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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sweden closes investigation of pipeline blasts but stays silent on cause

The release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 27, 2022.  (Handout)
By Rebecca R. Ruiz and David E. Sanger New York Times

STOCKHOLM – After investigators delved into a series of undersea explosions that blew apart the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines linking Russia to Western Europe in fall 2022, intelligence agencies came to a general agreement: The evidence pointed toward pro-Ukraine forces, even if the question of who might have been directing them remained a mystery.

In Sweden, in whose economic zone the attack partly occurred, the issue remained so delicate that the nation wrapped its investigation in secrecy. It even refused to team up with its closest neighbors, Denmark and Germany, a sign of how nervous the issue was making officials in Stockholm at a moment when it is still maneuvering for acceptance into the NATO military alliance.

On Wednesday, after 16 months of closely guarding their findings, Swedish authorities finally published something – and reached no conclusion at all, at least in public. Sweden’s prosecutor said he was ending his inquiry and had turned over what it had found to the same countries with which the nation had previously declined to cooperate. German officials say their investigation is ongoing.

The Swedish inquiry began with considerable fanfare, as soon as it was clear that an act of sabotage had been responsible. The leading theory was that divers had planted underwater explosives in just the right place to do maximum damage. Because the attack took place partly in Sweden’s economic zone – though in international waters – Sweden opened a criminal investigation.

That investigation ended Wednesday with what amounted to a news release, and no new findings. The conclusion, or rather the lack of a public one, underscored just how sensitive the issue remains.

If the explosions were the work of pro-Ukrainian forces, Ukraine itself could be linked to sabotage against some of its staunchest European allies.

Before the war broke out, they were dependent on gas from the pipelines to drive their economies. And, increasingly, Ukraine is in need of European support if it is to have any hope defending itself, or of rebuilding after the war.

Soon after the explosions there was speculation Russia was the culprit, but to some that made little sense – the Russians were deeply invested in both major lines of the pipeline, known as Nord Stream I and Nord Stream II.

Mats Ljungqvist, a senior prosecutor leading Sweden’s investigation, told The New York Times last year, “Do I think it was Russia that blew up Nord Stream? I never thought so. It’s not logical. But as in the case of a murder, you have to be open to all possibilities.”

Swedish officials, and many others in Europe, believed that the complexity of the operation suggested it was carried out by a state actor. And it seemed like no one wanted to publicly speculate about whether a pro-Ukraine group might have been behind the operation, with or without the knowledge of Ukrainian officials.

It was a particularly sensitive question in Germany, which has provided billions in aid and arms. Government officials worried about undercutting support for the country. It has said almost nothing about its own investigation.

On Wednesday, Sweden found another way not to answer the question: It announced that Swedish authorities concluded they didn’t have the authority to pursue the mystery.

”Sweden does not have the jurisdiction to investigate this matter further,” the Swedish Security Service said in a statement Wednesday. It added that the investigation had been “opened in order to examine whether the sabotage targeted Sweden and thereby threatened the security of Sweden, and it was determined that this was not the case.”

In an email Wednesday, Ljungquvist, the national security prosecutor who made the decision to close Sweden’s investigation, said the question of jurisdiction was more complicated than where the crime had been committed.

Someone operating out of Sweden, or simply committing a crime that damaged Sweden’s security in the long run, would give prosecutors justification. “The preliminary investigation has given us the opportunity to confirm certain circumstances and rule out other circumstances,” he wrote.

Ljungqvist declined to say more, citing continued confidentiality in the case, which Sweden has the ability to revive, he said, as well as cooperation with German authorities in their investigation into the Nord Stream sabotage. “For the sake of our cooperation, I do not want to harm that investigation,” he said.

The series of underwater explosions ripped holes in three of the four strands of Nord Stream pipelines. The explosions also came close to damaging a cable supplying electricity from Sweden to Poland, raising concern about what other infrastructure could also be vulnerable.

Indeed, last October, a communications cable between Estonia and Sweden was damaged, putting Swedish authorities on increasingly high alert.

The Nord Stream sabotage taken together with the more recent incident, “further stresses the importance as well as the vulnerability regarding underwater infrastructure,” said Jimmie Adamsson, head of public affairs for the Swedish navy, which contributed to Sweden’s Nord Stream investigation.

”The Swedish armed forces continue to monitor the situation in the Baltic and other areas near Sweden,” Adamsson added on Wednesday, “in close cooperation with our international partners, soon allied, we hope.”

The crime scene, along the floor of the Baltic Sea, provided little concrete evidence, something Swedish authorities acknowledged in the early months of the investigation even as they closely guarded their inquiry.

It didn’t help that fingers were pointing everywhere. After the attacks, Poland and Ukraine both openly blamed Russia, without citing evidence. Russia in turn accused the United States, Britain and Ukraine, also without evidence.

Last year, after intelligence suggested that a pro-Ukraine group had carried out the sabotage, U.S. officials who reviewed the findings said they had no indication that Ukrainian government officials had ties to the operation.

Various other clues then emerged that stoked further public speculation and competing narratives.

Ljungqvist, who said he was not in Stockholm on the day the investigation ended, suggested that now even if his work was over, the forces of misinformation and disinformation about the case would continue to run rampant.

”It is clear to me that Nord Stream is a site for various influence operations and that the news that is leaking is likely part of that chess game,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.