Navalny ripple effect: Pressure builds on Berlin over Russian gas pipeline

Navalny-Kremlin clash moves 15-year Nord Stream 2 drama into end game

Just 150km remain to be built on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But as the project nears Germany’s Baltic coastline, a growing chorus of critics insist that, as in the movies, political sequels are rarely a good idea.

The energy project, bringing natural gas 1,200km under the sea from Russia to Germany, was controversial from its start in 2005. After countless flare-ups since, the high-stakes clash between Alexei Navalny and the Kremlin has moved a 15-year drama into its end game.

Last September, chancellor Angela Merkel condemned “in the strongest terms” the poison attack on Navalny; his imprisonment on Tuesday brought further outrage from her spokesman Steffen Seibert. He condemned the Russian opposition leader’s trial as “a long way from rule of law principles”.

Further European sanctions against Russia were a possibility, Seibert said. In his next breath, however, he took one option for sanctions off the table: Nord Stream 2. “The position of the federal government is well known and nothing has changed here,” he said.

Berlin insists the project is just business, an energy project in the European interest, reflected in a pan-EU consortium of Dutch, French, German and Austrian companies involved. Pressed, German officials concede it has a political component. Pressed further and they concede that any project where the majority shareholder is Gazprom, the majority state-owned Russian energy giant, is no normal deal.

And the more Russia tightens its grip on critics and their supporters, the quicker German politicians face accusations of moral double standards when they call out Moscow.

On Twitter German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer accused Russia of “pure cynicism” in convicting a man who breached his bail terms because he was in a poison-related coma.

Nearly 800 people replied, many along the same lines: “Are you stopping Nord Stream 2?” “Why not complete it, then don’t use it?” “Thank you for the clear words, now bury Nord Stream 2.”

Gerhard Schröder

Last month Merkel made clear she plans to do no such thing: “My basic attitude has not yet changed to the point where I say that the project should not exist,” she said.

The chancellor inherited the original Nord Stream project from her predecessor Gerhard Schröder. He oversaw the signing of the first agreement between Gazprom and two German companies on September 8th, 2005, just 10 days before an election he would lose. The former German leader, a close personal friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin, is an adviser to the Nord Stream project.

The original pipeline began operation in 2011 and agreement for Nord Stream 2 was signed in 2015. Though the consortium includes companies from four other European countries, the fact that it lands on its Baltic coast makes it a uniquely German project.

Since 2005, its neighbours have accused Berlin of pushing ahead with Russia in defiance of common EU energy policy. Poland and Ukraine, in particular, fear Nord Stream allows Russia supply western customers while using its control of gas supplies to play political games with its former Soviet Union satellites.

Berlin insists it has worked to rectify that, in particular a new agreement guaranteeing Russian energy supplies to third countries such as Ukraine via existing overland pipelines.

‘Bad deal for Europe’

But pressure continues to build. This week French European affairs minister Clement Beaune aired “great doubts” about the project and said Paris had already asked Berlin to halt construction work. At joint defence talks planned for Friday, Kramp-Karrenbauer knows to expect an earful on Nord Stream from her French counterpart.

Sanction threats by the former US president Donald Trump, which saw delays creep into the construction project as nervous companies pulled out, have yielded to less vocal but no less firm demands from the new administration in Washington.

The US president Joe Biden has called Nord Stream a “bad deal for Europe” and, on Wednesday, a German government spokesperson confirmed that talks were under way with White House officials on the pipeline

Sensing change is afoot, Merkel admitted last month: “We have to talk about which economic ties with Russia in the area of gas are acceptable and which are not.” The growing questions around Nord Stream are no longer if Berlin will shift, but how soon, and how far?