New intelligence reviewed by US officials indicates that a pro-Ukrainian group sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines that carried natural gas from Russia to Europe but there was no evidence of Kyiv government involvement in the September 2022 attack, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.
Reuters could not independently verify the report and US officials could not be immediately reached for comment. Representatives of the Ukrainian and Russian governments could not be immediately reached.
The United States and NATO have called the attacks, which occurred seven months into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, "an act of sabotage." Moscow has blamed Ukraine's Western supporters and has called on the UN Security Council to independently investigate. Neither side has provided evidence.
Citing US officials, the New York Times said there was no evidence that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or his top aides were involved in the operation or that the perpetrators were acting at the behest of any Ukrainian government officials.
The Times wrote that the intelligence review suggested those who carried out the attacks, which spewed gas into the Baltic Sea, were Ukrainian or Russian nationals who opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin "but does not specify the members of the group, or who directed or paid for the operation."
"US officials declined to disclose the nature of the intelligence, how it was obtained or any details of the strength of the evidence. They have said that there were no firm conclusions about it," the Times added.
BATTLE FOR BAKHMUT
In its invasion, which passed the one-year mark on Feb. 24, Moscow has sent thousands of troops in waves over recent weeks to try to capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and secure its first battlefield victory in more than half a year. Ukrainian forces have dug trenches further west and in recent days had seemed to be preparing to pull out.
But Zelenskiy early on Tuesday publicly committed his troops to holding out in Bakhmut, apparently prolonging the war's bloodiest battle in a bid to break Moscow's assault force.
His remarks in an overnight address suggested Kyiv had elected not only to stay and fight on but to reinforce the city, apparently convinced that Russia's losses in trying to storm it would be greater than those of the defenders.
"I told the commander-in-chief to find the appropriate forces to help our guys in Bakhmut," Zelenskiy said.
Iryna Vereshchuk, a deputy Ukrainian premier, said on state TV that fewer than 4,000 civilians - including 38 children - out of a pre-war population of some 70,000 remained in bombed-out Bakhmut.
Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago and claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of its territory, says taking Bakhmut would be a step towards seizing the surrounding industrial Donbas region, a major war aim.
"The liberation of Artemovsk continues," Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks, using the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut, re-adopted by the invading Russians.
"The city is an important hub for defending Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. Taking it under control will allow further offensive actions to be conducted deep into Ukraine's defensive lines."
Western strategists say the ruined city has limited value, and Russia's assault may aim for a symbolic victory after a winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of conscripted reservists and fighters from the Wagner private army.
Ukraine's military command reported a record 1,600 Russians killed over the previous 24 hours. Moscow said Ukraine's losses in February had risen 40% from January to 11,000.
Tolls of enemy dead cannot be confirmed and the sides do not release regular data on their own casualties, but past Ukrainian reports of spikes in Russian losses have corresponded with failed Russian assaults.
Reuters journalists have not been inside Bakhmut for a week and could not independently verify the situation there.
Urban warfare typically favors defenders. Some Ukrainian officials have spoken in recent days of a ratio of as many as seven Russians killed at Bakhmut for every Ukrainian lost.
PRISONER VIDEO CAUSES OUTCRY
A video apparently showing Russian soldiers gunning down an unarmed Ukrainian war prisoner caused an outcry across Ukraine.
The man, in uniform with Ukrainian insignia, says "Glory to Ukraine" before shots are heard. A voice says "Die, bitch" in Russian as he slumps to the ground. Ukraine's military identified him as Tymofiy Shadura, a soldier missing since Feb. 3 around Bakhmut.
"I want us all in unity to respond to his words: 'Glory to the hero. Glory to the heroes. Glory to Ukraine.' And we will find the murderers," Zelensky said in his televised address.
Russia denies carrying out war crimes in Ukraine, which it invaded a year ago claiming to be responding to a security threat from its neighbor's ties to the West.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed as well as soldiers on both sides. Russia has bombarded Ukrainian cities and set millions of civilians to flight in what Kyiv and the West call an unprovoked war of conquest.
While Russia has made gains in recent weeks around Bakhmut, its winter offensive has otherwise been a failure, yielding no significant gains in major assaults further north and south.
Kyiv, which recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, has spent the last three months on the defensive, trying to exhaust the attacking Russians before an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive later this year.
Zelensky aide: Kyiv 'absolutely not involved' in Nord Stream attacks
A senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday that Kyiv was "absolutely not involved" in last year's attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines and has no information about what happened.
Mykhailo Podolyak made the comments in a statement to Reuters following the release of a New York Times report citing US officials suggesting a pro-Ukrainian group was responsible.
Russia says NYT Nord Stream report justifies push for international inquiry
Russia's deputy UN envoy said on Tuesday that a New York Times report on who could be responsible for the attacks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year "only proves that our initiative on launching an international investigation under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General is very timely."
Russia plans to call a vote in the UN Security Council by the end of March on its draft resolution asking Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to establish such an inquiry, Deputy Russian UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy told Reuters.
Russia says west should answer questions about pipeline blasts
Russia said on Tuesday that media reports about who might be behind last year's attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines underscored the need to answer Moscow's questions about what had happened.
In a statement, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said those responsible for leaks to the media wanted to divert the public's attention and avoid a proper investigation. The New York Times said new intelligence reviewed by US officials suggested a pro-Ukrainian group carried out the attack.