GP Insights # 409, 5 September 2020
On 3 September, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the EU, along with NATO, would act against Russia over the poisoning of the Kremlin opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Merkel has called the poisoning as "attempted murder" of Navalny after the lab tests at Berlin's Charite Hospital found that nerve agent Novichok had been used to poison. The EU and NATO later joined Merkel in critiquing Russia and demanded an explanation from Moscow.
In response, Kremlin has not accepted the diagnosis in Germany and Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for President Putin, said that Germany and other EU nations should not "hurry with their assessments."
Apart from Germany and the EU, the other European countries like France and Italy have generally restricted themselves from a strong critique. Similarly, the US President Donald Trump has said the case was "tragic" and the focus should instead be on China which, according to the President was a bigger threat to the world than Russia.
What is the background?
First, Germany-Russia relations reach a pressure point: The condemnation from Merkel could have a lateral impact on Germany's energy cooperation with Russia. The Nord Stream 2 has come under strong critique and seen as an example of selective cooperation by Germany with Russia despite concerns about Moscow's approach in human rights in Ukraine or Georgia or arrests of journalists domestically. The Nord Stream 2 project, which is more than 90 per cent complete, aims to double Russia's supply of direct natural gas to Germany. The German daily Deutsche Welle observed that the Navalny poisoning, which draws strong parallels to the 2018 Novichok attack on a former Russian double agent that the UK has accused the Kremlin of orchestrating, further 'complicates Germany's efforts to keep politics out of Nord Stream 2.'
Second, worsening EU-Russia diplomatic relations but positive energy cooperation: The EU has limited ability to pressurize Russia for accountability and more than sanctions, stopping energy imports from Russia will be one way. "But that's unrealistic because it would be extremely expensive and would demand a large logistical reorganization especially for Western Europe," observed Hans-Henning Schröder at the Frei Universität in Berlin. According to the European Commission, oil and gas exports from Russia to the EU have increased in recent years despite heightened tensions between them over Belarus and the Middle East.
Third, a test for the West to preserve the integrity of the Chemical Weapons Convention: The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) called the alleged attack "a matter of grave concern." However, it stops short of calling for strong accountability from Russia. One thing to remember is the chemicals used to make the nerve agent Novichok (used to poison Nalvany) are far less hazardous than the agent themselves; therefore, it could also circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 of which both Europe and the US are signatories.
What does it mean?
The EU's condemnation of Russia with sanctions will be an inadequate response. With the occupation of parts of Georgia and Ukraine, shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, and the numerous attacks on opposition politicians, Moscow had shown in the past, that it is not interested in communicating with the West.
Over 150 Russian diplomats were expelled from the United States and the European Union, as well as other NATO states and Ukraine, after the 2018 poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. However, the impact of these actions on Russia could hardly be ascertained.
Domestically the poisoning of Navalny has been seen as West's attempt at building conspiracy theories against Russia. With no strong response from the US, France, and Italy, it is only Germany, the EU and the NATO chiefs responding against Russia.