- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2020

The furor sparked by the apparent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny could hand President Trump an unexpected foreign policy win, as Germany weighs whether to pull out of the controversial oil pipeline project with Moscow that Washington has long sought to kill.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week faced escalating calls from her domestic rivals to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — or at least use the threat of a German pullout to press the Kremlin into providing answers about what actually happened to Mr. Navalny.

The prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in an induced coma for nearly two weeks in Germany, where doctors say tests have shown that he was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent called Novichok. The Putin government has denied allegations it ordered Mr. Navalny killed.

The Trump administration, which has condemned the poisoning but been careful not to explicitly blame the Kremlin, is closely watching the developments in Germany, where many are now arguing that the Navalny case warrants a full-blown rethink of Berlin’s relationship with Moscow.

German supporters of the pipeline, which is nearing completion, say it will give the country a reliable and direct source of energy, but critics both in Germany and the U.S. fear Nord Stream 2 will give the Kremlin a powerful source of leverage of the EU’s biggest economy.

Germany’s top-selling Bild newspaper ran a full-throated appeal to the Merkel government on Thursday to cancel all German involvement in Nord Stream 2. Continuing to back the pipeline would be “tantamount to us financing Putin’s next Novichok attack,” the newspaper said an editorial.

The Bild editorial sharply criticized the chancellor, suggesting she’s willfully ignorant of the danger that Mr. Putin “views the gas pipeline as an important strategic weapon against Europe.”

Ms. Merkel’s political rivals spent Thursday pushing a similar narrative. Senior German lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, a notably conservative member of the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union party and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in German parliament, said the Navalny poisoning demands a “strong European answer.”

“We must respond with the only language Putin understands — that is gas sales,” Mr. Roettgen, told a German radio interviewer.

U.S. opposition

The pressure dovetails with U.S. efforts to undermine the German-Russian pipeline — a campaign that began under the former Obama administration but accelerated under Mr. Trump to include the threat of sanctions against German firms involved in the venture.

In one of the strongest official statements to date, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress in mid-July that the administration intends to “do everything we can to make sure that that pipeline doesn’t threaten Europe.”

“We want Europe to have real, secure, stable, safe energy resources that cannot be turned off in the event Russia wants to,” Mr. Pompeo said at the time.

The Navalny poisoning, and the effect Mr. Navalny’s current say in Germany is having on domestic politics, adds a new twist to the situation.

The Kremlin has brushed off allegations that it poisoned Mr. Navalny, but U.S. and European analysts say the case fits a pattern of targeted killings and assassination attempts against figures who challenge Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule.

The otherwise healthy Mr. Navalny fell mysteriously into a coma in mid-August while traveling on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. His supporters have claimed someone slipped him poisoned tea. His family subsequently scrambled to get him transferred out of Russia to Germany, where doctors have determined the coma was likely brought on by a weaponized nerve agent.

German authorities said Wednesday that tests showed “proof without doubt” that Mr. Navalny had been poisoned with a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group. British authorities identified the Soviet-era Novichok as the poison used in the nearly fatal attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted Thursday that Russian authorities still had not received any evidence from Germany to back up the allegation.

“We hope that it will happen soon and will help figure out what caused the condition the patient is in,” Mr. Peskov said, claiming specialists in Russia had tested Mr. Navalny when he was first hospitalized and not found any poisonous substances.

The spokesman also dismissed the calls on Ms. Merkel to abandon Nord Stream 2 as “emotional statements … not based on facts.” He called the pipeline “an international commercial project that is in the interests of Russia, Germany and the entire European continent.”

But Ms. Merkel, who is set to step down next year, has herself been sharply critical of Russia’s handling of the Navalny affair, calling for a full investigation and raising the stakes on a Berlin response.

“There are very serious questions now that only the Russian government can answer, and must answer,” she said.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has faced criticism for not speaking out on the poisoning, although a White House spokesman on Wednesday called the attack “completely reprehensible” and said the administration would “work with allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable, wherever the evidence leads.”

Whether the administration will attempt to tie the developments to its ongoing campaign to convince Germany to abandon Nord Stream 2 remains to be seen.

In addition to the security concerns, the U.S. also wants to sell more of its own liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to Germany, Europe’s economic engine. Last month, three Republican senators threatened sanctions against a German port operator involved in the project, prompting Germany’s foreign minister to bring up the issue with Mr. Pompeo.

Switzerland-based Allseas, which operates ships laying sections of the undersea pipeline, suspended its work in December after Mr. Trump signed legislation threatening sanctions against companies linked to the project.

Nord Stream 2 is opposed by Ukraine and Poland, which will be bypassed by the pipeline under the Baltic Sea, as well as some other European nations.

Politics and business

Ms. Merkel at first rejected the idea of abandoning the pipeline project last week, after doctors in Berlin had first reported that Mr. Navalny had likely been poisoned. At the time, she said she did not “think it is appropriate to link this business-operated project with the Navalny question.”

The chancellor has been consistent, turning aside calls to kill the pipeline amid previous confrontations with Moscow over incidents closer to home, including when evidence surfaced that the chancellor’s parliamentary office had been hacked by Russia and when a Georgian man was assassinated in downtown Berlin in an operations prosecutors alleged was a hit ordered by the Russian state.

Chris Miller, the author of the 2018 book “Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia,” has noted that depth of complexity surrounding the issue for Germany.

“Although some of the pipeline’s backers continue to insist that the pipeline is purely ‘commercial,’ even Merkel has admitted that there are ‘political considerations’ behind the gas project,” Mr. Miller, wrote recently in Foreign Policy.

“Among the ‘political considerations’ that must be considered in assessing the pipeline is the corruption of Germany’s own political elite,” he wrote. “The fact that Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder chairs the board of Nord Stream AG — 51% owned by Russia’s state-owned gas firm, Gazprom — is evidence that something may be rotten in the political system that prides itself on being Europe’s and the world’s moral conscience.”

Berlin’s backing for the pipeline has also triggered outrage among Germany’s influential Green Party, which says it contradicts Ms. Merkel’s claims to care about the environment. Green parliamentary group leader Katrin Goering-Eckardt said the Navalny attack clinched the case against Nord Stream 2.

“The apparent attempted murder by the mafia-like structures of the Kremlin can no longer just give us cause for concern, it must have real consequences,” she said Thursday.

But others argued that it was irresponsible to link Nord Stream 2 with the Navalny case.

Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy leader of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, noted the pipeline is nearing completion and that both Russian and German companies are massively invested.

“I’m skeptical that we should question a project of this magnitude at this stage,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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