German chancellor Angela Merkel’s support of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline is coming to a head following her statement yesterday that the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was “attempted murder.” The proper response here would be to end the project, which doubles the capacity of another pipeline that brings natural gas from Russia to Europe. It seems that in the near term, Merkel’s not going to budge, despite resistance from key figures within her own party.
What’s the problem with Nord Stream 2? For one, it would increase European energy dependence on Moscow. It would also circumvent Ukraine, contributing to the country’s strategic encirclement by Russia. This is why Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States have vocally opposed the project, and it’s why the United States has implemented an aggressive sanctions regime that targets any entities involved in laying the pipeline, which is about 94 percent complete. The U.S. sanctions have over the past several months, however, prevented its completion.
Merkel has consistently defended Nord Stream 2, which is led by Gazprom — a Russian state-owned energy company — and has been promoted by former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who now serves as chair of the project. At best, Merkel and its other supporters, many of whom come from the left-wing SPD, can claim that Russia and the rest of Europe are interdependent, and that Moscow would only harm itself by using the pipeline for its political ends. Prior to Navalny’s poisoning this was an incredibly generous reading of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intentions, and it’s now even more difficult to make that case.
The main question here is how large a role political considerations should play a role in the project. Merkel has said in recent days that Navalny’s poisoning should not be linked to the issue of Nord Stream 2. That argument, though, is inconsistent with what she said during a press conference with former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in 2018:
In our view, the Nord Stream 2 project is not possible without clarity of how Ukraine’s transit role will continue. From this you can already see that this is not just an economic project, but that, of course, political factors must also be taken into account.
Of course, by political factors, she was at the time referring to Ukraine’s fears of encirclement. But was she sincere about that? After all, Merkel does not seem to have truly meant what she said here — in no sense have the country’s concerns been addressed since then. Just a couple of months ago, the Ukrainian government endorsed the U.S.’s Nord Stream 2 sanctions.
Moreover, the poisoning of a dissident with the nerve agent Novichok — which is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention — seems to be precisely the kind of political consideration that needs to be taken into account, especially given the Russian government’s extraterritorial use of the chemical.
For now, though, Merkel seems more concerned about the U.S. government’s extraterritorial sanctions on the pipeline, which she claims are illegal. She deserves credit for speaking out when President Trump has not — but despite Trump’s inexplicable silence, his administration has worked to clean up the mess caused by Merkel’s Nord Stream 2 delusions.