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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ukrainian military officer coordinated Nord Stream pipeline attack

Col. Roman Chervinsky appears in a glass room during a hearing in the Shevchenko District Court in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 10.  (Oleg Bohachuk/For The Washington Post)
By Shane Harris and Isabelle Khurshudyan Washington Post

A senior Ukrainian military officer with deep ties to the country’s intelligence services played a central role in the bombing of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline last year, according to officials in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, as well as other people knowledgeable about the details of the covert operation.

The officer’s role provides the most direct evidence to date tying Ukraine’s military and security leadership to a controversial act of sabotage that has spawned multiple criminal investigations and that U.S. and Western officials have called a dangerous attack on Europe’s energy infrastructure.

Roman Chervinsky, a decorated 48-year-old colonel who served in Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces, was the “coordinator” of the Nord Stream operation, people familiar with his role said, managing logistics and support for a six-person team that rented a sailboat under false identities and used deep-sea diving equipment to place explosive charges on the gas pipelines. On Sept. 26, 2022, three explosions caused massive leaks on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which run from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. The attack left only one of the four gas links in the network intact as winter approached.

Chervinsky did not act alone and he did not plan the operation, according to the people familiar with his role, which has not been previously reported. The officer took orders from more senior Ukrainian officials, who ultimately reported to Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s highest-ranking military officer, said people familiar with how the operation was carried out. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details about the bombing, which has strained diplomatic relations with Ukraine and drawn objections from U.S. officials.

Ukraine has launched many daring and secretive operations against Russian forces. But the Nord Stream attack targeted civilian infrastructure built to provide energy to millions of people in Europe. While Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas conglomerate, owns 51% of Nord Stream, Western energy companies, including from Germany, France and the Netherlands, are partners and invested billions in the project. Ukraine had long complained that Nord Stream would allow Russia to bypass Ukrainian pipes, depriving Kyiv of huge transit revenue.

Through his attorney, Chervinsky denied any role in the sabotage of the pipelines. “All speculations about my involvement in the attack on Nord Stream are being spread by Russian propaganda without any basis,” Chervinsky said in a written statement to the Washington Post and Der Spiegel, which conducted a joint investigation of his role.

Spokespersons for the Ukrainian government did not respond to a list of questions about Chervinsky’s participation.

Chervinsky’s role illustrates the complex dynamics and internal rivalries of the wartime government in Kyiv, where Ukraine’s intelligence and military establishment is often in tension with its political leadership.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Chervinsky had been serving in a unit of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces and was focused on resistance activity in areas of the country occupied by Russia, people familiar with his assignments said. He reported to Maj. Gen. Viktor Hanushchak, a seasoned and respected officer, who communicated directly with Zaluzhny.

Chervinsky was well suited to help carry out a covert mission meant to obscure Ukraine’s responsibility. He has served in senior positions in the country’s military intelligence agency as well as Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU, and he is professionally and personally close to key military and security leaders.

He has also helped carry out other secretive operations.

In 2020, Chervinsky oversaw a complex plan to lure fighters for Russia’s Wagner mercenary group into Belarus, with the goal of capturing them and bringing them to Ukraine to face charges. In his statement to the Post and Der Spiegel, Chervinsky said he also “planned and implemented” operations to kill pro-Russian separatist leaders in Ukraine and to “abduct a witness” that could corroborate Russia’s shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the eastern Donbas region in 2014, which killed all 298 passengers and crew on board. Last year, a Dutch court convicted two Russians and a Ukrainian of murder in the downing, which was caused by a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile.

Chervinsky is being held in a Kyiv jail on charges that he abused his power stemming from a plot to lure a Russian pilot to defect to Ukraine in July 2022. Authorities allege that Chervinsky, who was arrested in April, acted without permission and that the operation gave away the coordinates of a Ukrainian airfield, prompting a Russian rocket attack that killed a soldier and injured 17 others.

Chervinsky has said he was not responsible for the Russian attack and that in trying to persuade the pilot to fly to Ukraine and hand over his aircraft, he was acting on orders. He calls his arrest and prosecution political retribution for his criticism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration. Chervinsky has said publicly that he suspects Andriy Yermak, one of Zelensky’s closest advisers, of spying for Russia. He has also accused the Zelensky administration of failing to sufficiently prepare the country for Russia’s invasion.

“The operation to recruit the Russian pilot involved units of the SBU, the Air Force, and the Special Operations Forces,” Chervinsky said in his written statement to the Post and Der Spiegel. “The operation was approved by the commander in chief Valery Zaluzhny.”

