I am grateful once again to RT International for inviting me to give a Zoom interview yesterday. This exercise forced me to re-examine the unfolding story of Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, which, for obvious reasons, the Russian media are following much more closely than our Western media. For us, there are no open questions about the case: we in the West all know for certain that it was Novichok and the only point is how to respond to this latest Putin outrage. Meanwhile the Russians are considering every possible identification of the substance which provoked Navalny’s collapse and near death, including, as of this morning, the possibility that he had drunk some “bad vodka,” a potent and widespread poison especially common in the Siberian towns Navalny was visiting,
Indeed, taking The Financial Times for my marker, I see that in the past few days, the skeptical reporting of their own journalists about Kremlin involvement has been wholly overridden by the newspaper’s Editorial Board, who are now daily braying for the Russians to pay a price, lest Europe show a cowardly face. Fair and transparent investigation, you say? Forget it! The German military doctors have conclusive proof that the substance was a new and more deadly form of Novichok (from which nonetheless the victim is being revived!) which only the Kremlin could have ordered (not to mention, the weapons labs in the UK, in Germany and in a number of other countries).
I have cast doubt on the reliability of those German medics, since simple logic tells us that had there been any chance of Navalny being given Novichok in Siberia at the start of this ordeal, the Russians would never have released him for travel to Germany. This leaves us only with the alternative scenarios that Novichok was brought into play on the flight to Germany or following his hospitalization in Germany, or…that there was no Novichok whatsoever only a falsified medical report.
However, none of these scenarios will be followed up. There will be no investigation into the Navalny case, just as none was carried out over the Skripal case two years ago. This is so because the medical facts are only a decorative feature; the substance is on another plane: geopolitics.
As I commented yesterday on RT, both Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Putin are just balls in play. Had the interview been in Russian, I would have said, more pungently, “они не при чем.” The identification of the poison as precisely in the Novichok family had one clear purpose: to turn what would otherwise have been a domestic Russia scandal into an international scandal entailing violation of the prohibition on use of chemical weapons, whereby Russia is painted as an outlaw state. This is the context in which Chancellor Merkel has taken the Navalny case to NATO.
For Merkel, that is one of multiple benefits which accrue to her from the Navalny poisoning. By taking the lead position in NATO on this matter, she takes the upper hand over France and its President Emmanuel Macron who had spoken of NATO as ‘brain dead’ and was making a power play to assume direction of European foreign policy at the expense of what appeared to be an ailing and stumbling Merkel. Now Macron’s flirtation with the Kremlin was nipped in the bud and he had to line up with the other ducks around the NATO table in issuing threatening messages to Russia.
Another benefit to Merkel from the Navalny poisoning as it has been framed is that she can take the lead in Europe on prodding the Russian bear to retreat from impending intervention in the Belarus political stand-off. She now has what many see as a potent weapon in her hands: the fate of Nord Stream II. By pinning the Navalny case on the Kremlin, she opened the way for members of her own party, not to mention the virulently anti-Russian Greens, to demand cancellation of Nord Stream II. Since she has said many times that the pipeline is genuinely in the economic interests of her country, cancellation is out of the question. But suspension of the project would suit her overall geopolitical calculations perfectly.
Suspension would, one may argue, give her leverage over the master of the Kremlin, lest what is deemed to be his pet project is torn up, leading to multi-billion euro losses for Gazprom and a black eye for the Russian President before his nation. At the same time, suspension would shut up the Americans, who have become recently very aggressive in pressing sanctions against Germany over the completion of the project. A suspension of six months, for example, would take the question of restarting Nord Stream II past the November elections in the USA when a likely new Biden Administration could reconsider its opposition within a new approach to the European allies in general and to Germany in particular.
Then there is still another geopolitical benefit to Merkel in pushing the Navalny case against Russia: it aligns her at least for a time with the Poles and the Baltic States, rendering them friendlier to the German directed EU Institutions.
In summation, as seen from every angle in Berlin, pressing the story of Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok by the Kremlin serves the ever cynical Merkel very well. However, in opening this Pandora’s box, in trying to blackmail a country that is vastly more powerful militarily than Germany, and possibly more powerful than NATO as a whole, the Iron Lady is acting irresponsibly. Like war itself, the outcome in such confrontations is unforeseeable.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperbfack and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]