German foreign minister threatens sanctions over Navalny poisoning
Tensions deepened Sunday between Germany and Russia over the alleged poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, with Berlin threatening sanctions and Moscow accusing it of delaying an investigation into the affair.
Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Navalny fell ill on a flight last month and was treated in a Siberian hospital before being evacuated to Berlin.
Germany said last week there was "unequivocal evidence" that President Vladimir Putin's top foe had been poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.
Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, will discuss possible sanctions against Russia if the Kremlin does not provide an explanation "in the coming days", Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Sunday.
"We have high expectations of the Russian government to solve this serious crime," Maas told German daily Bild. "If the government has nothing to do with the attack, then it is in its own interest to back this up with facts."
Otherwise, Germany will be compelled to "discuss a response with our allies," Maas said.
Any sanctions decided should be "targeted", he added.
Western leaders and many Russians have expressed horror at what Navalny's allies say is the first known use of chemical weapons against a high-profile opposition leader on Russian soil.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Sunday that Russia had "a very serious set of questions to answer" and it was "clear" the Kremlin critic was poisoned with Novichok.
The Kremlin has denied responsibility for the attack and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Germany has yet to share any findings with Moscow's prosecutors.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Sunday accused Germany of dragging its feet in response to a request sent by Russian prosecutors on August 27.
"So far we are not certain that Germany is not playing a double game," Zakharova said in a Facebook post. "Where is the 'urgency' you are insisting upon?
"By not sending its answer, Berlin is stalling the process of investigation for which it's calling. On purpose?"
In an interview with the ARD broadcaster later on Sunday, Maas accused Moscow of "smoke and mirrors" tactics. "And I fear we will see more of this in the coming days," he said.
He said he had already agreed in principle to a request for judicial assistance that is being examined by the Berlin public prosecutor's office.
Maas had said earlier there were "several indications" that Russia was behind the poisoning, in the strongest accusations yet from Germany.
"Only a small number of people have access to Novichok and this poison was used by Russian secret services in the attack against former agent Sergei Skripal," he said, referring to a 2018 attack on the former double agent and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury.
Regarding which sanctions the EU could discuss, Maas did not rule out action relating to Nord Stream 2, a multi-billion-euro Russian-German gas pipeline nearing completion.
"I hope... that the Russians do not force us to change our position on Nord Stream," Maas said, adding that the consequences of any potential cancellation would also need to be weighed while the debate on sanctions should not be "reduced" to one point.
In the ARD interview, Maas reiterated this position, saying it would be "wrong to rule out from the outset" any consequences for Nord Stream 2.
Some politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel's longtime rival Friedrich Merz and foreign affairs committee chair Norbert Roettgen, have called for the pipeline to be stopped.
Bild slammed Merkel last week for comments that Nord Stream 2 should be judged independently from Moscow's actions.
"Vladimir Putin views the gas pipeline as an important strategic weapon against Europe and as a vital source of funding for his war against his own people," it said.
The Navalny case is only the latest in what Berlin has seen as a series of provocations by Putin that have damaged ties and called future cooperation into question.
The alleged poisoning comes a year after the murder in broad daylight of a former Chechen rebel commander in a Berlin park, which German prosecutors believe was ordered by Russia.
Merkel also revealed in May that Russia had targeted her in hacking attacks, saying she had concrete proof of the "outrageous" spying attempts.