The CIA’s New Nord Stream Narrative Is Terrifying

The CIA’s New Nord Stream Narrative Is Terrifying

The CIA’s New Nord Stream Narrative Is Terrifying

Should we believe American officials who claim they can’t stop Ukraine from reckless escalation?


The United States is heavily invested in the Ukraine-Russia conflict—not just in financial terms but also in shared risk. Washington has given more than $75 billion in aid to Ukraine, a serious chunk of change, yet far less than the possible consequences for the world if the war were to spiral out of control. After all, Russia might be a decrepit superpower, but it still possesses a massive nuclear arsenal and the ability to inflict damage well beyond Ukraine. In its public rhetoric, the Biden administration has walked a tightrope, insisting that it is balancing the moral necessity of helping Ukraine defend itself against external aggression with caution in making sure the war doesn’t ramp up into a broader conflict. Yet the administration’s claim of working to forestall escalation has a major loophole: Will the United States be able to stop Ukraine (or elements of the Ukrainian government) from escalating?

Recent reporting about the September 2022 bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipeline suggests a worrying possibility: that elements of the Ukrainian government have effectively gone rogue, carrying out risky operations in defiance of the superpower that funds their war. If that’s so, then it’s entirely possible that the United States and its NATO allies have lost the ability to apply the brakes in order to stop the war from spreading.

The Nord Stream bombing remains unsolved, and there have been multiple conflicting narratives. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, some members of the Biden administration suggested that Russia was the culprit. This was always an implausible claim. Vladimir Putin is a criminal dictator who invades neighboring countries for gain, so why would he blow up infrastructure that profits his own country? In February 2023, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh published an article claiming that the Biden administration itself planned and executed the explosion. Hersh’s article was based on anonymous sources and it was adamantly denied by the government. Yet, even as Hersh’s reporting was lambasted, it did have the positive effect of forcing mainstream media outlets to reinvestigate the bombing. Writing in The Nation in May, James Bamford noted the limits of Hersh’s reporting—and also pointed to evidence suggesting that American intelligence had information about the bombing prior to its happening. Bamford’s article was prescient in noticing the implication of evidence indicating American foreknowledge.

Now, in articles from multiple newspapers, we’re seeing the formation of a new consensus, one that carries the imprimatur of CIA sources combined with documents leaked by Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira. The reliance on anonymous intelligence sources means the new reporting can be contested along the same lines as Hersh’s reporting.

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported, “The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned the Ukrainian government not to attack the Nord Stream gas pipelines last summer after it obtained detailed information about a Ukrainian plot to destroy a main energy connection between Russia and Europe.” One detail of this report is worth dwelling on: “The plan was to stage the attack after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s exercise called Baltic Ops that took place in the area above the pipelines and ended on June 17.” This suggests that the alleged Ukrainian plan included a desire to frame NATO for the attack—which could have easily led to a wider conflict if the Russian government took the bait.

The new revised CIA narrative, if one pieces together various newspaper accounts, goes something like this: In June 2022, intelligence agencies in the Netherlands got wind of an alleged Ukrainian plot against the Nord Stream pipeline. The CIA then asked the Ukrainians to stop the bombing. The Ukrainians promised to shut down the operation—but in reality just reorganized it with a new leader. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was reportedly left out of the loop so he wouldn’t be implicated.

One obvious response to this narrative is skepticism. After all, if Zelensky were given plausible deniability, couldn’t the same protection be given to the CIA? Perhaps the Ukrainian government’s promise not to bomb the pipeline was made with the tacit understanding that both sides knew the promise was a fib or white lie. By this logic, something like Hersh’s original claim would remain true: The Biden administration was party to the bombing—but used the narrative of a rogue Ukrainian operation as a convenient fiction to cover for US complicity.

But if instead we take the new CIA narrative on its own terms as the literal truth, we have a terrifying scenario wherein the United States has an ally who is willing to engage in reckless, escalatory armed aggression. The United States, if the CIA is telling the truth, is underwriting a war with a nuclear rival that can no longer be controlled or contained. If de-escalation ever became a policy that the United States or NATO wanted to pursue, they could easily be thwarted by their ally.

Nor is the Nord Stream bombing the only instance of the Ukrainian government reportedly going beyond what its allies think is prudent.

As The Washington Post reports, “While U.S. intelligence officials were initially skeptical of the European reporting, they have long been concerned about aggressive operations by Ukraine that could escalate the war into a direct conflict between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies.”

The newspaper adds,

Officials in Washington and Europe have admonished Ukraine for attacks outside its territory that they felt went too far. After a car bomb near Moscow in August killed Daria Dugina, in an attack that appeared intended for her father—a prominent Russian nationalist whose writing had helped shape a Kremlin narrative about Ukraine—Western officials said they made clear to Zelensky that they held operatives in his government responsible. The attack was seen as provocative and risked a severe Russian response…. Ukraine has persisted with strikes inside Russia, including drone strikes on an airfield and on targets in Moscow that U.S. officials have linked to Kyiv.

National Review columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty has noted that some reporting in the mainstream press even suggests Zelensky might not be in full control of these Ukrainian operations, which would imply that rogue military actors in Ukraine are driving policy. While this analysis is speculative, it rests on taking seriously the claims made by US government officials to reputable news outlets.

Again, it’s uncertain whether these disputes over Ukrainian operations are real—or merely a fig leaf for tacit approval from the United States and NATO.

No reasonable person can begrudge the Ukrainians’ fighting an existential war by any means necessary. But the United States and the NATO countries have their own stakes in the war, which include an interest in avoiding escalation. Historically, when a great power has a smaller ally who feels empowered to take provocative military action, limited conflicts often turn into big wars. This was the pattern in the relationship between Russia and Serbia that prepared the path to the outbreak of the First World War. The CIA’s narrative about Nord Stream suggests that this is now the nature of the relationship between the United State and Ukraine. Taken on its own terms, it’s hard to see the new CIA narrative as any more reassuring than Hersh’s claim that the Biden administration blew up the pipeline.

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