Chervinsky’s participation in the Nord Stream bombing contradicts Zelensky’s public denials that his country was involved. “I am president and I give orders accordingly,” Zelensky said in press interview in June, responding to a report by the Post that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had learned of Ukraine’s plans before the attack.

“Nothing of the sort has been done by Ukraine. I would never act that way,” Zelensky said.

But the Nord Stream operation was designed to keep Zelensky out of the loop, people familiar with the operation said.

“All of those involved in planning and execution reported directly to [chief of defense] Zaluzhnyy, so Zelensky wouldn’t have known about it,” according to intelligence reporting obtained by the CIA that was allegedly shared by Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, on the Discord chat platform. Officials in multiple countries have said privately they were confident that Zelensky didn’t personally approve the Nord Stream attack.

Other secret Ukrainians operations targeting Russian forces, including the operation involving the Russian airplane, also were designed to bypass the Ukrainian president, people familiar with their planning said.

Hanushchak, who is no longer serving in the Special Operations Forces, declined to comment for this article.

Chervinsky has blamed Yermak and several other Zelensky advisers for botching the plan in 2020 to ensnare Wagner fighters after they traveled to Belarus. That sting operation failed, Chervinsky said in a 2021 press interview, because of a leak from Zelensky’s inner circle.

“It is not just one ‘mole’ [in Zelensky’s administration], it is a bunch of people,” Chervinsky said, naming Yermak as well as two other Zelensky advisers. He accused administration officials of being “afraid of challenging Russia.”

U.S. officials have at times privately chastised Ukrainian intelligence and military officials for launching attacks that risked provoking Russia to escalate its war on Ukraine. But Washington’s unease has not always dissuaded Kyiv.

In June 2022, the Dutch military intelligence agency, the MIVD, obtained information that Ukraine might be planning to attack Nord Stream. Officials at the CIA relayed to Zaluzhny through an intermediary that the United States opposed such an operation, according to people familiar with those conversations.

U.S. officials believed the attack had been called off. But it turned out only to have been postponed to three months later, using a different point of departure than originally planned. Key elements of the plan, including the number of people on the bombing team, as well as the use of a rented boat, diving equipment and fake identities remained the same.

In an interview with the Post in June of this year, Zaluzhny said the CIA had never asked him directly about any attack on Nord Stream. He said that after the explosions, in September 2022, he received a phone call from then-U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark A. Milley. “He asked me, ‘Did you have anything to do with it?’ I said, ‘No.’ A lot of operations are planned, a lot of operations are going on, but we have nothing to do with it, nothing at all.”

Zaluzhny suggested in the interview that Russian propagandists had tried to tie him and the Ukrainian military to the operation.

The Dutch military intelligence service also reported to the Americans that the Ukrainians planned an attack on another pipeline in the Black Sea, called TurkStream. It’s not clear why that operation was never carried out. In October 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country’s security services had prevented a Ukrainian attack on TurkStream. But Russian authorities have provided few details and are not known to have charged anyone in the alleged plot.

The Russian news agency Tass reported, “It is known that the attack was planned by an agent of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on orders from the Ukrainian special services.”

Some of those who described Chervinsky’s participation in the Nord Stream attack defended the veteran intelligence officer as acting in Ukraine’s best interests. They argued that bombing the pipelines helped to keep Russia from filling its coffers from natural gas sales and deprived Putin of a means to use the flow of natural gas for political leverage.

The Russian leader had demonstrated that he was willing to use energy as a tool of retaliation. Nearly a month before the explosions, Gazprom stopped flows on Nord Stream 1, hours after the Group of Seven industrialized nations announced a forthcoming price cap on Russian oil, a move intended to put a dent in the Kremlin’s treasury.

The German government withheld final authorization of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline days before Russia invaded Ukraine, following months of pressure by Washington. Before the war, Germany got half its natural gas from Russia and had long championed the Nord Stream project in the face of opposition from other European allies.

Chervinsky’s supporters have shown up in court to defend him; a few have sported a T-shirt emblazoned with his face and a #FREECHERVINSKY hashtag. For some, he is a symbol of the Ukrainian military’s willingness to make hard choices in a fight for the country’s survival.

In his statement, Chervinsky said, “I have devoted my entire life to the defense of Ukraine.” He called the current charges against him related to the Russian airplane operation “groundless and far-fetched, which I will definitely prove in court.”

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Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv. Souad Mekhennet in Washington and Samuel Oakford in New York contributed to this report.

The Post and Der Spiegel collaborated on reporting and wrote separate stories that the news organizations agreed to publish at the same time.