The poisoning of Putin’s fiercest critic, Alexei Navalny, could disrupt plans for Nord Stream 2, which would bring gas from the Russian Arctic’s Yamal Peninsula to Europe.
Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction.
Yesterday in a heavily guarded Berlin hospital just a twenty minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate, Alexei Navalny stepped out of his bed and breathed on his own. Nearly one month ago, on 20 August in the Siberian university town of Tomsk where Putin’s fiercest critic had been canvassing to support local candidates opposed to his rule, Navalny was allegedly poisoned by Novichok while drinking a cup of tea before boarding a commercial flight to Moscow. Charité, the hospital at which he recovering, detected the use of the Russian nerve agent, which was further confirmed by laboratories in France and Sweden yesterday.
These scenes might seem straight out of the Cold War, and in a way, they are. Only now, this is a Cold War in the 21st century, and the revolution will be televised. As fate would have it, Pavlin Dragozov, a Bulgarian DJ, happened to be sitting across from Navalny at a restaurant in Tomsk Airport that fateful August morning. At 8:17 am, he snapped a covert photo that he uploaded to his Instagram Stories (@djpavlin) with the unassuming caption, “Good morning, Alexei.”
The DJ’s next installment in his story would show a cabin in disarray. Mid-flight, Navalny got up from his seat to visit the lavatory. Hours later, he would emerge on a stretcher during an emergency landing in another Siberian city, Omsk.
The dissident who came in from the cold
Navalny and his colleagues are no strangers to Siberian and Arctic cold. In December 2019 – long before Navalny’s name ricocheted across newspaper headlines, but long after Putin had stopped calling him by name, as if somehow that would write him out of existence – one of his employees was “kidnapped” and sent to the far north. Ruslan Shaveddinov, a project manager at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation who has experienced run-ins with disgruntled authorities before, was detained at his home in Moscow. With the SIM card in his cell phone remotely disabled, nobody heard from him for 24 hours.
Shaveddinov eventually turned up 2,000 kilometers to the northwest, calling on someone else’s phone from the Arctic military base of Rogachevo on the remote Russian island of Novaya Zemlya. He was later transferred to an even more remote station 250 kilometers to the north in Chirakina, along the strait separating the northern and southern islands.
Navalny’s baby-faced employee is now serving out a year of military conscription, which is required of all Russian men between the ages of 18-27 but which the government claims he evaded. Nevertheless, he is receiving harsher treatment than most conscripts, for he is not allowed any communication with the outside world — not that any seems to exist in Chirakina, for that matter.
Among all the places in the Arctic, Novaya Zemlya is undoubtedly one of the most forbidding you could end up. Some Nenets families began living on the island in the late 1800s, but they were resettled in the 1950s in order to transform the archipelago into a nuclear testing site. An ice cap covers some 40% of the archipelago’s northern island, above which “Tsar Bomba,” the world’s largest-ever atomic bomb, was detonated in 1961. The mushroom cloud was seven times the height of Everest. Windows broke as far away as Norway and Sweden.
Care for a glass of glowing meltwater?
Now, the ice caps that once fed Nenets reindeer herders quench the thirst of a Russian dissident. Shaveddinov relies on the radioactive run-off of the glaciers that absorbed the fallout of the 130 nuclear tests conducted between 1957 and 1990.
During testimony at a military court in the Russian Arctic city of Arkhangelsk, Shaveddinov recounted the dreary conditions of military service in what is surely one of the remotest outposts of the Russian Arctic: “living in a box,” as he described it, with a leaking roof while surviving off of a sack of flour and some other supplies brought every other month by helicopter. There’s no running water, so conscripts have to rely on the nearby streams and meltwater flowing down from the uranium-enriched glaciers.
“This is a very bad tendency, and very bad times are coming when the Ministry of Defense is used as a branch office of the penitentiary services,” Shaveddinov testified during a hearing for a lawsuit brought by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation arguing that depriving the conscript of communication was inhumane — a case which they later lost.
(In yet another surreal twist of when worlds collide, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, on 7 September, L’Austral, a luxury cruise ship operated by French company Ponant, would have made a scheduled stop at Novaya Zemlya as part of its 25-day voyage along the Northern Sea Route. Perhaps next year, some of the tourists can wave.)
“…very bad times are coming when the Ministry of Defense is used as a branch office of the penitentiary services.”—Ruslan Shaveddinov
Gulag Archipelago: Expanded Universe
In this dystopian, 21st century, expanded universe version of Gulag Archipelago, Shaveddinov is not Navalny’s only ally to be sent to the Arctic. In June, Artyem Ionov, another one of the 30 employees at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, was forced onto a plane from Moscow to Blagoveshchensk, in the Russian Far East, before being sent to Ugolnye Kopi (“Village of Coal Mines”) in Chukotka to work, reportedly, on heavy long-range aviation. Now, winter awaits the dissident, who supposedly suffers from asthma and is not fit for military service – let alone in the depths of the Russian Far East.
Navalny and Nord Stream 2
But back to Navalny, who now, it must be painfully apparent to the Kremlin, will live to see another day. What may not survive due to the fallout over his poisoning, however, is a grand plan for a pipeline.
Years ago, various Russian and European investors cooked up a plan to build a twin pipeline to the original Nord Stream pipeline, which has delivered gas from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, and the rest of Europe, since 2011. Stretching across 1,222 kilometers, Nord Stream is the world’s longest subsea pipeline and delivers some 55 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe a year. But, in the eyes of Nord Stream 2’s advocates, this is not enough.
