Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has been taken out of a medically-induced coma, his doctors said Monday, as calls mount for Germany to pull out of a controversial joint venture gas pipeline project with Russia amid the fallout over his poisoning.
Navalny’s condition has improved since he collapsed on a flight across Russia on the 22nd of August, and he is being weaned off mechanical ventilation, said the hospital Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in a statement. The 44-year-old is responding to verbal stimuli, but it is too early to assess the long-term effects of his poisoning with Novichok, a military grade Soviet-era nerve agent, they added.
With Navalny’s camp claiming he was poisoned on orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin – and the use of Novichok, a calling card of the Russian secret service, indicating the hand of the Russian state – Western governments have been calculating how to respond.
After NATO demanded Friday that Moscow cooperate with an “impartial international investigation” into the poisoning, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned Sunday that Nord Stream 2 – an enormous gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, stretching from Russia to Germany – could be in jeopardy if the Russians didn’t play ball.
“I hope the Russians won’t force us to change our position regarding … Nord Stream 2,” Maas told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “If there won’t be any contributions from the Russian side regarding the investigation in the coming days, we will have to consult with our partners.”
The remarks were the first by a German government minister to suggest the massive infrastructure project could be scrapped, following days of similar calls from German politicians from the ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union and the Greens. A German government spokesman said Monday that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who on Friday had said the pipeline project should be “decoupled” from the Navalny case, was on board with Maas’s statements.
Russia, which denies any involvement in the poisoning, appeared to dismiss the threat Monday, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters that he saw no risk that Germany would shutter the project.
“We see that, for each such new statement, two statements appear, which speak about the absurdity of such proposals,” he said.
Russia experts say that scrapping the multi-billion euro infrastructure project is unlikely, but possible, as Germany and other countries seek an effective response to the poisoning, conscious that previous diplomatic reactions to Russian actions – from military involvement in Georgia and Ukraine, to the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine, to a string of attacks on Kremlin critics – have done little to rein in the Kremlin.
“The trouble is, all the usual instruments – expulsions of diplomats, strong diplomatic statements, sanctions on individuals – it’s fairly clear they don’t actually work,” Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, told VICE News.
Complicating matters further is the fact that, unlike other recent flash-points, the Navalny affair involved a Russian citizen being poisoned on Russian territory – something NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg alluded to Friday.
“If the West pushes particularly hard,” said Galeotti, “Russia could say, ‘We’re really concerned about all these young Black guys getting shot by police in America, and we would like to lead an investigation into that.’”
John Lough, an associate fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think-tank, told VICE News that cancelling Nord Stream 2 was unlikely, as scrapping the nearly completed project – as Maas noted Sunday – would also hurt German industry. Only about 150 kilometers of the 1,230 kilometer pipeline still need to be laid, and a German parliamentary group heard in July that scrapping the project would mean writing off €12 billion.
“There’s a big, powerful group in German industry that want this project because it's advantageous to them – they’re getting very cheap gas for minimal investment,” said Lough.
“The Germans, despite their hang-ups about Russia, tend to fundamentally think that keeping the economic relationship with Russia going is critical, because it ties them in, calms them down and gives you another platform to work on [to influence their behaviour].”
Despite this, he said, “this is the first time we’ve seen any real consolidated push to halt this project, so let’s see if it gathers momentum”.
Whatever form the response to Russia takes, experts say, it’s likely to be a coordinated, collective response, with Germany – which has been thrust into the heart of the affair – setting the tone.
“The Russians will push back – that’s not in question,” said Galeotti, author of the book We Need to Talk About Putin. “It’s a question of what Berlin’s got the stomach for.”
He said that, given the relative failure of traditional diplomatic reproaches and sanctions to curb the Kremlin’s behavior, it could be time “to think of new ways to make Russia pay for its actions”.
“We have had a tendency to be very traditional in our responses, and traditional approaches haven’t really worked that well,” he said. “One of the things that might work well is: Germany or the EU could say, ‘If you’re not willing to have a transparent international investigation into what went on, we’re going to allocate €20 million euros to civil society in Belarus.
“The solution might be to think: ‘What is really going to bug Putin?’”