– Janis Kluge works as a scientist in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia research group at the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP).
The poisoning of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny caused a stir in the German government. Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Maas reacted extremely strongly to the matter and asked Moscow for clarification. So far, only defensive and sarcastic reactions have been heard from Moscow. Russian politicians are even speculating about possible poisoning on German soil. Against this background, the call for new sanctions against Russia is growing louder.
The focus is again on the controversial lighthouse project of German-Russian economic relations: Nord Stream 2. What is new is that the German government is increasing this focus on the pipeline itself, instead of concentrating on this issue as before. When Maas says that he “does not hope the Russians will force us to change our position on Nord Stream 2,” it cannot be read as anything other than an ultimatum to Moscow.
The near-completed pipeline in the Baltic Sea would not be a common sanction target. Interests in the field of energy and foreign policy have been in conflict in the project for years. In terms of energy policy, it promises more direct access to Russian natural gas. On foreign policy, the pipeline is straining relations with key European partner countries and with the US. So far, the federal government had prioritized energy and economic policies while seeking to limit land damage from foreign policy, for example in its efforts to partially preserve Ukrainian gas transit.
With each deterioration in relations with Moscow, it has become more difficult to justify these policies. Therefore, the Navalny case also affects the future of the project. But the cost of changing course has also risen with every mile of pipeline constructed.
At the end of 2019, it looked briefly as though Washington’s illegal sanctions against Nord Stream 2 would end construction and rudely rid the federal government of its dilemma. Gazprom has meanwhile created prospects for further construction. Meanwhile, the US Congress remains determined to halt the pipeline with increasingly stringent measures.
If Berlin is now thinking aloud to work towards an end to Nord Stream 2, it is not just about punishing Moscow. It would be a strategic decision to give priority to foreign policy, which obviously requires damage limitation in terms of energy and economic policies.
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Berlin would remove a bottleneck in the transatlantic relationship and could also appear more credible in Russia’s policy within Europe. Russian gas should continue to flow to Germany on a larger scale via Ukraine. The EU companies involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2 would suffer losses, the amount of which would depend on the sanction clauses in their contracts.
The dire political situation makes it very difficult for the federal government to use Nord Stream 2 in the Navalny case as leverage against Russia. It is true that the end of the pipeline would be painful for Moscow, and due to the connection to the pipeline, the Meuse warning has certainly been heard more. Such a threat has its justification as a political instrument.
In the case of Navalny, however, the worst case has already occurred
However, it would be more appropriate to contain an imminent or ongoing escalation. If Russian security forces intervened en masse in Belarus, the pressure could build with the threat of repercussions at Nord Stream 2. However, in the case of Navalny the worst case has already occurred. In order to encourage Russia to cooperate in any way in the aftermath of this case, a more flexible instrument is needed.
For example, there are financial sanctions or the listing of Russian officials, as – unlike Nord Stream 2 sanctions – these can also be reversed. After the end of the pipeline, there would be no reason for Moscow to comply with Brussels’ demands. A moratorium on pipeline construction would also be the end. Because of the US sanctions alone, the EU could not guarantee that construction would continue at a later date. Moreover, it is almost impossible for Russian foreign policy to provide extensive ground for further development in the coming years.
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If sanctions against Moscow are to bring about any kind of cooperation they must also be linked to conditions that the EU can actually hope to implement – even if in the distant future. One of the main demands of the federal government for Moscow is to investigate the background and responsibility for the poisoning of Navalny. In the case of the opposition, however, all the evidence suggests that the Russian state itself is responsible. A real state investigation is therefore almost impossible.
At most, the Russian side would respond with a phased investigation, creating a new dilemma in the decision whether or not to lift the sanctions. It is therefore obvious to link the sanctions to compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. For this, Moscow – regardless of the Navalny case – would have to demonstrate that apparently existing Novitschok assets were destroyed and, if necessary, allow checks. No quick success is to be expected here either. The EU should prepare for the fact that the sanctions currently under discussion against Russia will take a long time.