Chancellor Angela Merkel has reacted with – by her standards – an outspoken statement to the latest news in the case of Alexei Navalny. Yesterday, medical specialists had concluded that the Russian opposition politician currently under treatment in Berlin’s Charité hospital, had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Merkel strongly condemned this, publicly called upon the Russian government to provide answers, and vowed to discuss next steps domestically as well as with Germany’s allies in Europe and in NATO.
The immediate result today has been renewed debate about the future of controversial pipeline project Nord Stream 2. Critics of the almost-finished project are again calling for its abandonment. Merkel, in contrast, appears to be still committed for now. In the context of its energy transition, Germany remains dependent on affordable gas imports from Russia. Moreover, the private nature of the project would likely raise complex questions around compensation claims if the government were to try and find a way to halt it on the final stretch.
However, the Navalny case follows the recent hacking of the Bundestag’s computer systems, the killing of a Georgian citizen in Berlin’s central Tiergarten park, no progress in Ukraine, and new tensions over Belarus. The renewed and open debate around Nord Stream could therefore be part of Merkel’s strategic calculus vis-à-vis Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a sort of liberal-democratic warning shot. With her decisive statement, the chancellor has piled up (or at least done nothing to diffuse) existing political pressure on her own pragmatically cooperative approach towards Putin. The resulting political conversation serves as a reminder of the Moscow-skeptic potential in German and European debates – and that this might become even stronger if Putin continues to take Germany’s relative support for granted.
Nord Stream 2 might not come to an end any time soon but, not least due to US sanctions; it is also not yet completed. In the meantime, elections are looming in the US and, next year, in Germany. Further US pressure, perhaps from a Democratic White House, might be tougher to brush aside for Germany than the current US administration’s opposition. In Germany, the Russia-skeptic Greens will likely be kingmakers after the Bundestag elections. For the Social Democrats, the entire topic is extremely delicate given the Nord Stream lobbying activities of former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Merkel’s Christian alliance is internally split between commercial interests and Atlanticist instincts. In Berlin’s foreign policy community, calls for “a more robust positioning” vis-à-vis Moscow (and also Beijing) have been growing for a while. Finally, the EU is emphasizing its “strategic autonomy” and speculation might emerge about new sanctions.
In short, Merkel’s perhaps deliberate opening of the domestic debate underlines that Berlin’s support for pragmatic dialogue with Putin is not for free. At home and among Western allies, Merkel will need Putin to provide her with evidence for the benefits of continued (commercial) cooperation. This could mean, for instance, a renewed Russian turn to Merkel as the prime interlocutor on questions such as Ukraine and Belarus. If Moscow fails to demonstrate its continued interest in cooperation (or if Putin feels he is unable to do so for domestic political reasons), the debate about Russia and Nord Stream 2 will only get louder ahead of a crucial twelve months in German (and US) politics.