A mysterious explosion on a pipeline in Turkey just before the Georgia-Russia war broke out in 2008 may have been a Russian cyberattack, a new investigation argues, citing United States intelligence officials.
According to the investigation, by Bloomberg, the explosion on August 5, 2008, at Refahiye in eastern Turkey, was the result of a hack on the computers managing the pipeline. Surveillance footage captured two men in "black military-style uniforms without insignias, similar to the garb worn by special forces troops," shortly before the explosion. Software planted in the pipeline system shut down alarms and raised the pressure in the pipeline to such a high level that it exploded, four western intelligence officials told the agency.
The connection to Russia is solely circumstantial. "U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Russian government was behind the Refahiye explosion, according to two of the people briefed on the investigation. The evidence is circumstantial, they said, based on the possible motive and the level of sophistication."
Russia certainly has the means to carry out such an attack, as well as the motive. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, was the greatest geopolitical victory by the U.S. in post-Cold War Eurasia, breaking Russia's monopoly on energy exports from the Caspian. And U.S. intelligence officials appear to be thinking that way:
The chief suspect, according to U.S. intelligence officials, is Russia.
The sabotage of the BTC line -- which follows a route through the former Soviet Union that the U.S. mapped out over Russian objections -- marked another chapter in the belligerent energy politics of Eurasia. Days after the explosion, Russian fighter jets dropped bombs near the line in neighboring Georgia. Alexander Dugin, an influential advocate of Russian expansionism and at the time an adviser to the Russian parliament, was quoted in a Turkish newspaper declaring the BTC was “dead.”
The explanation at the time was that the Kurdish PKK had bombed it, and the PKK even claimed responsibility. But that may have all been part of the plan, Bloomberg says: "American intelligence officials believe the PKK -- which according to leaked State Department cables has received arms and intelligence from Russia -- may have arranged in advance with the attackers to take credit."
It's worth noting that in 2008, U.S. officials seemed to firmly believe that -- Dugin's innuendo notwithstanding -- Russia did not intend to bomb the BTC pipeline during the war in Georgia, in spite of the fact that several Russian bombs fell very close to the line. An August 15, 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable from Moscow discussed the question in detail. "Pundits around the world have linked Russia's energy ambitions to its actions in Georgia. However, our contacts here largely believe energy is an afterthought. Despite various press reports suggesting Russia has targeted the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, absolutely none of our contacts believe that to be true." Among the arguments: 1. If Russia wanted to bomb the pipeline, they would have kept trying until they hit it rather than giving up after one attempt and 2. It wasn't in Russia's interest to bomb the pipeline; doing so would have badly alienated Azerbaijan.
According to an August 28, 2008, U.S. diplomatic cable then-U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, on a visit to Baku, asked officials at British Petroleum about the possibility that Russia had bombed the pipeline. "BP has never observed any deliberate actions by the Russians to target the Baku-Supsa or BTC pipelines."
The explosion in Turkey seems to have been less closely examined; a 2009 cable noted that the pipeline "was disrupted during the August crisis by an explosion in Turkey uncorrelated to the Russian invasion of Georgia."
But whatever the arguments against an overt Russian attack, a covert one like this new report describes is a different matter.
But this theory, in turn, raises a number of its own questions. For one, what was the point of the attack? If it was kept secret, there is no intimidation effect. If it was a sort of trial run for future attacks, they seem not to have been repeated in spite of the apparent success of the test.
Relatedly, why carry it out just three days before the war started in Georgia? The question of how that war started remains buried under layers of interpretations and parsing of the word "start," but if you're of the mind that it was Georgia who instigated the war, this is quite a coincidence. If you're of the mind that it was Russia, what purpose did the preview covert action in Turkey serve?
Also: Why would saboteurs dress so conspicuously, rather than as regular Turkish villagers? Was this also a trial run six years ahead of the appearance of the "little green men" in Crimea?
And why is this evidence being revealed now, six years after the fact and in the midst of the worst crisis in U.S.-Russia relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Was it being suppressed before, in an effort not to scotch the reset? Is it now being brought forward as part of the New Cold War? Neither Russian nor Turkish officials would comment to Bloomberg, we'll see if the publication prompts any more information to surface.