Russian Activist's Poisoning Creates Problems for Nord Stream 2

Nord Stream 2 route (courtesy Gazprom)

Published Sep 7, 2020 7:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

The suspected poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny may cause problems for Gazprom's Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the nearly-complete subsea line intended to carry Russian gas to Germany. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that they believe Germany's stance on the pipeline may be contingent upon how Russia handles the poisoning incident going forward. 

Navalny is a longtime anticorruption activist and critic of the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian officials have arrested, tried and convicted him on a range of charges over the years; his supporters (and Russian human rights watchdog groups) view the repeated prosecutions as a way for Moscow to silence him and prevent him from running for office. 

On August 20, Navalny fell seriously ill during an airplane flight between Tomsk and Moscow. The pilots returned the plane to the airport and he was taken to a local hospital for treatment; his condition did not improve and he was placed on mechanical ventilation. He was evacuated to Germany for specialized treatment on August 22, and he emerged from a medically-induced coma on September 7. 

The German government announced last week that its military laboratories have found "unequivocal proof" that Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a class of extremely toxic chemical weapons developed by Soviet scientists in the 1970s and 1980s. The Russian government is one of a handful of national entities known to have produced Novichok-class chemicals, and a similar nerve agent was used in 2018 to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who defected to the UK. 

Despite her objections to Russia's foreign policy in Crimea and Ukraine, Chancellor Merkel is a longtime supporter of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, even though the proceeds from the project will go to support the Kremlin. Germany's Green Party opposes Nord Stream 2, and with the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, members of Merkel's own party are also questioning whether the pipeline should move forward.

“The only language that Mr. Putin understands is tough language,” said Norbert Röttgen, the head of the German Parliament's foreign affairs committee, speaking to the New York Times last week. “We need to respond with the only language that Putin understands, the language of natural gas and selling natural gas.’’

On Monday, a spokesman for Merkel told a press conference that the chancellor believes it would be "wrong to rule anything out" regarding the possibility of sanctioning Nord Stream 2 in response to the poisoning.