Berlin has stepped up pressure on Moscow to investigate the poisoning of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, indicating for the first time that the affair could imperil a pipeline project to carry gas from Russia to Germany.
Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, said he hoped Russia would not force Berlin to “change our stance” by failing to co-operate with the investigation into Mr Navalny’s poisoning.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has previously said the two issues should be “decoupled”.
If Moscow did not begin assisting with the inquiries “in the next few days”, Berlin would start talks with other countries on how to respond, Mr Maas told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “When we think about sanctions, they should work as precisely as possible,” he said.
The Kremlin has denied any responsibility for the attack on Mr Navalny, a prominent critic of Mr Putin, who fell ill on a flight between Siberia and Moscow late last month and remains in intensive care after being evacuated to Berlin’s Charité hospital. Mr Navalny’s supporters claimed that poison was put in his tea at Tomsk airport. Germany said he was poisoned with the novichok nerve agent.
Mr Maas’s remarks are the first time a minister in Ms Merkel’s government has accepted that the attack could carry consequences for Nord Stream 2, which has become a lightning rod for criticism of the Kremlin.
Politicians from opposition parties and Ms Merkel’s CDU and its sister party the CSU have called for the pipeline project to be ditched following the poisoning.
“I have always said that Nord Stream 2 is not a project close to my heart,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defence minister, told Reuters on Sunday. “It was always clear to me that the legitimate security interests of the central eastern European states and Ukraine had to be taken into account.”
There have also been fresh calls for former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder to step down from his positions at Russian state-owned energy companies — including his role as chairman of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream 2 — in response to the Navalny poisoning.
Johann Wadephul, deputy leader of the CDU group in parliament, told the Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper that Mr Schröder, who is also chairman of Russia’s state-owned oil group Rosneft, should “immediately give up his offices and posts in Russia”.
An opinion poll for the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper found 53.4 per cent of people were in favour of Mr Schröder giving up his roles at Russian state-owned companies, while 33 per cent had no problem with his positions.
Mr Schröder told a German parliamentary hearing in July that €12bn would have to be written off if the Nord Stream 2 project failed. The pipeline, which is owned and will be operated by the Russian state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, needs only the last 150km of 1,230km of pipes to be laid before it reaches its receiving station in northern Germany.
The project has been controversial since construction began in 2011. The US imposed sanctions against companies involved last year and a new round of US sanctions sponsored by senators Ted Cruz and Jeanne Shaheen is in the works, targeting any company facilitating the venture and potentially German officials.
But Mr Maas said that people calling for it to be scrapped “must be aware of the consequences”. He warned that “more than 100 companies from 12 European countries are involved in [the project], around half of them from Germany”.
Apart from Gazprom, the main partners in the pipeline are Uniper and Wintershall of Germany, OMV of Austria, Engie of France and the Anglo-Dutch group Royal Dutch Shell.
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, told the BBC on Sunday that Russia had a “case to answer” over the poisoning, adding: “The use of chemical weapons in this kind of context is pure gangsterism.” He called for an investigation via the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, adding: “Russia needs to co-operate fully.”
Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union, was also used in the 2018 Salisbury poisonings that targeted former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were living in the UK cathedral city.