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Germany Reportedly Offered U.S. $1 Billion To Save Russian Pipeline


Two big stories in Germany which might not seem related suddenly are - a gas pipeline from Russia called Nord Stream 2 and the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to impose sanctions on Russia for allegedly poisoning Navalny. That could mean putting an end to construction of that pipeline going from Russia to Germany. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Berlin for more. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start with just an update on Alexei Navalny's condition. How's he doing?

SCHMITZ: Well, up to now, we've been relying on the Berlin hospital where he's been staying for updates on his health. But this week, it's been Navalny himself who's been doing it. He's out of a coma, walking around, talking about returning to Russia to continue his work. And he's sending updates via his Instagram account. His latest post shows video that was shot after it was revealed he fell ill on a plane from Siberia to Moscow. It shows his team rummaging around a Siberian hotel room putting the items he used in plastic bags for analysis. German authorities later discovered one of the water bottles he drank from had traces of the nerve agent Novichok on it. His team originally thought he was poisoned by a cup of tea he had at an airport. But this shows that it happened earlier in his hotel room.

MARTIN: So explain, exactly, the connection between the Navalny poisoning and this pipeline.

SCHMITZ: So the gas pipeline is called Nord Stream 2. And it's nearly finished. It's a very controversial project. Critics say it makes Germany too dependent on Russia. And the poisoning of Navalny has prompted politicians in Merkel's own party to call for the end to this pipeline. Here's politician Norbert Rottgen, who's running to replace Merkel as chancellor, speaking to the German media.


NORBERT ROTTGEN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, Rachel, he's saying here that Nord Stream 2 is environmentally damaging, anti-European and unnecessary. He says Vladimir Putin needs it. And selling energy is the only way he can sustain his regime. But Merkel has so far refused to halt construction on it.

MARTIN: Where's the U.S. in all of this?

SCHMITZ: The Trump administration has the same criticism of the project and has imposed sanctions on companies working on it. But many analysts believe that Trump really wants, actually, is for Germany to buy American gas. And this week, the German newspaper Die Zeit got its hands on what it says is a letter from German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In it, Scholz reportedly offers to spend more than a billion dollars of public money to build two liquefied natural gas terminals along Germany's Baltic coast. And these are terminals that could accept imports of U.S. gas. In return, he reportedly asked Mnuchin to lift U.S. sanctions on the project. I spoke to Felix Heilmann about this. He researches the gas sector for the climate change think tank E3G.

FELIX HEILMANN: It just makes this project a hugely political one and seems to be a really Trumpian way of going about politics. A very surprising move, indeed.

SCHMITZ: But what's interesting here, Rachel, is Germany's been planning to build these two gas terminals for years. But this alleged letter to Mnuchin makes it sound like Germany is ready to build them just for Trump. Other analysts I've spoken to suspect the German government is doing whatever it can to get Trump to lift these sanctions because, despite the concerns about this project, Chancellor Merkel and her government do not intend to shut Nord Stream 2 down.

MARTIN: NPR's Central European correspondent Rob Schmitz reporting. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.