Fact check: US helicopter flight no proof of sabotage of Nord Stream pipeline

Sunday, 2 October 2022 (11:07 IST)
Gas is bubbling from four leaks from the Baltic Sea pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 that run from Russia to Germany and experts and politicians have been talking about only one conceivable cause: sabotage.

"These incidents are not a coincidence and affect us all. All available information indicates those leaks are the result of a deliberate act," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on behalf of the 27 EU member states. Which begs the question: who sabotaged the pipelines?

While many experts point more or less clearly to Russia, numerous social media users claim that the United States is responsible for the alleged sabotage. The discussion was fueled by Poland's former Defense and Foreign Minister Rados?aw Sikorski, who tweeted a photo of one of the gas leaks and wrote: "Thank you, USA." Sikorski later deleted his tweet, but it is archived here. The presence of American naval units in the Baltic Sea before the incident is mentioned as evidence by some users, including politicians from Germany's far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Some of the claims have gone viral in recent days.

Claim: "There are coincidences...", a Telegram user opines and reports on an "American helicopter with the call sign FFAB123" that had allegedly flown "along the Nord Stream 2 route or even between the Points where the accident occurred" on September 2. The original post by the Russian think tank Vatfor listing the claims about the US helicopter received more than 1.8 million views and this narrative also spread on Twitter.

So is a US helicopter actually responsible for the alleged sabotage?

DW Fact Check: Misleading.

It is still completely unclear who is behind the alleged sabotage of the pipelines. According to our findings, however, the helicopter flight mentioned is out of the question, mainly for geographical reasons: We first looked for the exact position of the gas leaks and found it on the Danish Maritime Authority's website. The nautical information and warnings show the position of the four gas leaks, including geo-coordinates. The fourth leak was later discovered by the Swedish Coast Guard.

In a second step, we researched the flight route using the Flightaware aviation software. On September 2, the flight tracker shows a flight route near Bornholm, which actually corresponds to the image posted on social media. Flight FFAB123 flew in several loops over the Baltic Sea east of the island of Bornholm. If one superimposes the geo-coordinates of the gas leaks and flight route on a map, however, a different picture emerges than that claimed in the social media posts.

FFAB123 did not fly along the pipeline and did not even come close to the locations of the gas leaks. In particular, the northern gas leaks are far from FFAB123's flight path. According to our measurements, the flight path of FFAB123 was nine or 30 kilometers (5 or 18 miles) respectively away from the localized gas leaks.

Conclusion: The viral claim by a Russian think tank on Telegram that an American helicopter was responsible for the gas leaks is untenable and misleading. The helicopter did not get close to the locations of the gas leaks.

It is still unclear who carried out the alleged sabotage on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines and how. Sabotage from the air seems rather unlikely. Goran Swistek, a German frigate captain and expert for maritime security, believes that special explosives may have been attached by submersibles.

"I know from my own research that Russia has built up a very strong undersea research program in recent years," Swistek said in an interview with the German public broadcaster ZDF. He pointed out that Russia recently tested precisely unmanned underwater drones in the North Sea and North Atlantic, among other places, near important communication cables.

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