Friday

25th Sep 2020

Russia pipeline too precious to sanction, Germany says

  • Pipe-laying on the Russia-owned project is almost complete (Photo: nord-stream2.com)

Stopping a Russia pipeline for moral reasons would cost industry too much, Germany's foreign minister has warned.

And symbolic travel bans on Russian officials now look like the EU's most probable response to the Kremlin's second use of a chemical weapon in Europe in as many years.

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"If, in the coming days, Russia does not help clarify what happened, we will be compelled to discuss a response with our allies," German foreign minister Heiko Maas said in the Bild tabloid on Sunday (6 September), referring to the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Germany has led EU diplomacy on the case after taking in Navalny from Russia for medical treatment and saying he was poisoned with novichok, a chemical weapon.

And despite Kremlin denials, there were "several indications" the Russian state was behind it, Maas added.

"The deadly substance with which Navalny was poisoned has, in the past, been found in the hands of Russian authorities," he said.

"The use of such a weapon is horrific," Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg also said on Friday.

Some senior German MPs, such as Norbert Röttgen and Friedrich Merz, had urged the government to stop building a new gas pipeline to Russia, called Nord Stream 2, in reaction.

But as other capitals looked to Berlin, which also holds the EU presidency, for direction, Maas indicated the price for the attempted assassination should not be so high.

"I hope the Russians won't force us to change our position regarding Nord Stream 2. Whoever demands this has to be aware of the consequences. The Nord Stream 2 project includes more than 100 companies from 12 European countries, with around half of them from Germany", he told Bild.

And the premier of the German region of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, for one, echoed his thinking.

"Nord Stream 2 must be completed. We depend on each other, we need this cooperation," Kretschmer also said on Sunday.

The €10bn pipeline in the Baltic Sea is almost complete, even though a threat of US sanctions on the European firms taking part has led to a pause in final pipe-laying.

Russians unfazed

And the Russian consortium that owned it seemed unfazed by its potential link to Navalny's fate.

"As developer of a commercial investment, Nord Stream 2 cannot engage in debates about political developments," it told EUobserver on Sunday.

"Five out of the six leading energy companies that are financing Nord Stream 2 come from EU countries", it noted, however.

And "project implementation is based on construction permits from authorities in four EU countries and Russia in compliance with legal requirements from national legislation, EU law, and international conventions", it said.

For its part, the EU foreign service is currently considering which sanctions options to suggest on Navalny.

The last time Russia was accused of trying to murder someone using novichok, in the UK in 2018, EU states expelled dozens of Russian diplomats.

But that was an attack deep in Western territory and EU sources indicated the reaction to the Navalny poisoning inside Russia would be less spectacular.

The wording of recent EU statements "gives a small indication that one could look to the horizontal sanctions regime related to chemical non-proliferation" as a more likely option, one EU source told this website.

The EU chemical weapons sanctions envisage visa bans and asset freezes on targeted individuals guilty of abuse, such as the sanctions recently imposed on four Russian spies who tried to hack the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international institution in The Hague, also in 2018.

Virtue signalling

"Germany will try to show how virtuous it is by discussing Nord Stream 2, but, in the end, they will say it's too late to stop the pipeline," a second EU source predicted.

"And so we [the EU] will probably impose these visa bans on a handful of GRU officers, who don't holiday or have money in the EU anyway," he said, referring to Russia's military intelligence service.

Meanwhile, the Navalny affair is playing out amid a popular uprising in Belarus, where Russia has offered to intervene using force, and amid Russia's ongoing warfare in east Ukraine.

And for some, the EU talk on Navalny risked diverting attention from more pressing affairs.

"We should be discussing how to help the Belarusian people ... but instead we risk handing Belarus to the Russians while making a big noise about Navalny, just like we have, effectively, handed them Ukraine," the EU source said.

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