy specialty, though the service's full capabilities are a closely held secret.)

In a separate investigation, a team of Scandinavian journalists who have joined forces to study Russian spying activity have uncovered what appear to be new details on activity at the attack site. Thanks to a British source, the team - comprised of reporters from public broadcasters Yle, SVB, NRK and DR - have found evidence that three Russian Navy vessels had loitered in the same areas in the months before the explosions. These included the research vessel Sibiryakov and the tugboat SB-123, plus a third vessel which could not be identified. All were present near the northern blast site. Like SS-750, the Sibiryakov has the capability to perform subsea intervention activities, as she can carry an ROV. 

However, the broadcast team included one substantial caveat: the vessels' movements were provided by a single source, a former UK Royal Navy intelligence officer who studies Russian military radio communications in his retirement. The information could not be independently verified because these vessels operate "dark," without AIS. 

While facts about the incident are scarce, theories abound about the identity of the attacker. Western defense sources have hinted to the media that an independent "pro-Ukrainian group" might have been responsible for the blast. For their part, Ukraine and Poland have accused Russia of masterminding the attack, and Russia has accused various NATO members of responsibility. Perhaps most provocatively of all, American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has claimed that the strike was conducted by U.S. Navy divers with Norwegian help.

Though each of these nations denies involvement, the attack was very likely perpetrated or sponsored by a state actor, according to the Swedish prosecutor charged with investigating the blasts.