Sep 3, 2020 - World

Putin, poison and the pipeline

Merkel in the middle. Photo: Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty

Angela Merkel’s call to action over the nerve agent attack on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been turned around on her: demands that the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas project be scrapped are growing louder.

Why it matters: The pipeline is nearly complete, and it would double Russia’s capacity to export gas directly to Germany.

Driving the news: Merkel was strikingly swift and forceful in condemning the attack on Navalny, who remains in a coma at a Berlin hospital. But she insists the pipeline is a separate issue.

Not everyone agrees. Germany’s biggest daily newspaper, Bild, published an editorial arguing that Merkel’s rhetoric on Russia was meaningless as long as she continued to work “in collusion with Putin” on the pipeline.

  • Norbert Röttgen, chairman of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee and a candidate to replace Merkel next year as CDU party leader, said anything short of canceling Nord Stream 2 “would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics.”
  • The leaders of two opposition parties — the Greens and the FDP — also argued the project should not move forward.
  • The backstory: President Trump has long claimed the pipeline would make Germany "totally reliant" on Russia. The threat of U.S. sanctions has delayed its completion while provoking backlash over U.S. interference in Europe.

Between the lines: Merkel’s support for the pipeline is echoed by some in her party, and many in German industry. Even if she were to change her tune, it’s unclear how she would block it, says Nikos Tsafos of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • “Neither Merkel nor the European Union has a good way of saying, ‘We don’t like this project, so stop it,’” he says.
  • “You can do sanctions, but what are you sanctioning? I’m sure there are people trying to figure out how on Earth you do that, but it’s not clear how.”
  • Even without Nord Stream 2, he notes, Russia will remain Europe's largest source of gas.

The big picture: The Nord Stream issue should not obscure the fact that Germany's political consensus on Russia has shifted, says Constanze Stelzenmüller of Brookings.

  • Merkel is moving much more swiftly on the Navalny issue than she did over Russia’s 2015 hack of the German Bundestag, the 2018 poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K. (also with Novachuk), or the assassination in Berlin last year of a Chechen separatist.
  • “I think all of that is informing the chancellor’s decision to make this very harsh condemnation and to ask the Russian government directly for an explanation, which is without precedent,” Stelzenmüller says.
  • She agrees, though, that the legal grounds for canceling Nord Stream 2 are murky.

What to watch: As Merkel works to rally responses to the Navalny attack from the EU and NATO, fingers will continue to point to the pipeline in her backyard.

  • “Merkel is a lot more eye on the ball, ‘what are you trying to accomplish,’ versus, ‘let’s just hit him,’ which is the approach that you sometimes hear in Washington," Tsafos says.
  • “If you do something to try to stop the project, will Putin pay attention? Yes. Would he pay attention in a way that you want? That I don’t know.”
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