On 7 September, German doctors treating Alexei Navalny in the Charité hospital in Berlin announced that he had been brought out of an induced coma and taken off mechanical ventilation, emergency treatments he had received in response to his poisoning. Navalny’s condition has improved. He responds to verbal stimuli, but it is too early to assess whether there will be any long-term effects on his health.
The poisoning came as a fresh shock to the West, including in Germany, the country that provided him medical treatment and safety. This shock turned quickly to outrage when the poison was identified as belonging to the notorious Novichok family of Russian chemical warfare nerve agents. Russia thus not only poisoned yet another prominent critic, probably to get rid of him and further intimidate the opposition in Russia and Belarus, but also injected more venom into its relations with the West.
The leaders of Germany, France and the UK, alongside other EU and NATO members, have demanded explanations from Russia and its cooperation in shedding light on the poisoning. But they are likely to see nothing more than the typical dismissive reactions of the Kremlin, as were evident in the Skripal case of 2018.
So, what is the West to do? What about Germany? Will we continue to accept worsening Russian behaviour, or is this the final straw? If the West seriously punishes Russia this time, how will it react?
Germany is probably the best indicator of a possible changing mood in the West vis-à-vis Russia. Prominent German politicians have recently made unprecedented public statements, suggesting that the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 project should be considered. This could signal a change of attitude in Germany which may result, sooner or later, in a change to its Ost Politik. No one, including Russia, should underestimate this political development and its possible consequences.
The German leadership has tried hard for many years to present Nord Stream 2 as a non-political, business project. In poisoning Navalny, Russia has made Nord Stream 2 as political as possible. Germany can no longer publicly ignore such Russian conduct and pretend that the Kremlin remains a reliable partner, including in the Normandy format that tries to negotiate a solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, the situation prompts a major question: is there any point in punishing Russia, once again, in a similar fashion to 2018?
The West practically ignored Russia’s aggression against Georgia in August 2008, and was keen to return to business as usual as quickly as possible. The wake-up call came in March 2014, when Russia occupied and annexed Crimea, and later created a new conflict in the Donbas. It came again, in 2018, with the Skripal case. And now again, in 2020, with the poisoning of Navalny.
It is surely clear by now that Russia must be punished, and real pain inflicted upon the Kremlin. The suspension of Nord Stream 2 (cancellation does not seem realistic) would be a serious political and economic blow to Moscow that could be linked to very clear conditions regarding Russia’s future behaviour and cooperation.
Meanwhile though, Russia seems determined to heighten tensions, especially as the Kremlin becomes increasingly paranoid about and violent towards the mass protests in Russia and Belarus. This is precisely the reason why the West should try to de-escalate the situation, and—paradoxically—there is no better way to do so than by attacking Russia’s fundamental interests, like Nord Stream 2.
Russia has not yet reacted publicly to discussions in Germany about the suspension of Nord Stream 2, but is surely trying to finish the pipeline as speedily as possible to create a fait accompli, while applying more political pressure—putting the so-called Russlandverstehers to maximum use, and trying to discredit critics and opponents of the pipeline project.
What could Russia do if Nord Stream 2 was suspended? It would certainly react more forcefully that it did against Turkey after the downing of a Russian attack aircraft by the Turkish Air Forces in November 2015. The Kremlin would certainly block German exports to Russia, but would at least think twice before attacking German investments in the Russian economy.
The Turkish example—even if it has a totally different basis—shows that at some point Russia’s anger would end. Russia’s behaviour may change if Moscow’s abominable acts are countered properly; but will certainly remain unchanged, or even worsen, if the West does nothing or too little.
Relations between the West and Russia should also be cleaned of poison. The emergency medical procedure is the suspension of Nord Stream 2.