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Did The Russian Poison Meant For Alexei Navalny Kill Nord Stream 2 Instead?

Russian opposition political leader Alexei Navalny emerged from his medically induced coma this week. Three weeks after having been poisoned on a flight within Russia and later sent to a German hospital, Navalny reacted to external stimuli and was being weaned from a respirator. However, doctors caution that it is still too early to tell whether Navalny will suffer any long term effects of his poisoning from Novichok, a lethal chemical weapon first developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Navalny is the latest in a long line of people opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin who have either been killed or severely injured by poison. In Navalny’s case, however, the death that may ironically result from the attack is not the target himself but, rather, the Russian natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, which is 90% complete and would transport Russian natural gas in the Baltic Sea directly from Russia to Germany. 

Completion of this pipeline would simultaneously increase the efficiency of Russian gas shipments to Germany, increase German dependence on Russia for its fuel supply, and cut out large transshipment payments that currently go to Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states who presently allow natural gas shipments over land-based pipelines that traverse those countries. Loss of the pipeline would change all of these outcomes.

Ever since Donald Trump publicly excoriated German Chancellor Angela Markel over Nord Stream 2 at the NATO summit in July 2018, 

the United States has been pressuring Germany to scrap the deal. That pressure increased at the beginning of 2020 when Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen introduced bipartisan legislation to impose sanctions on companies working on the pipeline. The pressure ratcheted up even more this summer when the United States threatened further sanctions on the German company operating the port after the pipeline becomes operational. 

While not covered much in the American press, Nord Stream 2 has become a significant political issue in Germany. Merkel has been placed on the defensive both environmentally and politically. Seeing bipartisan American opposition hit Germany hard, and reeling from President Trump's announcement that he is withdrawing American troops from Germany, Germany now sees its position in much of Europe threatened further, with little European Union or NATO support for the pipeline other than from the Czech Republic, which also will benefit economically from Nord Stream 2.

Continuing with "business as usual" with Russia in the face of yet another poisoning would appear to prove Donald Trump's point that Germany is sacrificing its political independence at the altar of Russian energy. Originally, Merkel said that the poisoning would not interfere with the pipeline project. However, that changed following definitive statements from German doctors that Navalny had indeed been poisoned, and from German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas that the pipeline itself would be in danger if Russia did not provide satisfactory answers about the Navalny poisoning. Seeing her political position deteriorating, Merkel did an about face. On Monday, she announced through a spokesperson that while it is “too early” to make a decision on Russian sanctions, Merkel’s position about the possible termination of the Nord Stream 2 project was “in line” with her foreign minister’s’ prior comments. 

Regardless of what happens now, the Nord Stream 2 situation is evidence that the politics of energy cut many ways. Vladimir Putin thought that he could improve Russia's economic position by increasing Russia's energy exports while simultaneously increasing Russia's diplomatic leverage by tying Germany and much of Europe more closely to Russia for their energy needs. The exact opposite may have happened. Instead of Europe being constricted in its reactions to Russian moves, it is Putin who may now be constricted in his actions, if he or his agents had any involvement in the poisoning or cannot adequately offer another explanation, which is very plausible. 

For the first time, Putin's seeming penchant for handling dissidents and enemies by poisoning them (including even foreign political rivals like Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko, who was himself poisoned by dioxin in 2004) is being limited. While nobody in the Russian government may expect to face criminal prosecution as long as Vladimir Putin continues to rule with an iron fist, Russia's outrageous actions are still costing Putin dearly, both economically and politically. Already seeing his popularity slipping over the stalled economy and the coronavirus, losing Nord Stream 2 would be an immense blow to Putin’s control and, frankly, ego. Instead of ridding himself of a troublesome political opposition leader, Putin may have further isolated himself, and hastened the day when his power over Russia no longer will verge on the absolute.

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