Nowhere is that clearer than in the debate over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. A nearly completed $11 billion project stretching from the Russian coast near St. Petersburg to Germany, the project is a monument to the special relationship between the two countries. Yet internationally, the project is roundly opposed.
For the United States and most European countries, it’s another egregious effort to expand Russian influence. For Ukraine and Germany’s eastern European neighbors, it hands Russia dangerous means to exert control over the region’s energy supply.
In Germany itself, skepticism about the project had been building for some time. When Mr. Navalny was poisoned, it came rushing to the surface. Heiko Mass, the foreign minister, appeared to call the project into question, saying he “hoped that Russia doesn’t force us to change our stance toward Nord Stream 2.” It was the first time a cabinet member had spoken out against it. Far from issuing a rebuke, Chancellor Angela Merkel supported the comment.
But that’s as far as it went. The government looks to have backed down, and the project is proceeding. Though Nord Stream 2 could be stopped, the risks would be substantial. First, there’d likely be a retaliatory, and costly, lawsuit. Then there’s the inevitable political fallout. But perhaps most important, stopping Nord Stream 2 would be a clear, unequivocal signal that Germany had turned against Russia.
Instead, for now, Germany is seeking the support of its European partners. On Monday, the European Union’s foreign ministers approved the proposal, put forth by Germany and France, to impose sanctions on Russian officials suspected of poisoning Mr. Navalny. Turning the conflict into a European issue is a smart move. It is Mr. Putin’s aim to split the European Union; this is a chance for Europe to respond with one voice.
But Germany won’t be able to backpedal all the way. The confrontation may have progressed too far already: Mr. Putin is unlikely to forget, or forgive, the actions of the past weeks. And as Russia confronts the coronavirus at home and conflicts among its neighbors, there’s no guessing what might come next. Germany ought to be prepared — and know how it will respond.