Germany uses Novichok as leverage with Kremlin over gas pipeline

Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel

A growing number of leading politicians in Germany are calling into question the Russian-led Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Health Minister Jens Spahn became the latest senior figure in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party to link the natural-gas conduit’s fate to Russian cooperation with an inquiry into the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Social Democrat Foreign Minister Heiko Maas over the weekend made similar comments, while lawmakers from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union called for the project to be halted or delayed.

While there’s no sign that Merkel is about to pull the plug on the 9.5 billion-euro ($11.2 billion) venture, which is close to completion, the comments amplify just how much relations with President Vladimir Putin have deteriorated. The tensions come at a time when Europeans are debating a more independent, pro-active foreign policy. The German leader has consistently backed the pipeline in the face of opposition by the U.S. and some European Union allies.

It now also depends on Russia how things go forward,” Spahn told Bild newspaper late Sunday. “In the end, there’s no economic policy issue that is more important than our foreign and security interests.”

Pressure on the Gazprom-led project increased after a German military laboratory determined that Navalny was attacked with novichok, a Russian-developed nerve agent. The chancellery in Berlin didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Russian officials have said they’ve seen no proof that he was poisoned and deny any government role in his illness. They hit back by accusing Germany of hindering the investigation. Maas said late Sunday that was a “smokescreen.”

“I fear that we’ll see more of the same tactics in coming days,” Maas said in an interview with ARD television. “It would be a mistake to rule out from the start that what is happening here won’t have any effect” on the Nord Stream 2 project, he added.

Despite the public debate, coalition officials have signaled that there is still little appetite to abandon the pipeline.

“Already raising or publicly invoking individual measures doesn’t help us,” said Rolf Muetzenich, caucus leader of the Social Democrats in the lower house of parliament, in an apparent rebuttal to party colleague Maas. Germany must discuss a joint response with allies, depending on Russia’s contribution, he said.

Merkel issued an uncharacteristically sharp rebuke of the Kremlin over the novichok finding and pledged a coordinated response among NATO and EU members. At a news conference last Thursday, she didn’t repeat her demand made days earlier that the project should be finished.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party chairwoman of Merkel’s CDU, also said any response hinges on “the behaviour of the Russian side,” according to Reuters. She didn’t rule out a response involving Nord Stream.

Candidates to replace her and run for the country’s top job expressed different positions.

Friedrich Merz, who lost a party leadership race to AKK in 2018, has proposed a moratorium on the pipeline construction, while Norbert Roettgen, head of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said it should be stopped entirely.

North Rhine-Westphalia Premier Armin Laschet, who is in Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron later on Monday, has not commented publicly on the issue.

Russia has been linked to two previous poisonings in the U.K., with novichok suspected in the attempted murder in 2018 of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil. At least six people were sickened, one fatally, after coming into contact with the toxic chemical in Salisbury, England.

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.