The Russian state has been accused of poisoning Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, after the German government claim to have found evidence of the Soviet-era nerve agent ‘Novichok’ in his system. Steffan Seibert, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, made a statement on Wednesday 2nd September 2020. He said tests performed on samples taken from Navalny’s body by a specialist German military laboratory show “proof without a doubt” of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.
Both Steffan Seibert and German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, urge Moscow to investigate the poisoning, whilst also summoning the Russian ambassador to explain the evidence. “This makes it all the more urgent that those responsible in Russia be identified and held accountable,” Maas told reporters. In response to this, a presidential spokesman named Dmitry Peskov said Russia was not informed of such findings and were inconsistent with their own data taken from Navalny when he was rushed to a hospital in Siberia before traveling to Germany.
Navalny, known as a politician, corruption investigator, and one of Putin’s fiercest critics, was on a flight from Siberia to Moscow when he fell ill on 20th August. The plane made an emergency landing, and he was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk where he received initial treatment. Later, he was taken to Charité hospital in Berlin, where doctors initially suggested there were indications of poisoning as early as last week. Doctors in Berlin have reported “some improvement” in his condition, however, he remains in a medically induced coma and is on a ventilator.
The Russian doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia have consistently contested the German hospital’s findings, saying their tests for poisonous substances came back negative. Instead, they diagnosed Navalny with a ‘metabolic disorder’ diagnosis.
Novichok is a group of nerve agents that was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 80s. It was used in 2018 to poison former Russian spy Skripal and his daughter in the UK city of Salisbury. Although they both recovered, a local woman who touched the discarded perfume bottle in which the poison had been carried in later died in hospital. In 2006, Putin was blamed for the death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in central London, after being poisoned by polonium-210.
Despite the use of Novichok in a number of cases where the victim posed a threat to the Russian state, some experts have been quick to warn off jumping to such a conclusion. Bharat Pankhania, from the University of Exeter Medical School, said that while Russian authorities have access to Novichok, it is well known in the intelligence communities that other countries may also have this agent. Ivan Zhdanov, direct of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation disagreed, claiming “only the state can use Novichok. This is beyond any reasonable doubt.”
Whilst we wait for the international community to respond, it is likely that this will only add to the growing rift between Western powers and Moscow. Angela Merkel said she would consult Germany’s NATO allies about how to respond to the poisoning.
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