Nord Stream 1 & 2 sabotage – disinformation a la MH-17?
The gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea which together make up Nord Stream 1 and 2 have recently suffered sabotage. Deliberate explosions discovered on 26 September in international waters took place in the exclusive economic zones of Denmark and Sweden (brown lines). NS 1 and NS 2 were deactived and did not export gas; NS 1 due to political a decision by Russia while NS 2 has never received certification for starting commercial operations amid political tension. The explosions were detected on the day of the official opening of the Baltic Pipeline and just around the time of Russia’s process of illegal annexation of more regions in Ukraine.
(Screenshot from DR – Danish Broadcasting Corporation)
Millions of cubic metres of methane gas continue to bubble through the Baltic Sea into the air, so far preventing a closer examination of the explosion sites and the tubes owned by the Nord Stream consortium 1 and 2 both controlled by Russia’s Gazprom.
Why blow up a pipeline?
As we await investigations, there is a lot of speculations and unknowns. At the same time, the information space is full of disinformation and manipulation attempts. Many accusations are flowing in the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem suggesting: (1) It is the work of the US; (2) it is the Poles; (3) it is the UK or the Baltics, (4) it is the Ukrainians. (5) Unless Russia is involved in the investigations, they will not be trustworthy. Putin contributed by using his grand speech on Friday 30 September announcing the annexation of additional four regions in Ukraine: “the Anglo-Saxons are behind” it, implying the US-UK.
A well-known pattern
The tactics to promote these claims resembled the spree of mis-explanations/ accusations surrounding the downing by missile of the Malaysian airliner MH-17 over Donbas in 2014.
Dwelling for a moment on the tragic MH-17 event may be useful to detect pattern and tactics. Back then, the Russian information landscape quickly filled with accusations: -it was Ukraine, -it was the CIA, -it was a planned explosion because the plane carried already dead bodies, -it was terrorism – see our account here. Reality was, however, much simpler. The Russia-backed militants had already boasted in radio and phone exchanges of shooting down what they believed to be a Ukrainian plane. In the end, the international investigations, led by the Netherlands Police and helped by large troves of material including from the Bellingcat investigative group, even identified the Russian air defence brigade; the actual unit and its commanders have now been officially charged in court although they are currently hiding in Russia. See our cases here. Russia effectively boycotted the investigation and tried to derail it polluting the info space with all sorts of lies.
Confuse the picture, distract the audience
The reflex in the Kremlin ecosystem is to spread as many explanations or accusations as possible in order to muddy the waters and to see what sticks. Create several conspiracies. This was also evident for instance in the Salisbury poising of the Skripal family with the Novichok-nerve agent in the UK or in the explosion at the Czech ammunition depot in Vrbatice.
The Kremlin ecosystem is trying to promote anti-West/EU/US feelings in the EU Member States. This has been done in several ways including by promote fabricated evidences or misusing real content to push the narrative that the US is behind the pipeline sabotage.
The story of the US helicopter… 250 km away.
To understand how disinformation actually spreads within minutes, let’s take the false story of the US helicopter.
On day two of the gas leak, 28 September, an article was published by the Russian media outlet Lenta. It alleged that a U.S. military helicopter was circling around the area of the Nord Stream gas leaks between the 25 and 26 September. The article quoted the real-time aircraft flight tracking information portal, FlightRadar24 as a source. Twenty minutes after, similar articles, quoting the same source, was published on other pro-Kremlin outlets, Tsargrad (here), followed by Russian government publication Rossiskaya Gazeta RG.RU, RIAFAN, and state news agency RIA. Official Twitter accounts of Russian embassies were also engaged, ex. @EmbRusiaMexico promoting the same narrative and link to the FlightRadar24 website showing the alleged movements of the helicopter.
But the helicopter was far away. The tweets and articles quoting FlightRadar24 were manipulatively used in an attempt to provide proof of the alleged U.S. involvement in the gas leaks. As could be seen on the FlightRadar24 portal itself at that time, the U.S. military helicopter was at least 250 km to the east from the reported area of the leaks. But very few people would make the effort of checking the sources…
(Screenshot from FlightRadar)
Taking out of context…
A number of examples illustrate the tactics of reframing its context.
On 26 September, a tweet, including a video from early February 2022, and showing U.S. President Biden during a news conference, elaborating on the possible shutdown of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in case of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, was posted by the Twitter account @AZMilitary1. @AZMilitary1 has been mentioned by several fact-checkers or investigative journalism outlets published articles as one of the main actors involved in the Kremlin information manipulation ecosystem.
On 27 September, a video extracted from the same news conference was tweeted by the verified account run by the internet celebrity, Russian state-affiliated blogger Maram Susli, @Partisangirl (a contributor to Russian state platform RT, with a dedicated bio page on RT and with 178k followers). It triggered over 8k retweets and 17k likes. Between 28h and 29 September, several editions of RT published articles including the video and promoting the same narrative.
…making it to the Russian MFA
On 28 September, the same video tweeted by @Partisangirl was posted on the official Telegram and Twitter accounts of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
… and amplified by China state controlled platforms
At the time of writing, the NS leaks are the most prominent topic in Chinese state-controlled media. In the aftermath of the sabotage, the video of Biden’s speech was published on YouTube by Chinese state-controlled outlet Shanghai Eye. The video was also quoted in a China Daily editorial, included in a Xinhua video – China’s main news agency – and in two CGTN videos. One of the videos published by CGTN s was shared by two Chinese diplomats, Zhang Meifang and Zhang Heqing.
Likewise, US Secretary of State Blinken’s statement calling the Nord Stream leaks a ‘tremendous opportunity’ was framed by Chinese channels on Twitter as an ‘opportunity’ for the US to increase the EU’s dependency on US energy. This interpretation was shared by a state-affiliated influencer, quoted by the Chinese Ambassador to Malta Yu Dunhai, by Chinese Diplomat Zhang Heqing, and by Global Times commentator Hu Xijin.
This – seemingly coordinated – amplification of the same content by Chinese actors points to alignment and collusion of interests between the Russian and Chinese disinformation ecosystem. Through the use of Russian sources and of manipulative content, Chinese state-controlled channels have conveyed the misleading narrative that the US might be behind the sabotage, while deflecting accusations against Russia.
Planting the seed of doubt
As we wait for the investigations to unfold, the Kremlin ecosystem has been effective in mobilising a certain significant audience which has made it to media in Europe and the US; examples here and here. The Russian foreign ministry and embassies are active as well – as illustrated above.
Just as in the case of MH-17, the Russian state platforms keep polluting the information space in an effort to flood and dominate public perception. Whatever the outcome of official investigations would point to, the human brain is wired to be intrigued by conspiracies. This is what most disinformers and manipulators wish for: blur the picture and plant the seed of doubt.