Nord Stream 2 has a new threat hanging over its completion after Germany told Russia that it will abandon the project if Moscow does not start cooperating over the poison attack on Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Mr Navalny fell ill on a flight in Siberia in late August. He has been an induced coma ever since and was transferred to Germany for treatment. Tests carried out in Berlin showed that he had been poisoned with novichok, the same nerve agent used on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the 2018 Salisbury poisonings.
Germany has launched an investigation into what happened to Mr Navalny but has received little assistance from Russia so far. As a result, the German government have told Moscow that the future of Nord Stream 2 is now in doubt unless they get answers about the poison attack.
Originally, Chancellor Angela Merkel had said that the incident involving Mr Navalny would not impact on the ambitious pipeline project which will bring gas straight from Vyborg in Russia to Lubmin in northern Germany.
The mood has shifted in Berlin in recent days, however. Speaking to the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Mass said: “’I hope the Russians won’t force us to change our position regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”
“If there won’t be any contributions from the Russian side regarding the investigation in the coming days, we will have to consult with our partners.”
Nord Stream 2 has long been mired in controversy with the United States particularly uneasy about the prospect of Germany’s energy demands being met by supplies coming direct from Russia.
Washington has done its best to prevent the completion of the pipeline. The US imposed cease-and-desist orders against the international collection of contractors laying the final stage of Nord Stream 2 under the cover of punishment for alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Those sanctions forced Swiss pipe laying and underwater construction experts Allseas to suspend operations. Italian pipeline contractors Saipem followed suit shortly after.
Despite the setback, Russia thought it had found a way to go it alone. Gazprom’s deputy head Yelena Burmistrova told the European Gas Conference in Vienna on January 28th: “The Nord Stream 2 project, which is already 94 percent complete, will be finished by the Russian side.”
The US are not the only administration to harbour concerns about Nord Stream 2. The European Parliament have opposed the project on security grounds, believing that Russia controlling the flow of so much energy into Europe’s heartland would be dangerous politically.
Any future disagreements between the two nations could see Moscow turn off the taps in order to exert political pressure, as it has done with pipelines passing through Ukraine as a result of issues with Kiev.
In 2009, a dispute over transit fees between Russia and Kiev saw Russia stop gas exports through Ukraine, leaving European residents from Sofia to Milan who were connected in some way to the pipeline feeling the effects.
One of the reasons behind the construction of Nord Stream 2 was to ensure that future disagreements between Moscow and Kiev do not result in supply problems in central Europe by offering an alternative route.
Russia supplied almost 37 percent of the gas market in Europe in 2019. With Nord Steam 2 adding a further 55 billion cubic metres to capacity, Russia will be responsible for 120 billion cubic litres of European gas supply when the new pipeline goes online. It was expected that would happen in early 2021 prior to the latest setback.
Germany has always insisted that Nord Stream 2 was purely a commercial venture and would have no bearings on the country’s relationship with Russia. Mr Mass’ comments to the media suggest a shift away from that position, something that will be welcomed by sceptical politicians from across Europe.
Nils Schmid from Germany’s SDP said: “We need to make it clear that all talk of a strategic partnership with Russia is now over.”
FDP leader Christian Lindner added: “A regime that organises murders by poisoning is no partner for big cooperative projects, and that includes pipeline projects,” and Green Party leader Katrin Goring-Eckardt declared: “Nord Stream 2 is no longer something we, together with Russia, can press ahead with.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has also had his say on the issue of Nord Stream 2: “I don’t think the approach that we ought to have with Russia should be one of naivety, nor do I think it should be nourished by an increase in our dependence on Russia. This has always fuelled my reservations about the Nord Stream 2 project. The chancellor knows it.”
The ball now very much appears to be in Vladimir Putin’s court – cooperate with Berlin on the poison attack on one of his leading opponents, or risk years of work and investment going to waste should Germany decide to abandon its plan to import vast amounts of Russian gas via Nord Stream 2.