While You Weren't Looking

Could Navalny’s Poisoning Spell the End for Nord Stream 2?

Calls grow for Angela Merkel to halt the controversial Russian gas pipeline.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a statement on Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny's case on Sept. 2 in Berlin, Germany. Navalny has been treated  in Berlin since Aug. 22.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a statement on Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny's case on Sept. 2 in Berlin, Germany. Navalny has been treated in Berlin since Aug. 22. Hayoung Jeon- Pool/Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: The German chancellor is under pressure to scrap a controversial Russian pipeline project after it was revealed that a foe of Russian leader Vladimir Putin was poisoned with Novichok, Venezuela’s embattled president pardons over 100 of his opponents, and energy lobbyists seek to get the United States to pressure Kenya to drop its world-leading stance against plastic waste. 

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 German Leader Faces Calls to Halt Russian Pipeline Project

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing growing calls to end construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline after it was confirmed by German doctors this week that the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, the same military-grade nerve agent used against the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

The Green Party, which is currently second in the polls to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, called on the chancellor to halt construction of the pipeline, led by the Russian energy behemoth Gazprom, from Russia to Germany, which is almost 95 percent complete, as a way to penalize Moscow. “This openly attempted murder through the Kremlin’s mafia-like structures should not just worry us but needs to have real consequences,” said Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the co-chair of the Greens in the Bundestag.

The call was echoed by some members of Merkel’s own party. “The only language that Mr. Putin understands is tough language,” said Norbert Röttgen, a senior figure in the conservative party and head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “We need to respond with the only language that Putin understands, the language of natural gas and selling natural gas,” said Röttgen, who has long been an outspoken opponent of the project.

Navalny was flown to Berlin for treatment last month after suddenly falling critically ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. The German government announced on Wednesday that the Putin foe had been poisoned with Novichok, a potentially lethal nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union. Navalny remains in an artificial coma and is reported to be in a critical but stable condition.

Whodunnit. Analysts initially doubted Russian government involvement in the poisoning, noting that the popular opposition leader’s death was seen as a “nightmare scenario” by the Kremlin over fears that it could spark mass unrest. Speaking at an event the night before he was poisoned, Der Spiegel reported, Navalny said, “If they kill me, it will just create more problems for those in power. Just as was the case with Nemtsov,” referring to the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin in 2015. The involvement of Novichok, a highly controlled substance used in the Russian attempt to murder the defector Sergei Skripal in the U.K. in 2018, has thrown this conclusion into doubt. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect.”

The German response. Merkel has been steadfast in her support for the pipeline and last Friday, after Navalny had already arrived in Berlin, underscored the need to complete it. It’s unclear how she will respond to renewed calls to abandon the pipeline. Merkel has long taken a hard line on Russia and has sought to maintain the European Union’s unity on sanctions on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the same time, Germany is acutely aware of the need to maintain a constructive dialogue with Russia over pressing international issues such as the wars in Ukraine and Syria and the spiraling proxy conflict in Libya.

Pipeline politics. Nord Stream 2 has long been the subject of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Supporters of the project argue that it will increase Europe’s energy security by doubling Russian gas flows to Germany. Critics, including the United States, fear that it will increase Moscow’s energy stranglehold over the continent. Construction of the pipeline was brought to a halt after U.S. sanctions passed by Congress last year forced the Swiss company Allseas to withdraw its pipe-laying vessel from the project, forcing Russia to come up with a new plan. The future of the pipeline was thrown into further question this year as further sanctions have been included in both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, which will be finalized later this year.


What We’re Following

Sudan. Sudan’s transitional government signed a peace deal with an alliance of rebel groups on Monday in the hopes of ending almost two decades of fighting in the country’s Darfur region in which, according to figures from the United Nations, over 300,000 people have been killed and millions displaced. Also party to the accords was a separate rebel group from the southern regions of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, where fighting broke out in 2011.

The agreement has been hailed as a major step forward to ending the regional conflicts and would give rebel groups devolved powers, political representation, and other rights. Experts have noted that two key rebel groups boycotted the talks and could play spoiler to efforts to end the fighting. Abdel Wahid al-Nur, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement, which was not part of the deal, told Voice of America that the accord would fail because it didn’t address the root causes that drive militancy: the perception that wealth and power is not even distributed among the country’s different ethnic and religious groups.

Political pardons in Venezuela. The government of Venezuela announced on Monday that it would pardon over 100 political opponents including dozens of members of the opposition and activists. Several of the lawmakers who were pardoned had been in prison awaiting trial, while others had been forced to leave the country or seek refuge in foreign embassies.

Minister of communications Jorge Rodríguez said that the amnesty was intended to boost “national reconciliation,” but the move has been interpreted as a bid to coax the U.S.-backed opposition to participate in legislative elections scheduled to be held in December. Opposition groups have said they will boycott the vote out of concerns that their participation could lend a veneer of legitimacy to elections they fear may be rigged in favor of President Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist Party. The unity of the boycott was thrown into question this week as prominent opposition figure Henrique Capriles, who is himself barred from running for election, announced on Wednesday that he was breaking with calls for a boycott made by Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader. “We’re not going to leave the people without an option [in the elections],” Capriles said in a webcast.

Big plastic. As the United States and Kenya negotiate what would be the first bilateral trade deal between Washington and a sub-Saharan African country, an industry group representing major oil and chemical companies is lobbying to try to get the United States to pressure Kenya to reverse its world-leading stance against plastic waste, according to documents obtained by Unearthed, a Greenpeace affiliate. In 2017 Kenya banned the production, sale, and use of plastic bags. Last year Kenya was one of nearly 190 countries that signed on to a global deal which sought to restrict the export of plastic waste from wealthy nations to poorer ones.

In a letter to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council wrote that “Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying U.S.-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa through this trade agreement.” (The group told the Associated Press in a statement that “it is well understood that a bilateral trade agreement between the United States and Kenya will not override Kenya’s domestic approach to managing plastic waste or undermine its international commitment.”) As the climate crisis drives countries to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, energy companies have spent over $200 billion over the past decade in the United States in pivoting their business toward the plastics industry instead.


Keep an Eye On

The Solomon Islands. The largest province in the Solomon Islands announced this week that it plans to hold an independence referendum due to rising tensions with the national government over its decision last year to cut ties with Taiwan and establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. Strategically located to the northeast of Australia, the Solomon Islands’ decision to switch allegiances was a blow for Taipei and U.S. diplomacy in the South Pacific. Relations between the Malaita province, which is home to a quarter of the country’s population and has long harbored aspirations for independence, and the government have frayed further during the coronavirus pandemic after a shipment of medical aid from Taiwan destined for the province was seized in the nation’s capital, Honiara. A referendum on independence could be held as early as this month.

Cyberattack in Norway. The Norwegian parliament announced this week that it had suffered what it described as a “significant cyberattack” in which the email accounts of a number of lawmakers and their staffers were compromised. Among those affected were members of the opposition Labor and Center parties. The director of the assembly, Marianne Andreassen, said that risk-reduction measures enacted to halt the attack had an immediate effect. Andreassen did not say who was thought to be behind the attack.


FP Recommends

Facebook announced this week that it had taken down a network of fake accounts and pages tied to the Russian Internet Research Agency, better known as the troll factory. The accounts sought to direct traffic to a Russian-run left-leaning news site, Peace Data. After receiving a tip from the FBI, Facebook took down the network before it had gained a significant following. But in a sign of the growing sophistication of Russian operatives, the accounts successfully managed to recruit a number of U.S. journalists to write for the site. In an article for the Guardian, the freelance writer Jack Delaney explains how he was duped by the operation.


That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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