If the Donbass city of Bakhmut falls to the Russians the U.S. may need to save face in order to reverse course in Ukraine, writes Joe Lauria.
On its face, The New York Times article yesterday, “Intelligence Suggests Pro-Ukrainian Group Sabotaged Pipelines, U.S. Officials Say,” appears intended to exonerate both the U.S. and Ukrainian governments from any involvement in the destruction last September of the Nord Stream gas pipelines between Russia and Germany.
The thrust of the Times article is that Ukrainians unaffiliated with the Kiev government were the ones who did it, according to the newspapers often cited, unnamed “U.S. officials.”
But a closer examination of the piece reveals layers of nuance that do not dismiss that the Ukrainian government may have had something to do with the sabotage after all.
The story quotes anonymous European officials who say a state had to be involved in the sophisticated underwater operation. The Times goes out of it way to say more than once that that state was not the United States. And while the second paragraph of the story says categorically that the state is not Ukraine either, the article then leaves the door open to possible Ukrainian government involvement:
“U.S. officials declined to disclose the nature of the intelligence, how it was obtained or any details of the strength of the evidence it contains. They have said that there are no firm conclusions about it, leaving open the possibility that the operation might have been conducted off the books by a proxy force with connections to the Ukrainian government or its security services. [Emphasis mine.]
The Times then makes clear what the consequences would be for the pro-Ukraine “coalition” that Washington has built in the combined West if there was Ukrainian government involvement.
“Officials said there were still enormous gaps in what U.S. spy agencies and their European partners knew about what transpired. But officials said it might constitute the first significant lead to emerge from several closely guarded investigations, the conclusions of which could have profound implications for the coalition supporting Ukraine.
Any suggestion of Ukrainian involvement, whether direct or indirect, could upset the delicate relationship between Ukraine and Germany, souring support among a German public that has swallowed high energy prices in the name of solidarity.”
The Times further develops the theme that involvement by the Ukrainian government could destroy the international support for Kiev the United States has built, as well as the immense public backing for Ukraine that the U.S.-led information war has developed.
The Washington Post, which yesterday ran a similar story, reported that the Ukrainian government denied any involvement in the attack. “Ukraine absolutely did not participate in the attack on Nord Stream 2,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, the top adviser to Zelensky, questioning why his country would conduct an operation that “destabilizes the region and will divert attention from the war, which is categorically not beneficial to us.”
The newspaper here is allowing U.S. officials to begin distancing the U.S. from Ukraine, claiming Washington has limited influence on Kiev, despite years of evidence to the contrary. The piece appears to be preparing the Western public for an abrupt about face in Ukraine because of a litany of Ukrainian operations the U.S. says it opposed. It is worth quoting the Times at length here:
“Any findings that put blame on Kyiv or Ukrainian proxies could prompt a backlash in Europe and make it harder for the West to maintain a united front in support of Ukraine.
U.S. officials and intelligence agencies acknowledge that they have limited visibility into Ukrainian decision-making.
Despite Ukraine’s deep dependence on the United States for military, intelligence and diplomatic support, Ukrainian officials are not always transparent with their American counterparts about their military operations, especially those against Russian targets behind enemy lines. Those operations have frustrated U.S. officials, who believe that they have not measurably improved Ukraine’s position on the battlefield, but have risked alienating European allies and widening the war.
The operations that have unnerved the United States included a strike in early August on Russia’s Saki Air Base on the western coast of Crimea, a truck bombing in October that destroyed part of the Kerch Strait Bridge, which links Russia to Crimea, and drone strikes in December aimed at Russian military bases in Ryazan and Engels, about 300 miles beyond the Ukrainian border.
But there have been other acts of sabotage and violence of more ambiguous provenance that U.S. intelligence agencies have had a harder time attributing to Ukrainian security services.
One of those was a car bomb near Moscow in August that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist.
Kyiv denied any involvement but U.S. intelligence agencies eventually came to believe that the killing was authorized by what officials called “elements” of the Ukrainian government. In response to the finding, the Biden administration privately rebuked the Ukrainians and warned them against taking similar actions.
The explosions that ruptured the Nord Stream pipelines took place five weeks after Ms. Dugina’s killing. After the Nord Stream operation, there was hushed speculation — and worry — in Washington that parts of the Ukrainian government might have been involved in that operation as well.“
Of course all this is not to say that the United States did not conduct the Nord Stream sabotage just as Seymour Hersh has reported and yet still cynically blames Ukraine. (Hersh ridiculed the Times story in an email to Consortium News, which sought his comment.)
In directing attention towards the Ukrainian government’s possible culpability, U.S. intelligence gets a twofer: it deflects blame from the U.S. and prepares the public for the United States to justify abandoning Ukraine after all the U.S. has invested in its adventure to weaken Russia and topple its government through an economic, information, and proxy war, all of which have failed.
