RUSSIA COULD not possibly investigate the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the country’s leading opposition politician, who has been in a coma since August 20th, until it was clear what had happened to him. Or so Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, casuistically claimed on September 1st. Mr Navalny is being treated in a German hospital, having collapsed on a flight from Tomsk, in Siberia, to Moscow.
The Kremlin might have hoped that the circumstances of Mr Navalny’s poisoning had never become clear. But on September 2nd Germany’s government said it had proved “unequivocally” that Mr Navalny had been attacked with a military-grade nerve agent of the Novichok family—the same sort of chemical weapon used against Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in the British city of Salisbury in 2018. “Choosing Novichok to poison Navalny in 2020 is basically the same thing as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime,” Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s chief of staff, wrote on Twitter, attaching an image of Vladimir Putin’s signature.
Novichok is not a single poison, but a family of more than 100 potent compounds developed in Soviet laboratories in the 1970s and 1980s. It is thought to be five to eight times more toxic than VX, the most lethal of the previous generation of nerve agents. Worse still, it is highly persistent, meaning that it disperses into the air at a dangerously languid pace. After it was used in Salisbury, nine sites across the city required painstaking decontamination over a period of months. Mr Navalny’s fellow passengers and contacts in Tomsk may also have been recklessly exposed.
In 2018 the British government said that Russia had produced and stockpiled small amounts of Novichok within the past decade, in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international agreement that banned most such weapons. The idea that criminals or terrorist groups could have made or used a nerve agent of such high purity was laughable, the British said. Its use against Mr Navalny “rules out anyone but the richest and most powerful,” notes Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services. “No local FSB [intelligence] officer or city mayor would be likely to be able to access such a nerve agent.”
The identification of Novichok is certain to drag in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that monitors the CWC. In 2018 the OPCW confirmed Britain’s contention that Novichok had been used in Salisbury (prompting the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, to launch a botched cyber-attack on the institution). But since Mr Skripal was poisoned, the OPCW has been beefed up, gaining powers not only to identify the chemical used in an attack, but also who may have used it.
Confirmation of the poison brought forth a rush of condemnation and suspicion. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, said that Mr Navalny was “meant to be silenced”, and that “this raises very difficult questions that only the Russian government can answer, and has to answer.” Her government said it would discuss a joint response with EU and NATO allies. Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, said the use of Novichok was “outrageous” and promised to “work with international partners to ensure justice is done.” The White House promised to “hold those in Russia accountable”.
After the attack on Mr Skripal, Britain rallied its allies to mount a remarkable mass expulsion of alleged Russian intelligence officers from America, Europe and Australia. Mustering such a strong response would be harder today. “The EU and West don’t have much more, in terms of sanctions, they can meaningfully do to Moscow,” says Sir Adam Thomson, a former British envoy to NATO and now director of the European Leadership Network, a think-tank. Yet the biggest threat to Mr Putin’s regime comes not from the outside, but from inside Russia—and few people posed it as much as Mr Navalny and his political machine.
Before he was poisoned, Mr Navalny had been in Siberia preparing for local elections that threatened to undermine the Kremlin’s grip on power. Whether the poison was mixed into the tea that he drank at the airport or administered a few hours earlier, he collapsed shortly after his commercial flight took off from Tomsk. A four-and-a-half-hour flight might have given the poison enough time to end Mr Navalny’s life, had events not played out as they did.
Hearing of Mr Navalny’s collapse, the pilot requested emergency landing at an airport in Omsk, some 750km west of Tomsk. According to reports from independent Russian media, shortly before landing the airport received a hoax call about a bomb alert, probably intended to prevent a landing. The pilot managed to land regardless. The paramedics who met Mr Navalny suspected poisoning and administered atropine—a medication used to treat nerve agents, and the same substance with which Mr Navalny was later treated in Germany.
But no sooner was Mr Navalny taken to hospital in Omsk than it was flooded with plain-clothed members of the security services, according to members of his team. The chief doctor insisted that there were no signs of poisoning, while also refusing demands from Mr Navalny’s family and colleagues to evacuate the patient to a specialist German clinic. After two days of delays, a series of telephone calls from European leaders—including Mrs Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, France’s president—and a threat by his team to bring people out on the streets, the Kremlin reluctantly let Mr Navalny be taken to a clinic in Berlin and put under protection as Mrs Merkel’s personal guest.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine kicked into action, spinning various contradictory stories to obfuscate events: Mr Navalny was drunk; he was on a diet (Margarita Simonyan, the boss of RT, Russia’s propaganda television channel, wrote that she always carries a chocolate in her handbag in case she feels faint); he was poisoned by the Germans to hurt Mr Putin.
It is highly unlikely that the poisoning of Mr Navalny could have been carried out without the knowledge, order or approval of Mr Putin. For years the president refused to utter Mr Navalny’s name in public; his courts harassed and jailed him for brief periods to disrupt his work, thugs threw acid in his face, but eliminating or imprisoning him for years seemed to carry more risks than benefits. Following the protests in Russia’s far east endorsed and supported by Mr Navalny, and revolutionary events in Belarus, that calculation now appears to have changed. But as Mr Navalny fights for his life, Mr Putin’s regime looks less secure—and more dangerous both to Russians and the outside world.