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Navalny poisoning fuels Nord Stream 2 debate

September 3, 2020

Condemnation of Russia was swift following confirmation that Alexei Navalny had been the victim of a nerve agent attack. But strong words are easier than action, and Germany is debating how tough its reaction should be.

Nord Stream 2 pipeline
Image: Imago/N. Fellechner

Momentum to chastise Russia for what German Chancellor Angela Merkel called an attempt to silence Alexei Navalny had been building since doctors at the Berlin hospital treating the Russian opposition leader detected a toxic substance affecting his nervous system. That condemnation came on Wednesday when German officials said they had "unequivocal" evidence that the substance used to poison Navalny was a Novichok-type nerve agent.

On Twitter and in official statements world leaders have piled on criticism and demands for a full and transparent investigation, even as Russia has denied official involvement and sought to deflect blame.

German army emergency personnel load portable isolation unit into their ambulance
Suspicion of poisoning was rife even before Alexei Navalny was flown to Germany on August 22Image: Getty Images/M. Hitij

From hard talk to hardball

But whether international condemnation will result in concrete action is unclear. Many are looking to Germany, whose Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a prominent example of selective cooperation with Russia despite concerns about the country's approach to human rights both domestically and internationally.

The Nord Stream 2 project, which is more than 90% complete, aims to double Russia's supply of direct natural gas to Germany. Running under the Baltic Sea, the pipeline bypasses Eastern European states, sending gas from Russia's Narva Bay to Lubmin, a coastal town adjacent to Merkel's constituency in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Read more: German port town threatened by US senators

Germany has long defended the pipeline as essential to the country's energy needs, and not in conflict with confronting Russia on security and human rights matters.

"Our opinion is that Nord Stream 2 should be completed," Merkel said at her annual summer press conference last week. "I don't think it is appropriate to link this business-operated project with the Navalny question."

Germany finds evidence of Navalny poisoning: Gyde Jensen (Free Democrats) speaks to DW

Just business

Critics do not view Nord Stream 2 as purely a business affair, instead calling it a major win for Russia's image and standing at the international level. The Navalny poisoning, which draws strong parallels to the 2018 Novichok attack on a former Russian double agent that the United Kingdom has accused the Kremlin of orchestrating, further complicates Germany's efforts to keep politics out of Nord Stream 2.

Read more: Opinion: Will Germany get tough on Russia?

"After the poisoning of Navalny we need a strong European answer, which Putin understands: The EU should jointly decide to stop Nord Stream 2," tweeted Norbert Röttgen, an outspoken Russia critic in Merkel's conservative party.

His voice carries particular weight, as Röttgen chairs the Bundestag's Foreign Affairs Committee and he is currently running for the party's leadership.

Killing Nord Stream 2, which is also a major policy goal of the administration of US President Donald Trump, is no easy task, and carries significant risks.

"It's the harshest consequence possible against Russia," said Sarah Pagung, a specialist on German-Russian relations for the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Angela Merkel surrounded by world leaders
Chancellor Merkel seemed upbeat when Germany and Russia kicked off the Nord Stream 2 project in 2011Image: dapd

Between a rock and a hard place

Gazprom, Russia's largest company, owns the pipeline project and has covered half of the $10.5 billion (€9.5 billion) price tag. Sanctioning or ending the project outright would likely succeed in inflicting the intended harm against Russia's important energy sector, but not without collateral damage. Companies in Germany, Austria, the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France also have a stake in the pipeline and would feel the financial crunch.

"We can't rule it out as an option, but it's unlikely," Pagung told DW, although she said Germany could use the Navalny poisoning as an "opportunity" to shift its position on the pipeline without appearing to be caving to US pressure. 

German-Russian relations cool

The Trump administration wants to sell Germany its own gas, which critics say is more expensive than gas from Russia. Sanctions have bipartisan support in Washington, and the US has already imposed them against companies laying pipe in the Baltic Sea, prompting the Swiss-Dutch company Allseas to pull out of the project in 2019. More sanctions are awaiting the US president's signature.

Germany faces consequences regardless if it stays in or pulls out, putting the country "in an extremely difficult position," Pagung said.

Short of impacting Nord Stream 2, Germany and its allies can turn to other forms of punishment like asset freezes, targeted sanctions and the expulsion of diplomats. These responses have been used to counter past instances of low-grade acts of aggression allegedly carried out by Russia — but to little effect.