While European demand is plateauing, domestic production is declining. Proponents of Nord Stream 2 – chief among them Gazprom, its largest shareholder and Russia’s (and the world’s) largest natural gas company – argue that as domestic production declines, the €9.5 billion project is needed to double capacity to 110 billion cubic meters and directly link Europe to a booming, proven resource: the Yamal Peninsula and its 4.9 trillion cubic meters of reserves, which lie at the heart of the country’s development of its Arctic region and the Northern Sea Route. Gas already began flowing from Yamal’s Bovanenkovskoye field into the first Nord Stream pipeline in 2012, when two connector pipelines opened, but Gazprom and its five European partners claim Nord Stream 2 would make supplies more reliable.
Construction on the geopolitically controversial pipeline began in 2018 before U.S. sanctions in December 2019 ground things to a halt, much to the anger of many European governments.
Nord Stream 2 would depart Russian shores in Narva Bay, not far from St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea, and cleverly circumvent the waters of the Baltic countries and Poland – the persistent thorns in the foot of Russia – by instead crossing Finland, Sweden, and Denmark’s seabeds before making landfall again in Lubmin, Germany.
Coincidentally, the German terminus is 175 kilometers due north of Berlin, where Navalny is recuperating. It is also just 15 kilometers from Greifswald, a city that once belonged to East Germany and which was formerly home to the country’s largest nuclear power station, based on a Soviet design.
A pipeline divides Europe
Russian Arctic gas has come to replace Soviet nuclear power, and Germany is now the biggest buyer of Russia gas in the world. Due to this energy dependency, along with a long-running tendency for many influential German politicians to be “Putin-Versteher,” or Putin “Understanders,” Chancellor Angela Merkel has pushed Nord Stream 2 forward despite opposition from the U.S. and Eastern Europe.
Now, she may be at a crossroads. With ties between Russia and the European Union seriously fractured following Navalny’s alleged poisoning along with the illegitimate election in Belarus last month, Merkel may say enough is enough. So far, all she’s said is, “I have not yet formed a final judgment on this,” but even that is quite an about-face.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Mass told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, “I hope the Russians won’t force us to change our position regarding the Nord Stream 2” pipeline.
Cancelling Nord Stream 2 by whatever means possible – Politico details six options available to Germany – would force the country to pay billions of euros to various European companies who have a stake in its construction.
Europe is also not taking a united stance on whether to link Navalny to Nord Stream 2.
Austria’s chancellor, the 34-year old Sebastien Kurz, for instance, said that the two should be viewed separately.
Yet Finnish Member of the European Parliament Henna Virkkunen expressed, “With the poisoning of Navalny and the unstable situation in Belarus, the pipeline is a matter of concern for the whole EU and a central tool to influence Russia and its disregard for international treaties and fundamental rights.”
A revolving door between Germany and Russia: Exit through the Arctic
While you might think the Russians will not let Nord Stream 2 go down without a fight, neither will a certain German by the name of Matthias Warnig. Born in East Germany, the influential German businessman cut his teeth while working as an intelligence operative for the Stasi. Now, he is CEO of Nord Stream 2 AG, the Swiss project company that was established to plan, construct, and operate the pipeline.
Warnig would certainly count as a “Putin-Versteher” par excellence. Some claim he met Putin while the Russian President was working as a KGB officer in Dresden, though others say the pair did not meet until 1991. Regardless of when the (East) German made the connection, it paid off: the German now sits on the board of directors for Transneft, Russia’s leading oil pipeline company, and Rosneft, Russia’s second-largest oil company.
Warnig also chaired the board of directors of Rusal, the Russian aluminium titan, until 2018, when the U.S. forced him to step down as part of an agreement made in order to remove sanctions on the company. You might recall that Rusal is calling for a restructuring at Nornickel, which is trying to emerge from the disastrous diesel spill in the Russian Arctic. While Rusal, which operates the world’s only aluminum smelter north of the Arctic, claims that its motivations are environmental in nature, their restructuring efforts are more likely the result of a years-long feud between two Russian industrialists: Vladimir Potanin, Nornickel’s CEO, and Oleg Deripaska, the former chairman of Rusal who was also ousted as part of the aforementioned agreements with the U.S.
So it all goes back to the Arctic. Rather than a battleground in which geopolitical struggles are playing out between great powers, it appears to be a frozen, torturous playground for those in power to banish dissidents and earn massive amounts of money from plundering its gas, oil, aluminum, nickel, and other mineral reserves, all while dumping toxins into the environment with little retribution. (And that’s leaving aside the hundreds of Nenets who were moved off of Novaya Zemlya so their home could be turned into a nuclear testing site.)
Where one pipeline ends, another begins
If Navalny’s poisoning manages to sink Nord Stream 2, this would present him with some sort of poetic justice. In 2010, the anti-corruption crusader purchased enough shares in the aforementioned pipeline company Transneft to access internal documents. He made waves when he published the results of an audit revealing that over $4 billion was embezzled during the construction of the $25 billion Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline. ESPO transports oil from the fields around Khanty-Mansiysk and Tomsk, the very city where Navalny was allegedly poisoned, to East Asia.
It gets weirder yet.
Transneft’s president, Nikolay Tokarev, denied the allegation regarding what was at the time the largest-ever infrastructure project in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tokarev, it’s worth noting, worked as a KGB officer at the same time as Putin in Dresden, where they met and allied (and perhaps, where they might have crossed paths with Nord Stream 2’s CEO, Warnig).
No one was ever punished over the revelations.
Except, perhaps, Navalny.
For further reading and mapping…
Explore the locations described in this blog post through an ArcGIS Story Map I made concerning Navalny, Nord Stream 2, and the Arctic.
Click here for the full version.