OPINION: Germany's demand that Russia must clarify the circumstances around the alleged poisoning of Alexei Navalny or risk Germany potentially withdrawing support for the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline shows a welcome assertiveness in standing up for human rights and democratic principles.

Work on the controversial Russian project to build a second subsea gas export pipeline across the Baltic Sea to Germany is already well under way.

While it remains uncertain whether Germany would really remove its support for the pipeline, it is important to take a stand over the apparent attack on the Russian opposition leader.

Risks of entanglement

After Navalny fell ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk on 20 August, Germany knew the risks of becoming entangled in the controversy — but still offered to airlift him to Berlin, where he reportedly is improving after coming out of an induced coma.

It is a clear sign that Germany’s government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is alarmed by brazen attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin's opponents in Russia and abroad. The Kremlin denies involvement in such attacks.

With tests in German military labs reportedly revealing last week that Navalny had been poisoned by a variation of the Novichok nerve agent, politicians from Germany's opposition and Merkel’s political party had called for her to hit back with a weapon that could hurt Russia the most — Nord Stream 2.

Merkel has insisted that Nord Stream 2 is a business-oriented project, despite pronouncements from the US and some European states that the Russian pipeline will increase European dependence on Russian gas and will hand the Kremlin a tool of influence.

Nord Stream 2 is preparing to lay the remaining 80-kilometre segment of the pipeline in the Danish maritime zone despite US sanctions.

Leaders aligned

A Reuters report this week quoted Merkel's spokesman as suggesting the chancellor and Germany's foreign minister were aligned in calling for Russia to help clear up the circumstances around Navalny's poisoning or face the possibility of Germany withdrawing support for the pipeline.

Reuters later quoted party sources saying Merkel downplayed the possibility of halting the pipeline as part of any sanctions imposed on Moscow.

Pulling support for the project could deal a blow to economic ties between Russia and Germany that remain strong despite US and European sanctions against Russia, introduced in 2014 in response to its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Trade turnover between Germany and Russia last year totalled $58.4 billion, according to the UN Comtrade Database.

Despite all the controversy, some German companies have continued doing business with big Russian corporations managed by Putin’s friends.

Germany’s energy leaders Uniper and Wintershall Dea allegedly circumvented an earlier prohibition from a Polish antitrust regulator on participating in Nord Stream 2, sending a total of €2 billion to the project — each expecting to receive a 10% stake in the gas pipeline.

Wintershall Dea's exposure in Russia has recently grown. Its joint venture with Gazprom, Achim Development, is proceeding into the development phase for deep Achimov formations at the Urengoy field in West Siberia.

Siemens remains a top technology supplier to Gazprom and Russian oil producers, directly and via its Russian partnerships.

It has played down a scandal in which some of its turbines, ordered by Russia, were taken to Russian-annexed Crimea in 2015 and 2016, despite European Union sanctions.

Even if German leaders ultimately proceed with the Nord Stream 2 project linking it with Russia, now is the time to resolutely declare indignation over attacks on Russian opposition leaders.