A yacht, two divers, three helpers, access to explosives - doesn't it really take more to completely destroy critical energy infrastructure on the seabed?
According to research by the "New York Times" and the research association ARD and "Zeit", international investigators have come to the conclusion that private actors with connections to Ukraine successfully attacked the Nord Stream pipelines in September 2022.
Accordingly, unknown perpetrators with forged passports had rented a German yacht in Rostock in autumn last year, the tenant was formally a company registered in Poland owned by a Ukrainian. According to the investigation, only six people were directly involved in the attack on the pipelines, including the boatman, two divers, two helpers and a doctor.
The yacht left Rostock on September 6, 2022, sightings near the Danish coast at the right time and position data recordings have brought the investigators to the track. According to the research, traces of explosives on board later confirmed the investigators' thesis.
But how difficult is it for divers to carry out this mission - does it require the direct involvement of appropriately trained military special forces, or could amateur divers also have mastered this task?
"Almost every terrorist attack on land is carried out by civilians - it's no different at sea," says Achim Schloeffel, German extreme diver and founder of the technical diving association "Inner Space Explorers" to WELT. "Technical divers with the appropriate training could have mastered this dive without any problems, you don't need the military for that."
In the past, Schloeffel himself has carried out simulated underwater attacks on yachts or underwater installations on behalf of owners in order to uncover weaknesses in security systems. He knows: "It is almost impossible to monitor an underwater facility like the pipeline over the entire length in such a way that a single diver would be discovered in time."
The perpetrators benefit from the fact that deep dives, which were considered dangerous and difficult in the past, are now part of the training canon of various technical diving associations. Technical diving, i.e. diving with breathing gas mixtures at depths of more than 40 meters, has become fashionable as a new thrill. Many recreational divers undergo training to reach deeper wrecks and stay underwater longer. The necessary diving equipment is therefore freely available on the civilian market and not even particularly expensive.
The pipelines lie relatively flat off Bornholm, unlike further east, for example off Finland. This may also explain the chosen location for the sabotage. According to the operator, the measured residual pressure of seven bar shows how flat it is – this corresponds to the pressure of a depth of 60 meters. 60 meters is no problem for experienced divers. "I would approach this dive with a rebreather, which gives flexibility in the face of unforeseen difficulties at depth," explains Schloeffel.
So-called rebreathers used to be only for the military and extreme divers. In the meantime, even providers specializing in recreational diving, such as Mares, offer the devices. Because rebreathers are now automated via computer control - they take the difficult mix gas calculation for deep dives out of the user's hands, automatically mixing the right amount of oxygen into the user's breathing air for every depth. Even dives to depths of over a hundred meters, which require sophisticated gas logistics without a rebreather, are relatively easy to handle. The devices cost between 5,000 and 15,000 euros.
Before the dive, the attackers first had to find the pipeline tubes - and the civilian availability of military technology also helps them with this. In the last century, high-resolution so-called sidescan sonar, which can image the seabed in three dimensions, was only affordable for the military and researchers. In the meantime, every better fish finder for hobby anglers has mastered the sonar search on the sea floor.
“Last year I found a wreck on my boat at a depth of a good hundred meters in the Mediterranean Sea using a Garmin fish finder that costs less than 3,000 euros. The pipeline tubes are very easy to find with such civil sonar devices," explains Schloeffel.
The expert can easily imagine the further course of the attack: First, the perpetrators should have placed an inconspicuous depth buoy at the point that the sonar showed them. "They probably attached the explosives to the buoy line as part of the base weight so the divers didn't have to lug it down."
This so-called "shotline" also serves as a guide for wreck divers to hit the right spot on the seabed when descending. "Then they probably used scooters and lift bags to move the packages of explosives under the pipeline."
In addition to 3D sonar and rebreathers, so-called underwater scooters are the third technology developed for the military that is now available to civilians. Training with a large diving association costs just 150 euros. The underwater vehicles are similar to small torpedoes, they pull divers by means of an electric motor and allow them to cover greater distances under water quickly with weight - crucial for the dive not to be too long. The devices cost between 3,000 and a good 10,000 euros.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg still sees a need for clarification as to who is responsible for blowing up the gas pipelines. This is still unclear, he says in Stockholm. "What we do know is that there was an attack. But we have not been able to determine who is behind it.”
If a diver stays at a great depth for longer than just a few minutes, this results in a so-called decompression obligation: The divers have to take breaks during the ascent, only a few minutes at first, then even hours on longer, deep dives, in order to breathe out the nitrogen that is under the surface Pressure of great depth has accumulated in her tissues.
For about 20 years, dive computers have been calculating how long the “decompression breaks” have to be – the fourth technology that has made technical dives considerably easier. If divers ascend to the surface too quickly, such as in an emergency, they need immediate medical attention, oxygen, and access to a hyperbaric chamber. This is probably the reason why, according to the research, a doctor was also on board.
“Of course, despite the modern equipment that is now available, this dive is not easy. But there are hundreds of amateur wreck divers in the North Sea and Baltic Sea who are familiar with the cold and the darkness at this depth and who could manage this dive," explains Schloeffel. "I personally know at least 25 divers from my area who I would have no problem trusting." In the North Sea and Baltic Sea area in particular, there are also many trained professional divers who have the appropriate training for offshore work under water at much greater depths.
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