Navalny poisoning forces Merkel’s party to ask: how to hit back at Putin?

The strength of the German chancellor’s condemnation of Russia was a surprise – and the multi-billion Nord Stream project could now be at risk

Germany is demanding answers from the Kremlin over the confirmed poisoning of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, but is struggling to find methods to extract them that don’t involve a humiliating loss of face.

The assertive manner in which Angela Merkel announced on Wednesday that Navalny, who is lying in an induced coma in a Berlin hospital, had been targeted with a nerve agent from the novichok group raised eyebrows, and not just in the German capital.

Stepping out in front of the press in person, the chancellor described the “attempted murder by poisoning” as “an attack on the fundamental values and basic rights to which we are committed”.

Her foreign and defence ministers reiterated the message on camera: three of the most senior figures in Merkel’s cabinet made themselves personally accountable, knowing the rest of their careers could be judged on whether they will follow up words with actions.

The tone was even more surprising because many felt Germany had soft-pedalled last year after the murder of a Chechen dissident in a park in central Berlin, at the hands of what federal prosecutors believe was an assassin hired by the Russian state: an incident on paper more severe than Navalny’s, who ended up in Berlin for treatment almost by accident, at the request of his friends and relatives.

In the case of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, or the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018, there were suspects whose movements could be traced back to Russia. With Navalny, there were only traces of the rare nerve agent, which western intelligence agencies believe to be a sole prerogative of the Russian state.

Instead, German exasperation over the novichok find is also an expression of a broader disillusionment with its own “special relationship” with Russia. “Germany’s diplomatic approach to Russia has run out of road this week,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who sits on the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag.

“For years, we have misunderstood the game of chess that the Kremlin has been playing with us,” Kiesewetter told the Observer. “And now we cannot pull the sanction strings any tighter without garrotting ourselves.”

In the postwar period, German diplomacy towards Russia has tried – and often struggled – to reconcile a tough stance over security or human rights with a friendly dialogue that pays respect to a joint history of bloody wars and shared cultural memories.

The question of which of these strands to prioritise cuts across traditional party lines, not just between east and west but also north and south, with the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, the CSU, openly in favour of relaxing sanctions against Russia.

“Germany has traditionally pursued a twin-pillar strategy with Russia: on the one hand confrontation, on the other hand strategic selective engagement,” said Fabian Burkhardt, a political scientist at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg.

Angela Merkel accused Vladimir Putin of attacking fundamental values.
Angela Merkel accused Vladimir Putin of attacking fundamental values. Photograph: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstockex

“But the use of a chemical nerve agent against a political opponent has genuinely shaken the second pillar. Merkel’s reaction on Wednesday spoke of a deep-seated frustration that has built up over the years. At the moment it is hard to see where the common basis for a strategic engagement could be.”

Merkel’s own approach during her 15 years in power, while decidedly sceptical towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia, was never openly aggressive. The Nord Stream 2 project, a twin pipeline running from the Narva Bay in Russia to the German town of Lubmin, was carried over from her Social Democrat predecessor Gerhard Schröder in spite of criticism from the US, the European commission and EU member states in eastern Europe and the Baltics.

As recently as Tuesday Merkel insisted that the €9.5bn project, which is 94% finished, was still on course to be completed. Party allies argue that the commitment to phase out nuclear and coal, coupled with the slow build-up of power transmission routes from the windy north to the country’s south, has made the import of Russian natural gas indispensable.

In the wake of the Navalny poisoning, however, a U-turn on the profitable project may be Merkel’s only way to hit Putin “where it hurts”, as the news weekly Der Spiegel wrote. Political voices calling for a moratorium on the project, mainly from the Green party, but also from the pro-business Free Democrats and Merkel’s own CDU, have grown in volume.

The pipeline, which is owned by the Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, “indirectly finances a regime that does not shy away from using banned weapons of mass destruction”, Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ co-leader, said on Friday.

With work on the pipeline on hold after construction companies withdrew under threat of US sanctions, critics say the time to stop the project has never been better: pulling the plug could be presented as a decisive political act rather than being cowed by American threats.

Penalties for breach of contract, estimated by the European Commission in 2017 to be as high as €800m, would pale in comparison with the multibillion-euro pandemic rescue funds.

Some economists also question whether Germany really needs the pipeline to keep its lights on at all. “Demand for natural gas in Germany has always been lower than forecast in the last 10 years and will decline in the future” says Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

Europe, she argues, could maintain its natural gas use almost at the same level even if Russia ended its deliveries completely, by shipping in more liquefied natural gas from the Middle East, west Africa or America.

In Merkel’s chancellory such calculations will be studied with close interest in the coming weeks, even as Berlin publicly calls for a joint European rather than a unilateral German response to the Navalny case.

Vladimir Putin
An untroubled Vladimir Putin opens a concert hall in Moscow on 5 September. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

So far, the EU as a whole has condemned “in the strongest possible terms the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny” but there has been limited pressure within the bloc for sanctions.

Despite the insistence of Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, that such a move has not been ruled out there remains little appetite for it among the larger member states.

“The Baltic states wanted them, of course, but Berlin has not asked for it and the location of the poisoning, on Russian territory, makes it different to the incident in Salisbury,” said one EU diplomat in Brussels.

The incident has, however, thwarted what appeared to be a concerted attempt by the French president Emmanuel Macron to build bridges with the Kremlin. Plans for a visit by Macron to Moscow later this month along with a summit of foreign and defence ministers from the two countries are now in doubt.

A meeting in September 2019 in Moscow had opened a “strategic dialogue” called for by Macron, in a move that surprised European partners. “It was ill advised anyway and this has shown why,” said an EU source.


Philip Oltermann in Berlin Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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