A road sign directs traffic towards the Nord Stream 2 gas line landfall facility entrance in Lubmin, north eastern Germany, on September 7, 2020. Photo Credit: Getty Images//Odd Andersen
The poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has given the governments of Europe another chance to prove that they oppose Russia’s untrammeled aggression. This time, however, they must change their strategy. Instead of issuing more condemnations and partial sanctions that hardly deter Russia from its aggressive actions as the European Union and NATO are poised to do now, more effective measures must be put in place. To show Russia that they are serious in their opposition, European states must hit Russia where it will hurt the most—their energy sector. By disengaging with Russia’s energy sector, European states will signal the seriousness of Russian behavior and the strength of European resolve. In particular, Germany must lead this initiative by moving to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. No posturing against Russia can be effective while Europe simultaneously imports large quantities of Russian natural gas, thus propping up Putin’s regime.
On August 20, Alexei Navalny was likely poisoned by operatives of the Russian government with Novichok, an advanced chemical weapon that was developed by the Soviet Union and should be safeguarded in Russian government facilities today. This series of events should sound familiar to those familiar with Russia’s recent past; the same nerve agent was used two years ago to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. In response to the (thankfully) failed assassination attempt, 50 Russian diplomats were expelled from the United Kingdom, Germany, and 18 other European countries. Unfortunately, expelling diplomats does not seem to deter the Russian government from poisoning its enemies. Will we see a similar response this time around, or will Europe aim to try something more effective?
At the multilateral level, the prospects for an effective response do not seem good. In her address to the European Parliament on September 16, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen opposed closer ties with Russia in light of the poisoning and will push forward with a European version of the Magnitsky Act, an American law named after a Russian anti-corruption activist who died under mysterious circumstances which strengthens sanctions on human rights abusers. While certainly a move in the right direction, it is not clear that this would be any different from what has been tried in the past or that it would work better this time. If EU sanctions were to be imposed, it would most likely come in the form of blacklists containing visa-bans and asset-freezes, something that is unlikely to hurt members of the Russian political hierarchy that are already blacklisted. Further, these sanctions may only serve to strengthen Putin’s regime by driving oligarchs caught in the crossfire closer to him. Because Russia is such a personalistic regime, only sanctions specifically affecting Putin himself may have any hope of changing the state’s behavior. Unfortunately, NATO is also unlikely to implement meaningful measures against Russia. After a special meeting on September 4, NATO unanimously condemned the attack and called on Russia to cooperate with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in their impartial third-party investigation. It does not seem that anyone is holding their breath for that to happen.
With international institutions using the old tactics of condemnations and possibly sanctions, it seems that a strong response must originate from the state level. In particular, it seems that Germany might have the strongest hand to play because of its position along the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This project would double the amount of Russian natural gas pumped into Germany by funneling it through the Baltic Sea and making landfall on Germany’s northern coastline. Opposition to the pipeline is not new and the United States has already imposed sanctions on companies working for the project, forcing the Swiss company Allseas to pull out of the program. With the newfound controversy surrounding Navalny’s poisoning, more voices are challenging the pipeline once again.
Christian Democrat Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, has called for a reconsideration of Nord Stream 2, which counts Russia’s Gazprom as the sole shareholder. Responding to this pressure from within her own party, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government have not ruled out this possibility. By pulling support for the project Germany would indicate its seriousness in opposing Russia’s flagrant human rights abuses by forgoing the economic benefits that turning a blind eye would yield. This decision should not be taken lightly, of course, since European companies have already invested about $5.9 billion into the project and a reversal would thus be very costly. Additionally, because natural gas is the “second pillar” of Germany’s transformational energy plan, the pivot away from Russian natural gas would require Germany to reorient its energy policy somewhere else. Yet if Nord Stream 2 goes ahead, Germany would forego any truly effective posture against Russia’s aggression in the future and render it vulnerable to Russian influence. Choosing between these options, Germany should muster the courage to stand against the Russian regime and stop the pipeline.
