BRUSSELS — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has long defended her decision to go ahead with an $11 billion Russian gas pipeline, sticking to her position that politics and business should remain separate.
But that approach came under intense pressure Thursday, with a Russian dissident in a German hospital, poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent that is held closely by the Russian military. Even some members of her own party insisted that the chancellor should respond by canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
The 764-mile pair of pipelines under the Baltic Sea is being built by a consortium led by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which owns it, and would double the capacity for natural gas to flow directly from Russia to Germany. It has been criticized by many in Europe and the United States for increasing Russian leverage on Germany and helping to line the pockets of the Russian state.
But the pipeline is 94% completed, and Merkel defended the need to finish it as recently as last Friday. At that point, Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was already in Berlin for treatment of a poisoning in Russia, although the use of the nerve agent, Novichok, had not yet been publicly confirmed.
But with the identification of Novichok as the poison, the debate on the pipeline has now been reopened.
For a long time, Merkel has advocated trade and diplomatic engagement with both Russia and China despite their internal repressions and external aggressiveness. Her argument has been that Russia is too close to Europe, and China too economically powerful, to isolate either of them, and that trade provides leverage on them that sanctions do not.
It is getting harder for her to have it both ways. German foreign policy has been notably more assertive to Russia after the country seized Crimea and shot down a Malaysian airliner, and to China after its increasing boldness and repression at home and abroad under its leader, Xi Jinping.
And so Nord Stream 2, originally promoted by her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, is becoming harder to defend, given that its owner, Gazprom, is controlled by the Kremlin of President Vladimir Putin. More Germans are asking how she — and many other European leaders — can portray Russia as a rogue nation in one breath and a legitimate commercial partner in the next?
On Thursday, Norbert Röttgen, a senior member of the chancellor’s conservative party and the head of the foreign affairs committee in Parliament, who has long been critical of Nord Stream 2, called for Germany to respond to the poisoning with tough measures that could include the pipeline and Russia’s sales of natural gas.
“The only language that Putin understands is tough language,” Röttgen said. “We need to respond with the only language that Putin understands, the language of natural gas and selling natural gas.”
To leave Nord Stream 2 out of the question now, he said, “would be the ultimate and maximum confirmation for Vladimir Putin to continue with exactly these kind of policies, because it has been proven once again that there will be no response from Europe.”
The Trump administration and many in Congress have tried to stop the pipeline through the use of secondary sanctions that target companies working to lay the pipeline and would deny them access to the American market and banking system. Merkel and the European Union have decried their use, saying they are illegitimate and should be used against adversaries, not allies.
While Merkel may have been unwilling to bend to U.S. pressure, however, the poisoning of Navalny may “now give her another reason to do so,” noted Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “She could blame it on the Russians, not on the Americans.”
Merkel is not alone in defending the project. Others in her party supported her stance, citing its usefulness for maintaining leverage on Moscow, which needs the income.
“We need to have a joint European response, and we need to have a lever that ensures a robust response, and that has to involve the economy,” said Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for the conservatives in Parliament.
Hardt said he expected Merkel to work with the European Union and NATO to find important collective responses to the poisoning that involve “effective sanctions, but without driving the Russian economy to the brink.” But he did not believe she would cancel Nord Stream 2.
“If there is one thing we can say about the chancellor, it is that she is not one to bow to pressure,” Hardt said.
Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations and a Russia expert, also doubted that Merkel would block Nord Stream 2 at this late date. Other well-known Russian dissidents have been openly murdered on Russian soil — Boris Nemtsov, for example, was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015 — and there was far less clamor for a response, he noted.
And other issues matter more, Gomart said, like Belarus, Ukraine, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and the squabbling in the eastern Mediterranean. “This is a situation where Paris and to some extent Berlin do not want to spoil too many of their strategic resources in dealing with Russia when there are so many hot spots,” he said.
“There is a big media focus on Navalny, and of course it’s important and horrible,” he added, “but we can’t waste our resources on things we can’t do anything about.”
President Emmanuel Macron of France’s own recent efforts to re-engage with Russia, sensing that Washington has created a vacuum of influence, have fallen flat, Gomart said. Now the poisoning of Navalny has made it harder for Macron. A scheduled meeting in Paris of French and Russian foreign and defense ministers in mid-September may not go ahead.
A meeting on Ukraine set for mid-September in Berlin, involving representatives of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, is also up in the air, a German official said.Unlike the 2018 Novichok attack on a Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury, England, the poisoning of Navalny involves Russia using a nerve agent on its own soil for domestic political purposes, said Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.
“Clearly, that offends the sensibilities of European politicians and citizens, as well it should,” Greene said. “It raises a different dilemma for Europe, the question of whether or not they are going to pursue sanctions against Russia for the way it conducts itself internally.”
Ian Bond, director of foreign policy for the Centre for European Reform and a former British diplomat in Moscow, said he expected Merkel would go first to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the poisoning, as Britain did after the Salisbury attack. After that she could raise the issue in the Security Council, the European Union and NATO.
The possible outcomes are targeted sanctions, the expulsion of more Russian agents from Europe and, if possible, international arrest warrants for those responsible, if they can be identified, he said.
But given the possibility that events in Belarus could get much worse, Bond said, the West must keep some sticks in reserve, like blocking Russian access to Western bond markets and increasing restrictions on the issue of Russian debt in the West.Last Friday, Merkel said, “Our opinion is that Nord Stream 2 should be completed.” The project has important economic value, she said, adding, “I do not think it is appropriate to link this economically driven project with the issue of Navalny for now.”
But, as Schwarzer of German Council on Foreign Relations noted, with the identification of Novichok as the toxin, “the debate on Nord Stream 2 has resurfaced and is wide open now.”