Novichok Poisons Germany's Relations with Russia

The conclusion of a specialist German military laboratory that Alexey Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok has shocked Germany’s political class and is forcing the government to re-assess relations with Russia.

Expert comment Published 14 September 2020 Updated 18 September 2020 3 minute READ
A worker at the construction site of a section of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline near Kingisepp, Leningrad Region. Photo by Alexander Demianchuk\TASS via Getty Images.

A worker at the construction site of a section of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline near Kingisepp, Leningrad Region. Photo by Alexander Demianchuk\TASS via Getty Images.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel offered to provide medical care for Navalny in Germany after he fell ill from suspected poisoning in Russia, she could have hardly expected her humanitarian gesture would trigger a crisis in her country’s relations with Russia.

Merkel has used uncharacteristically blunt words to condemn the apparent attempt on Navalny’s life, saying the use of novichok raises serious questions that only the Russian government could answer. She described Navalny as being the ‘victim of a crime’ which was a violation of the ‘basic values and basic rights’ that Germany and its allies were committed to. Her tone and body language certainly showed how strongly she felt about the issue.

Germany’s Social Democrat foreign minister Heiko Maas then followed up by suggesting Russia’s response might force Germany to change its position on the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which aims to double Germany’s direct gas imports from Russia under the Baltic Sea.

This is a dramatic change of position since his party has been a staunch supporter of the controversial project. Two Christian Democrat candidates for the Chancellorship called for a stop to the pipeline together with representatives from the Greens, who could be part of a government coalition after the 2021 federal election.

Claims of hostile provocation

The Russian foreign ministry shot back with a statement condemning Berlin’s ‘unsubstantiated accusations and ultimatums’ and claiming Germany was using Navalny’s hospitalisation to discredit Russia internationally. It demanded Germany share data and test results with the Russian Prosecutor’s Office, saying any failure to comply would be ‘a crude hostile provocation against Russia’ that risked consequences for the bilateral relationship as well as ‘serious complications in the international situation’.

Such strong language from Moscow towards Germany has not been seen for over 30 years, and is all the more remarkable as Putin has personally invested heavily in the relationship with Germany in view of its economic and political importance, and its strong desire for constructive ties with Russia. Until 2014, Russian analysts viewed Germany as Russia’s ‘lobbyist’ in Europe.

Berlin is now trying to downplay the situation, claiming the Navalny poisoning is not actually a Germany-Russia matter and referring it to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. By consulting with its EU and NATO allies, Berlin is further internationalising the issue to reduce impact on the bilateral relationship.

Such a forceful reaction to the poisoning reflects Germany’s increasing frustration with the Kremlin. The murder in broad daylight in Berlin in August 2019 of a Chechen wanted by the Russian authorities has been traced to the FSB. And the publication of a report in May 2020 into the hacking of the German parliament in 2015, including Merkel’s parliamentary office, was a further reminder of how far Russia had deviated from the course of partnership that Berlin believed the two countries had established in the 1990s.

Merkel described the cyberattack as ‘monstrous’, saying it was part of a strategy of hybrid warfare that includes ‘disorientation’ and ‘manipulation of facts’. Further tension has been added since the recent Belarus election as Moscow is supporting Lukashenka’s presidency whereas the EU does not recognise him as the legitimate president.

This accumulation of events is forcing German policymakers to recognise the Russian leadership is a menace to its own citizens, its neighbours and to Germany itself. Although Berlin abandoned several of its illusions about partnership with Russia in 2014 when it led the EU response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine and destabilization of south-eastern Ukraine, it still hoped that the Kremlin would see reason and adjust its policies.

It combined sectoral economic sanctions with continuing dialogue and a joint effort to help settle the conflict in Donbas despite the obvious fact that Russia was a party to the conflict. It still believed that Moscow had an interest in finding a compromise. Instead, experience so far suggests Russia has a greater interest in keeping the conflict ‘semi-frozen’ as a way of forcing Ukraine to compromise.

Controversially, Germany also saw the need to expand energy relations with Russia in a bid to stabilise ties and draw Russia closer to Europe. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline initiated in September 2015 by Gazprom and five European companies – two of them German – is a monument to this policy.

Even though this project lacked an overall economic rationale, the German government supported it – much to the consternation of the Baltic States, Poland and others who objected to what they saw as Berlin’s insistence on a ‘Russia-first’ policy that undercut the interests of Ukraine. This was because the pipeline’s purpose is to re-route gas flows away from Ukraine, depriving it of transit revenues and a lever of influence in its relations with Moscow.

It now appears the German government is finally waking up to the fact that its attempts to encourage better Russian behaviour have failed. Policy looks set to become tougher and a moratorium on Nord Stream 2 now appears a real possibility if Russia fails to investigate the Navalny poisoning and provide adequate answers.

However, sanctioning the new pipeline is likely to provoke counter-measures against German business interests in Russia. If Berlin is determined to pursue this tougher line, it could end up facing an uncomfortable dilemma and being forced to consider alternative ways to signal displeasure at Russia’s criminal actions.