German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: REUTERS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: REUTERS

Berlin — German Chancellor Angela Merkel is waiting for Russia’s response to the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny before deciding how to react, as she faces pressure to drop support for a controversial gas pipeline.

“Much will depend on whatever reaction we have from the Russian side,” Merkel said in Berlin on Thursday. “I acknowledge what has been said, but I want to say that yesterday I made clear what we’re doing now and in the coming days,” she said, without repeating her position that the Nord Stream pipeline and the Navalny case should be handled separately.

Norbert Röttgen, 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 Navalny we need a strong European answer, which Putin understands: the EU should jointly decide to stop Nord Stream 2,” he said on Twitter. “Diplomatic rituals are no longer enough.”

In an editorial, Bild — Germany’s biggest-selling daily newspaper — called on Merkel to “stop the Putin pipeline”, saying failure to act would mean financing the next Kremlin attack.

Merkel said on Wednesday that 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 an expulsion of 150 Russian diplomats.

German economy minister Peter Altmaier questioned how the country would fuel its economy without tapping Russian gas, especially as Germany exits coal and nuclear power

Merkel plans to consult with EU and Nato allies in the coming days to formulate a response.

Russian officials rejected the German allegations, asserting that doctors had found no evidence that Navalny was poisoned before he left for Germany. “In the Kremlin and at the level of our medics and specialists, we have been explaining this situation from the start,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. “One would have to be deaf not to hear it.”

He said there’s “no basis” to accuse the Russian state, 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”.

The situation with Navalny “is a planned action against Russia”, Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, said in a statement Thursday. “We can’t exclude that this was a provocation organised on German territory.”

The Nord Stream 2 consortium is led by Russia’s Gazprom. The group, which includes BASF’s Wintershall Dea unit and Austria’s OMV, plans to invest a total of €9.5bn in the 1,239km 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.

Germany is worried about its long-term energy supplies and has repeatedly sought to depoliticise the pipeline by calling it an economic project. That was Merkel’s line on Friday before a special German armed forces laboratory confirmed Navalny’s poisoning. The project is a joint Russian-European business venture and linking it to the Navalny case “isn’t appropriate”, she said.

That resolve could waver as political allies demand retaliation. 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 on Wednesday, as well as “uncomfortable and serious” discussions between the Russian and German governments.

US pressure

Even before the Navalny poisoning escalated tensions with Russia, the project was in limbo amid renewed efforts by US senators to torpedo its completion.

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 on Thursday it’s “convinced that, despite the current interruption, the project will end up being concluded”.

“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.”

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. But this is, indeed, a very serious case.”

After realising 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.”

German 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,” he 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 spokesperson, said in a statement. Broader sanctions would hurt “completely uninvolved companies and the Russian people”.

Bloomberg

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.