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Ukraine's government says it wasn't involved in the attacks on Nord Stream pipelines

In this handout photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 2022 in At Sea.
Handout
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Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Im
In this handout photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 2022 in At Sea.

An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is questioning recent reports that a pro-Ukraine group was behind the undersea bombings of the Nord Stream oil pipelines in September.

In a written response to questions from NPR, the adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, also categorically denied that Zelenskyy and his government knew of any plans to sabotage the pipelines.

Podolyak said the reports by The New York Times and Germany's Die Zeit newspaper had "lots of assumptions and anonymous conjecture but not real facts." He added that the accusations seemed to be aimed at distracting Europeans from supporting Ukraine and to paint Russia as the victim.

Sabotaging the pipeline, Podolyak said, "is absolutely devoid of tactical sense and does not affect the course of the war in any way."

Both newspapers attribute their reports to sources within U.S. and European intelligence agencies — and say there's no evidence Zelenskyy's government directed the suspected saboteurs or even know about them.

Citing German investigators, Die Zeit writes that six people carried out the attacks and used a yacht rented by a company registered in Poland and owned by two Ukrainians. But details beyond that remain sketchy.

Podolyak says he suspects Russia is behind the attacks because "Russia knew the pipelines' vulnerabilities and logistics, and had full technical data to carry out the delicate work of destruction at the bottom of the Baltic Sea."

He said Russia used similar false-flag operations to launch its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. "It planned multiple provocations, lied that Ukraine was a threat to (Russia), and began launching missile attacks on our country's peaceful cities," Podolyak said.

In Moscow, the Kremlin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov questioned the timing of the reports and suggested they were part of a coordinated media "dump."

"It's not only strange. It smells like a terrible crime," Peskov said. "At the very least, the pipeline shareholder countries and the U.N. should demand an immediate transparent investigation with the participation of all those who can shed light."

Peskov also repeated past Russian complaints that Western countries had not included Russia in their previous investigation into the incident. Russia has denied any involvement in the pipelines' sabotage.

Officials and others cautioned the reports were premature

In Berlin, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius spoke to public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk and warned against jumping to conclusions. Pistorius raised the possibility that the explosions on the Nord Stream pipelines could have also been a false flag operation to discredit Ukraine.

"It doesn't help to think now about what impact this would have on our support for Ukraine," said Pistorius.

At a press conference Tuesday alongside Sweden's prime minster Ulf Kristersson in Stockholm, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO knew this was an attack but was cautious about attributing responsibility.

"It shouldn't be right to speculate who is behind that until the investigations and inquiries have been concluded," Stoltenberg said.

"It's very difficult to contextualize this individual, isolated piece of knowledge," said Christian Mölling of the German Council on Foreign Relations about the reports from the New York Times and Die Zeit, "This is a piece of a puzzle where you don't know the size of the overall puzzle. Is it a 50-piece, 500, or 5000-piece puzzle?"

Mölling said the lack of evidence and named sources in both the New York Times and Die Zeit reports risks confusing the public and muddling the discourse about the Nord Stream event.

"So you have these so-called investigative journalists who say 'as long as you can't prove my story wrong, it's right,' " he said.

"My interpretation is that there was a kind of a race to see who got the headline out first between the New York Times and the German investigative reporters on the other side, and you don't want to be second, because if you're second you have lost the race," Mölling said. "I think they have made the most out of the information they have, but the fact is that all this information is nothing that can be proven down to the primary source."

Meanwhile, Mölling says the agencies responsible for investigating the explosions on the Nord Stream pipelines will continue to do their work. "And this takes a horribly long time to gather the evidence that is bullet-proof in a court of law," he said, "and then we will hopefully find out."

Mölling believes unless more evidence is presented publicly on this topic in the next day or so, the public will likely move on from the story.

Joanna Kakissis reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Rob Schmitz reported from Berlin. Charles Maynes reported from Moscow. Polina Lytvynova in Kharkiv contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.