Alexei Navalny, a fierce critic of the Russian establishment, is in intensive care in Berlin after being poisoned with nerve agent Novichok. German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared this at a press conference on Wednesday the 2nd of September:
‘Alexei Navalny was the victim of an attack with a chemical nerve agent of the Novichok group. This poison could be identified unequivocally in tests.’
Merkel proceeded to state that his poisoning was ‘against the basic values and fundamental rights’ that her government supports. Western leaders have echoed Merkel’s condemnation, with Boris Johnson tweeting ‘It’s outrageous that a chemical weapon was used against Alexey Navalny.’
In reaction to this announcement, eyes from across the world have turned towards the Kremlin in Russia. It is widely believed that Putin’s government orchestrated the attack. They had the motive, the means, and the opportunity. And it wouldn’t be the first time.
What’s the motive? Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s foot for quite some time. In 2017, he led a deep-dive into Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, unearthing a covert collection of luxurious properties and yachts. Medvedev concealed his wealth in a web of trustees, charity funds, and offshore companies. Not a good look for a Prime Minister who had vowed to fight corruption.
A year later, Navalny was in the running for Russian Presidency. However, he was barred from entering the election on account of criminal charges. Navalny maintains that he did no wrong and that charges were only imposed to disqualify him from the election.
What means? The Soviet Union began producing Novichok agents in the 1970s and 80s as a range of lethal chemical weapons – Novichok is the Russian for ‘new guy’. When ingested, these agents disrupt communication between the muscles and nerves, often leading to organ failure and death. Russia’s UN ambassador claims that the country’s Novichok stockpiles were destroyed in 2017.
What opportunity? Navalny fell ill whilst on a flight through Siberia in mid-August. Prior to boarding, he had a cup of tea at the airport, into which ultra-fine powdered Novichok could have been dissolved without him noticing.
Navalny began having convulsions and losing consciousness soon after take-off, so his plane was diverted to Omsk, Siberia, where he received emergency medical care. However, doctors there ruled out poisoning as a possibility, and instead blamed ‘a metabolic disorder, caused by a sharp drop in blood sugar levels’. Mr. Navalny was then flown to Berlin where he received his present diagnosis. Navalny’s supporters thus allege that Russian doctors were coerced into concealing the truth and that Navalny’s visit to Omsk was simply intended to keep him away from Western hospitals long enough for the toxin to exit his body and evade detection.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denies that the government had any implication in Navalny’s poisoning. A few weeks ago Peskov went as far as to deny that Navalny was poisoned at all: he called early speculation ‘empty noise’ and ‘idle talk’.
But Navalny is not the first of Putin’s enemies to be poisoned. Two years ago, Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was also poisoned with Novichok in a high-profile case in the United Kingdom. A decade prior, ex-Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko died after ingesting the radioactive compound Polonium-210 which was slipped into his tea.
To back up its claimed non-involvement, the Kremlin has to explain away this poisoning, previous poisonings, and the misdiagnosis by Russian doctors. They must act quickly too. If Mr. Navalny comes back to full health, he will surely have a thing or two to tell the world about what really happened.