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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


US intelligence agencies, according to the New York Times, now think that a ‘pro-Ukrainian group’ sabotaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea last September. I do not know whether that assessment is true or not (‘most likely’ seems to be the US intelligence community’s degree of confidence in the new assessment). But it reflects a clear shift away from media opinion at the time of the incident which accused Russia of blowing up the pipelines. The latest report is therefore, for those of us who were sceptical about those initial claims, a reminder not to be herded into the world of the ‘right thinking’ (where ‘right’ means fashionable rather than true).

As I pointed out to people at the time, Russia had spent nearly $10bn constructing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and it had not yet come online. Nord Stream 1, completed in 2011, had cost even more and Russia still wanted to sell gas to European markets. The Russians’ motive for sabotaging the pipelines was not obvious. By contrast the Americans had long objected to Nord Stream 2. As I wrote in the past: ‘The Trump administration fought hard to derail the project, and resistance continues to be raised by American and European politicians.’ And Ukraine stood to lose out since it benefitted from its position as a transit state for Russian gas. The New York Times article does note that ‘some officials’ acknowledged these potential motives, though I don’t remember them being much reported by the media at the time.

To be clear: I was not, and am not, suggesting that Americans or Ukrainians were responsible for the sabotage, only that they had more obvious motives. But ‘we’ ordinary people were expected to believe a more convoluted version: that it was an act of Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ aimed at sowing confusion, or that it was Russia showing resolve and its willingness to sever ties with the west irreparably. Vladimir Putin inevitably levelled blame at the US and Ukraine for the underwater explosions, pointing to their potential motives. Putin’s remarks entrenched resistance to anything deemed sympathetic to his arguments – anyone agreeing with any detail that gave his claims credibility risked being labelled ‘a Kremlin troll’.

It may be that the latest assessment proves mistaken, or indeed that we never know the truth, but for the moment doubting the original version, as it was widely reported in the media, is no longer ‘extremist’. In some ways it grows more interesting because what exactly is meant by ‘pro-Ukrainian group’ is the subject of speculation as well. The New York Times report suggests that it might imply Russian nationals opposed to Putin. Less seriously, the London Times quotes the Moscow-based Russia in Global Affairs journal: ‘the US administration falls under this definition [of being pro-Ukrainian].’ The former claim is the notable one; as I said above, no one needs blame the Americans or Ukrainians to doubt assertions about Putin’s culpability. It will be worth watching to see if this particular speculation about attribution develops further.

This story follows close on the tails of last week’s news that the FBI had updated its assessment about the origins of Covid-19. The FBI now thinks a lab leak is the most plausible explanation. Again, this is not a certainty but it does represent a clear shifting of opinion based on the agency’s investigations. This piece of news left me scratching my head trying to recall what was said in the past: numerous newspaper columns have since confirmed my foggy recall that the lab leak claims were dismissed as a conspiracy theory. They were largely seen as a conspiracy theory because Donald Trump promulgated them.

Alas, ‘but that’s what Trump thinks’ – vulgar as he is – does not constitute a sound refutation of an argument or opinion. In fact, what Trump thought was only ever a sideshow. A viewpoint cannot be wrong just because it is expressed by Trump. Or by a belligerent Putin for that matter.

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