Russia is currently the EU’s largest single natural gas supplier, accounting for 38% of its imports. Germany is more acutely dependent on Russian energy as more than half of their natural gas imports come from Russia. This reliance is certainly not a new problem and an attempt to counter Russia by reducing this figure has been tried before. After Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, the EU vowed to reduce imports of Russian natural gas. Unfortunately, the opposite happened as imports from Russia increased until as recently as 2018. Now, with Nord Stream 2 currently in question over the poisoning of Navalny, European states may start to fulfill the pledge they made in 2014. If completed next year as scheduled, the pipeline alone could account for about one third of the EU’s future gas requirements. Therefore, stopping the pipeline would effectively signal the intentions of European states and thus credibly convey to President Putin that they are serious in opposing his aggression.
Germany has several options to stop the pipeline. Unilaterally, it could revoke existing pipeline permits, issue a national restriction on the importation of Russian gas, deny a final compliance permit, allow the United States to continue with its sanctions against those working on the pipeline, or sit aside and allow environmental NGOs to challenge the permits on grounds of climate change. Multilaterally, Germany could push for EU-level sanctions.
Neither of these option sets appear viable. Unilateral action by Germany is unlikely, as Chancellor Merkel recently down-played a unilateral cancellation of the pipeline and advanced her desire for a European response to the poisoning. Multilateral action also poses significant obstacles to cooperation—Germany is not the only European state dependent on Russian natural gas—as a high degree of coordination is necessary among all EU member states to implement effective policy. EU-level sanctions require unanimity on the European Council and Austria has already voiced opposition to such a proposal. Austria’s President and Chancellor have already said that Navalny’s poisoning does not provide a sufficient reason to halt the construction of Nord Stream 2. Unfortunately, as in past recent crises, Russia appears positioned to avoid effective punishment because of the European Union’s disunity and internal voting rules.
But European states do not have to let Russia off the hook yet again. Germany should lead the way and make the case for stopping Nord Stream 2 despite European disunity. Since the pipeline makes landfall in its territory, it would only make sense that Germany makes the argument for its cancellation. As Chancellor Merkel’s term ends in the fall of 2021, there is no better time for her to add one last legacy to her tenure—a decoupling of the European and Russian energy sectors. With her former protégé and defense minister at the head of the European Commission, the Chancellor is positioned to lead the discussion at the EU-level and bring reluctant members on board. Austria, and any other EU member that still desires the pipeline, must be convinced that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. They cannot even begin to contain Russian aggression while they still willingly provide a critical lifeline to the regime. If European states want Russia to take them seriously, Europe must do something that gets their attention.
 Ursula von der Leyen, “State of the Union Address” (speech, Brussels, September 16, 2020), European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/speech_20_1655.
 Alex Horton, “The Magnitsky Act, explained,” July 14, 2017, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/07/14/the-magnitsky-act-explained/
 “Moscow Defiant As NATO Demands Cooperation Over Navalny Poisoning,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, September 4, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/nato-meets-to-discuss-navalny-poisoning-as-eu-considers-response-to-russia/30820132.html.
 Henry Foy and Derek Browser, “EU gas groups exposed as pipeline politics threaten Nord Stream 2,” Financial Times, September 14, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/2c713b40-ae7f-47a7-b050-e91ca0879c8f.
 “Merkel Doesn’t Rule out Nord Stream Fallout over Navalny,” EURACTIV.com, September 8, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/merkel-doesnt-rule-out-nord-stream-fallout-over-navalny/.
 Benjamin Wehrmann, “Gas to become energy transition’s ‘second pillar’ – German energy industry,” Clean Energy Wire, December 19, 2019, https://www.cleanenergywire.org/news/gas-become-energy-transitions-second-pillar-german-energy-industry.
 Hanna Ziady, “Why Europe Still Can’t Take Risks with Its Supply of Russian Gas,” Cable News Network, September 10, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/10/business/nord-stream-2-navalny/index.html.
 America Hernandez, “6 Ways Germany Could Kill the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline,” Politico, September 12, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/6-ways-germany-could-kill-the-nord-stream-2-pipeline/.
 “Merkel Dampens Talk of Halting Nord Stream 2 – Party Sources,” Reuters, September 15, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/russia-politics-navalny-nordstream/merkel-dampens-talk-of-halting-nord-stream-2-party-sources-idUSKBN25Z29Z.
 “Austria Rejects Halting Nord Stream 2 Pipeline Over Navalny Poisoning,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, September 15, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/austria-rejects-halting-nord-stream-2-pipeline-over-navalny-poisoning/30840592.html.