Author: Irina KHALTURINA
Both the US and EU voiced their intentions to introduce yet another batch of sanctions against Russia right after the news that the famous Russian blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny could be poisoned. Moreover, it is claimed that he was poisoned with a ‘modified version’ of the infamous nerve agent Novichok. The latter, according to London, two years ago was used in the UK against a former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal. In other words, Moscow is accused of using banned chemical weapons to kill those who disagree with the current Russian authorities.
In fact, the story around Navalny gives rise to many questions, such as ‘why Russia needed to poison Navalny with such a widely popular substance’, or ‘why Russians allowedNavalny to fly to Berlin where the poison was allegedly found in his system’. As the head of Navalny's regional headquarters network Leonid Volkov wrote in his Facebook post, ‘Novichok means Putin, which is cooler than leaving a blood message at the crime scene’. Why would the Russian president Putin, who is accused by many in the West, jeopardize his reputation in such a fancy way? At the same time, there are claims that someone is secretly acting against the Kremlin from within. It is obviously up to the Kremlin to figure this out, and we will hardly learn about it anyway.
On September 3, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell made a statement on behalf of the EU, which calledthe poisoning of an opposition politician an assassination attempt and promised the introduction of sanctions. More than a hundred members of the European parliament addressed a collective letter to Borrell demanding the establishment of a special mechanism for the introduction of sanctions against violators of human rights, especially against those responsible for the assassination attempt on Navalny, as well as an an investigation with the involvement of international organisations including the UN, Council of Europe and the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
EC President Ursula von der Leyen said the perpetrators must be held responsible according to the law. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the use of chemical weapons threatens international peace and security. “The use of banned chemical weapons is fraught with serious consequences,” spokesman for the British Prime Minister said. “How many incidents do we need to finally realize that we are dealing with a hostile regime? The concepts of dialogue, partnership, and compromise are alien to them. It's time for the EU to draw conclusions," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote angrily on Twitter. US President Donald Trump said that his administration has no reason to doubt the conclusions of the German government about the situation with the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader, and added that Washington intends to consider the situation "very seriously”.
But as one would expect, most of the condemnation came from the German politicians. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that "there are many signs" of the involvement of Russia in the poisoning. "The Putin regime is doing the same as those who used chemical weapons against their own civilian population in Syria," German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer went even further in her conclusions. "The EU's response must be stronger than it was in connection with the assassination attempt on Skripal's life," Jurgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democratic Party said.
Nord Stream 2 under fire again
It was clear from the very beginning that the German sanctions against Russia would inevitably affect the most important project in bilateral relations between Moscow and Berlin - Nord Stream 2. Heiko Maas specifically noted that he hopes that Russians will not force Germany change its position on Nord Stream 2. Even his faithful supporter, who had previously said that she did not intend to link Nord Stream with Navalny, - German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also hinted on the change in Germany’s position on the Russian gas pipeline. She promised to “carefully study the actions of the West in response to Russia's position,” although, of course, there is no consensus in the ruling coalition on this issue.
Initially, the export gas pipeline, which is more than 90% complete, was to be commissioned at the end of 2020. However, the launch date had to be postponed to the next year due to US restrictions when the Swiss company Allseas withdrew its pipe-laying vessel. Earlier, many German politicians have called on Merkel to suspend the construction of the pipeline or completely abandon it. Obviously, with the story around Navalny there is a reason for this. Now the voices against Nord Stream 2 sound stronger and more confident. These include the head of the Bundestag committee on international affairs Norbert Röttgen, and the candidate to lead the ruling Christian Democratic Union party of Germany Friedrich Merz, who called for a two-year moratorium on the pipeline, and many others.
Their main argument is that the pipeline will increase energy dependence on Russia. Germany is gradually abandoning the use of nuclear stations and coal mines, and during this period natural gas for Berlin is the main source of energy. Russian imports are now reaching 40%, and these numbers may rise. In addition, it is argued that the pipeline will generate income for Moscow, "which it uses for its aggressive policies." According to Die Welt, "German euros will finance the development of a new nerve poison." The pipeline is also criticized by the US and the Eastern European countries, especially Ukraine and Poland, as they claim that in the future the pipeline will partially reduce the transit of Russian gas through their territory, and that Russia is inclined to use the supply of hydrocarbons as a geopolitical leverage.
For Germany, these are also serious arguments, but the pipeline project promoted by the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is almost complete and more than a hundred companies from 12 European countries are involved in it, with half of them being German. So the abandonment of Nord Stream 2 will inevitably have very serious consequences for the German economy due to the billions in losses of German and European stakeholders. Abandonment of the project will seriously hitthe cooperation between Moscow and Berlin, and not only in the energy sector.
However, there is another important point. Obviously, Merkel feels annoyed thatthe US President Donald Trump rushed to impose sanctions on the project. He justified this move in a Trumpian manner, advising Berlin to spend the billions of euros that it pays to Moscow on defense within NATO. According to a number of experts, Russian gas from Nord Stream 2, even with a recovery in demand, will seriously compete with American LNG and will help reduce gas prices for European consumers. This is unprofitable for the US, which the current head of the White House knows very well as a true businessman. Merkel, who has ambitious plans in the context of expected climate changes, is certainly offended by such interference in her plans, because it actually indicates who sets the rules of the game, definitely not Berlin. Therefore, the Navalny case can help Merkel to save Merkel’s and Germany’s reputation, to say the least.
Is Russia really facing large-scale sanctions? Most likely not. To make this happen the EU will have to act as a united front, which is unlikely. Thus, everything will be limited to punishment through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. It is interesting what Germany’s ultimate actions will be.Perhaps this will, to some extent, predetermine the geopolitical alignment in the Euro-Atlantic in the near future. But in any case, the existing crisis pushes Moscow to nullify any hopes for the restoration of relationships with the West in the near future. For example, the French president E. Macron was supposed to visit Moscow, which is now questionable. Even Serbia, due to pressure from the EU, refused to take part in the military exercises Slavic Brotherhood planned together with Russia and Belarus in the second half of September.
The incident with Navalny takes placeamidst a complex international situation around the globe, including Syria, Libya, Ukraine, protests in Belarus. Recently, tension has been growing between Russia and the US because of dangerous military contacts in Syria, off the coast of Crimea and Alaska. Forbes wrote that Russian spy submarines could damage the underwater Internet cables on which the US and Western countries depend so much. Any situation could be a spark for more tragic events, compared with which sanctions may seem like an innocent move. In a world plagued by the coronavirus and economic crisis, any move towards tension is a bad idea. But the Navalny case seems to be just about that.