Poison attack on Navalny: Heiko Maas does not rule out sanctions against Russia

Russia has accused Germany of blocking efforts to investigate the poison attack on Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. “Berlin is delaying the investigation that it is calling for itself. On purpose?” Asked the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Sakharova, on Facebook on Sunday. Berlin did not respond to a request for legal assistance from the Russian public prosecutor’s office on August 27. The Berlin authorities have confirmed receipt of the request.

“Dear Mr Maas, if the German government is serious about what you have said, it should be interested in responding to a request from the Russian Public Prosecutor’s Office as soon as possible,” said the spokeswoman. “So far we are not sure whether Germany is not playing a double game,” she added.

Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) had again called on the Kremlin to investigate the case and did not rule out sanctions. “If there are no contributions to the investigation on the Russian side in the next few days, we will have to discuss an answer with our partners,” Maas told “Bild am Sonntag”. The crime against Navalny is such a serious violation of the international chemical weapons agreement that it cannot go without a noticeable reaction.

Too little evidence

The prominent Russian opposition politician Navalny has been treated in the Berlin Charité since August 22, after he had collapsed two days earlier during a flight in Russia. The German government announced on Wednesday that Navalny had been poisoned “beyond any doubt” with a chemical nerve agent from the so-called Novichok group. The poison was developed by Soviet scientists in the 1970s.

Calls for sanctions against Russia are getting louder by the day. The EU member states are also threatening to take punitive measures. But whether these can ever be decided is questionable. In a statement on Navalny, the EU warned against restrictive measures against Moscow. It is conceivable, however, that those responsible would be specifically sanctioned, for example their entry into the EU would be banned and accounts in Europe would be blocked.

There is already a precedent for such punitive measures in the event of a poison attack: At the beginning of 2019, the EU put four employees of the Russian military intelligence service GRU on its sanctions list. The reason was the attack on the former Russian double agent Sergej Skripal, who was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in March 2018 in Salisbury, UK, like Navalny now.

“The difference to the Skripal case is that there was clear evidence at the time that agents of the GRU were in Great Britain,” says Steven Blockmans of the Brussels Center for European Policy Studies (Ceps). On the basis of British investigations, there was also “forensic evidence of the involvement of Russian secret services”. According to EU law, mere “guesses” are not enough to impose permanent sanctions against people, says the lawyer. The fact that the poison Novichok used was developed by the Soviet military and is not freely available is also not sufficient.

Pressure on the economy

There would be the possibility of economic sanctions, which can be more politically motivated. Against Russia, the EU has after Flight MH17 shot down Imposed a whole series of such punitive measures in the 2014 conflict in Ukraine: They are directed against state banks, the import and export of armaments, and the oil and gas industry.

In its declaration on Navalny, the EU did not “explicitly name economic sanctions, but also did not explicitly rule them out,” says the EU diplomat. It reserves the right to take “appropriate measures” to put pressure on Russia. These could also be economic sanctions.

Meanwhile, the Navalny case is not only boosting the situation in Germany Debate on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. This has also been criticized in the EU for years because it enables Moscow to no longer channel gas through Ukraine and several Eastern European member states. As a result, they miss out on considerable transit fees.

Greens: “Former Chancellor Schröder has to decide”

After Nawalny’s poisoning, Poland again called for the project to be stopped. Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) did not completely rule out such a step at the weekend. He emphasized, however, that this would affect “more than 100 companies from twelve European countries”. And he added: “When we think about sanctions, they should be as targeted as possible.” In any case, the Belgian Blockmans does not believe “that Germany will go that far”.

Meanwhile, politicians from the CDU and the Greens have called on former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) to vacate his post at the Nord Stream 2 pipeline company. Green parliamentary group leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt told the newspapers of the Funke media group on Sunday: “SPD former chancellor Schröder must now decide whether he is on the side of democracy and human rights.”

Saxony’s Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer turned against demands for a construction freeze on the Baltic Sea pipeline. “Nord Stream 2 must be built further,” said the CDU politician on Saturday. “We depend on each other, we need this cooperation.” The CDU economic expert Friedrich Merz had called for a two-year construction freeze on Nord Stream 2.

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