A consensus is forming among Western leaders that the war against Russia in Ukraine is lost. Thus Washington would have to save face to pull off such a reversal of policy. Insinuating that Ukraine blew up the pipelines of its ally Germany could help the U.S. climb down from its strident position in support of Ukraine.
German Media Also Blames Ukraine on Same Day
On the same day of The New York Times story yesterday, a joint investigation by a major German newspaper, Die Zeit, and the ARD broadcast network, also reported that the pipeline attack was linked to Ukraine. Die Zeit reports, according to a machine translation:
“The German investigative authorities have apparently made a breakthrough in solving the attack on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. After joint research by the ARD capital studio, the ARD political magazine Kontraste, SWR and ZEIT, it was possible to largely reconstruct how and when the explosive attack was prepared in the course of the investigation. Accordingly, traces lead in the direction of Ukraine.”
Just like the Times report, Die Zeit also hedges its reporting, saying that “investigators have not yet found any evidence as to who ordered the destruction.” It might not be credible to immediately blame Ukraine. The sources for these articles may be employing a tactic to gradually prepare the public for more definitive blame later. Die Zeit does provide a level of detail missing from the Times report, however. The investigation
“managed to identify the boat that was allegedly used for the secret operation. It is said to be a yacht rented from a company based in Poland, apparently owned by two Ukrainians. According to the investigation, the secret operation at sea was carried out by a team of six people. It is said to have been five men and one woman. Accordingly, the group consisted of a captain, two divers, two diving assistants and a doctor, who are said to have transported the explosives to the crime scenes and placed them there. The nationality of the perpetrators is apparently unclear. The culprits used professionally forged passports, which are said to have been used, among other things, to rent the boat.”
That both articles appeared on the same day in major U.S. and German publications (including The Washington Post) might indicate a degree of coordination between U.S. and German intelligence. On Friday, just four days before the articles appeared, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made an unusual trip from Berlin to Washington, where he immediately went to the White House for a meeting with President Joe Biden.
No aides were present in the Oval Office with the two men. The meeting lasted just over an hour. There was no press conference afterward and Scholz did not allow press on his plane. He returned to the airport after the meeting to fly back to Berlin. Clearly the two men did not want to discuss a sensitive matter over the phone or in a video-link.
Western Leaders Already Say Ukraine Can’t Win
The Times was fed this piece from U.S. intelligence as stories continue to be leaked showing Western leaders do not believe Ukraine can win the war, despite their public pronouncements, and that Kiev must cut its losses and seek a settlement with Russia. The Wall Street Journal reported 11 days ago:
“The public rhetoric masks deepening private doubts among politicians in the U.K., France and Germany that Ukraine will be able to expel the Russians from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which Russia has controlled since 2014, and a belief that the West can only help sustain the war effort for so long, especially if the conflict settles into a stalemate, officials from the three countries say.
‘We keep repeating that Russia mustn’t win, but what does that mean? If the war goes on for long enough with this intensity, Ukraine’s losses will become unbearable,’ a senior French official said. ‘And no one believes they will be able to retrieve Crimea.’
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Zelensky at an Élysée Palace dinner last month that he must consider peace talks with Moscow, the Journal reported.
According to its source, the newspaper quoted Macron as telling Zelensky that “even mortal enemies like France and Germany had to make peace after World War II.”
Macron told Zelensky “he had been a great war leader, but that he would eventually have to shift into political statesmanship and make difficult decisions,” the newspaper reported.
Bakhmut: a Turning Point
A major turning point in the war that would force a huge decision for Washington may come if Russia can complete its military takeover of Bakhmut.
The battle for the city in Donbass has been raging since last summer and has intensified in the past weeks. Russia has nearly encircled the entire city trapping an estimated 10,000 Ukrainian troops inside. Ukraine had repeatedly played down the importance of Bakhmut, but nevertheless has continually sent in droves of soldiers to their death. Bakhmut is an important hub in Ukraine’s defense of Donbass.
In an interview with CNN yesterday, Zelensky at last admitted Bakhmut’s vital importance to Ukraine. “We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “That’s why our guys are standing there.”
The fall of Bakhmut to Russia would be a major humiliation for Zelensky and Ukraine, as well as for the United States and Europe. The U.S. would have a major choice to make: continue to escalate the war with the danger that it could lead to a NATO-Russia confrontation that could go nuclear, or press Ukraine to absorb its losses and seek a settlement.
Russia however would then be in a position to dictate terms: possibly recognition of four eastern Ukrainian oblasts as part of Russia after referendums there voted to join the Russian Federation; Ukraine agreeing to be a neutral nation that will not join NATO; demilitarization of Ukraine and disbanding of neo-nazi units.
Portraying Ukraine as an unworthy partner that blew up German pipelines might help minimize the humiliation to the West if this were to happen. Then again neoconservatives in Washington and in European capitals might win out in the battle with realists and continue pressing the war, though the realists at this stage seem to have the upper hand.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers, including The Montreal Gazette and The Star of Johannesburg. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London, a financial reporter for Bloomberg News and began his professional work as a 19-year old stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @unjoe