Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure from within her own party to drop support for a controversial gas pipeline with Russia after links point to the Kremlin in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Norbert Roettgen, head of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a candidate to head Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline needs to be stopped because completing it would reward rather than punish Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“After the poisoning of Nawalny we need a strong European answer, which Putin understands: The EU should jointly decide to stop Nord Stream 2,” he said Thursday on Twitter. “Diplomatic rituals are no longer enough.”
In an editorial, Bild — Germany’s largest daily newspaper — called on Merkel to “stop the Putin pipeline,” saying failure to act would mean financing the next to Kremlin attack.
Merkel said tests showed “unequivocally” that Navalny was poisoned by a military-grade Novichok nerve agent and called on the Russian government to provide answers. The substance was used in the March 2018 attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil, prompting a concerted expulsion of 150 Russian diplomats.
Merkel plans to consult European Union and NATO allies to formulate a response in the coming days, but didn’t make a proposal.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there’s “no basis” to accuse the Russian state in the case, adding that Moscow is still waiting for an explanation from Berlin on its conclusion that Navalny was poisoned. He said there’s no reason for new sanctions and dismissed calls to stop Nord Stream 2 as “emotional statements not based on concrete facts.”
Alexander Dobrindt, the deputy caucus leader and a member of the Bavarian branch of Merkel’s bloc, demanded new EU sanctions against Russia. There will have to be a “common European response to this deed,” the lawmaker said at a press briefing Wednesday, as well as “uncomfortable and serious” discussions between the Russian and German governments.
Before a special German armed forces laboratory confirmed Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok, the chancellor decoupled the status of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from the attack on the Putin critic. The project is a joint Russian-European economic venture and linking it to the Navalny case “isn’t appropriate,” she said on Friday.
The Nord Stream 2 consortium is led by Russia’s Gazprom PJSC. The group, which includes BASF SE’s Wintershall DEA unit and Austria’s OMV AG, plans to invest a total of 9.5 billion euros ($11.2 billion) in the 764-mile pipeline, which is close to completion. The link would double the volume of gas Russia can send via the Baltic Sea to Europe, helping Germany secure a relatively low-cost supply of the fuel amid falling European production volumes.
But even before the Navalny poisoning escalated tensions with Russia, the project was in limbo amid renewed efforts by U.S. senators to torpedo its completion.
“Some projects could be blocked,” said Andrey Kortunov, director of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. “It’s not likely because of the amount of money invested, but Merkel could stop supporting Nord Stream 2.”
The pipeline operator said it’s looking for solutions to lay the remaining 6% of the pipe, a spokesperson said, declining to comment on political debates. Uniper, a German utility that’s a backer of the project, said Thursday it’s “convinced that, despite the current interruption, the project will end up being concluded.”
Ralph Brinkhaus, head of the parliamentary caucus for Merkel’s bloc, raised doubts about whether it will now be possible to proceed with Nord Stream 2.
“We will have to see in the next few days what kind of responses we get and what discussions will take place,” he said. “But this is indeed a very serious case,” Brinkhaus said Wednesday.
After realizing his statement ran counter to Merkel’s position on Nord Stream, he rowed back, saying: “I didn’t construct a direct link between the Navalny case and Nord Stream, but just meant general German-Russian relations and what consequences this might have.”
Alongside the debate over political reaction, Germany is worried about its long-term energy supplies. Economy Minister Peter Altmaier questioned how the country would fuel its economy without tapping Russian gas, especially as Germany exits coal and nuclear power.
“What alternatives are there if we want less or no more Russian gas,” Altmaier said on Thursday, without directly referring to the Navalny case.
The German Eastern Business Association, an industry group that supports trade with Russia, backed the government’s call to action and demanded that Russia clarify the Navalny affair immediately. But it warned against any action against Nord Stream or further economic sanctions.
“The chancellor rejected tying the Navalny case with any sanctions against Nord Stream 2 for good reason,” Andreas Metz, the group’s spokesman, said in a statement. Broader sanctions would hurt “completely uninvolved companies and the Russian people.”