Suspected Navalny poisoning opens German debate over gas pipeline

German foreign minister's comments on Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline suggest divisions in Berlin over project.

by
    Pressure on the Gazprom-led Nord Stream 2 project increased after the German military said last week that Russian rights activist Alexey Navalny was attacked with novichok, a Russian-developed nerve agent. Navalny is receiving treatment in Germany [File: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg]
    Pressure on the Gazprom-led Nord Stream 2 project increased after the German military said last week that Russian rights activist Alexey Navalny was attacked with novichok, a Russian-developed nerve agent. Navalny is receiving treatment in Germany [File: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg]

    Germany's support for the Russian-led Nord Stream 2 pipeline is developing a few cracks.

    Foreign Minister Heiko Maas over the weekend became the first member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet to link the natural-gas conduit's fate to Russian cooperation with an inquiry into the poisoning of dissident Alexey Navalny. A lawmaker from Merkel's party suggested suspending the project.

    While there's no sign that Merkel is about to pull the plug, the comments amplify the latest flare-up of exasperation about President Vladimir Putin in Berlin and suggest an emerging debate in Merkel's governing coalition. The German leader has consistently backed the pipeline in the face of opposition by the U.S. and some European Union allies.

    "I certainly hope that the Russians don't force us to change our stance," Maas told the Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag. If Russia doesn't start helping clear up what happened to Navalny "in the next few days," Germany will "have to consult with our partners about a response," he said.

    Pressure on the Gazprom-led project increased after the German military said last week that Navalny was attacked with novichok, a Russian-developed nerve agent. The chancellery in Berlin didn't respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

    Coalition officials have signaled that there is still little appetite to abandon the pipeline.

    "Already raising or publicly invoking individual measures doesn't help us," said Rolf Muetzenich, caucus leader of the Social Democrats in the German parliament, in an apparent rebuttal to Maas, a fellow Social Democrat. Germany must discuss a joint response with allies, depending on Russia's contribution, he said.

    Merkel issued an uncharacteristically sharp rebuke over the novichok finding and pledged a coordinated response among NATO and EU members. At a news conference on Thursday, she didn't repeat her demand made days earlier that the project should be finished.

    German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party chairwoman of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, also said any response hinges on "the behavior of the Russian side," according to Reuters. She didn't rule out a response involving Nord Stream.

    Roderich Kiesewetter, a senior CDU lawmaker on the lower house's foreign affairs committee, said on Twitter that short of scrapping the project, Germany could impose a moratorium on completing the pipeline, or back the completion but halt gas transit.

    Norbert Roettgen, a CDU member who chairs the committee and is running for the CDU chairmanship, said last week that Germany should drop its support.

    Global Pressure

    U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC on Sunday that Russia has a "case to answer" over the alleged poisoning given its "track record." While it's too early to attribute blame, "it's very difficult to come up with a plausible alternative explanation" other than Russia's involvement, he said.

    Russia has been linked to two previous poisonings in the U.K., with novichok suspected in the attempted murder in 2018 of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil.

    SOURCE: Bloomberg