• The Star Staff

Putin adversary Navalny was poisoned with nerve agent

By Michael Schwirtz and Melissa Eddy

Soon after a private plane carrying the poisoned Russian opposition leader, Alexei A. Navalny, touched down in Berlin last month, doctors treating him at the prestigious Charité hospital there became so alarmed, they called in the army.

Navalny was certainly not suffering from low blood sugar, as the Russian doctors who first treated his mysterious illness had claimed, or even a standard detective-novel poison like arsenic or cyanide.

It was, the German doctors suspected, something far more dangerous, requiring the attention of the army’s chemical weapons specialists, German officials said.

On Wednesday, the German government confirmed the doctors’ fears: Navalny, 44, had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok family, a potent class of chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union that was used at least once before in recent years in an attack on a Kremlin enemy. Navalny remains in critical but stable condition at the Charité hospital, in a medically induced coma.

The Novichok revelation, which the German government said was based on “unequivocal evidence,” provided the strongest indication yet that the Kremlin, which has denied involvement, was behind the poisoning, as Western intelligence agencies have assessed that only the Russian government would likely have access to such a dangerous weapon.

That thrust what had begun as a domestic Russian political scandal into the international arena, with serious implications for Moscow’s relations with the West.

Already, the German government has briefed its allies in the European Union and NATO, and plans to provide information about its findings to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world’s chemical weapons watchdog. All day Wednesday, Western governments issued condemnations of Russia, with the United States raising the possibility of imposing financial sanctions on those involved.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who over the years has taken pains to preserve Germany’s diplomatic relations with the Kremlin, took the unusual step Wednesday of publicly calling Russia out.

“Mr. Navalny has been the victim of a crime,” Merkel in a statement. “It raises very serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer.”

Russia is unlikely to provide such answers.

On Wednesday, the Kremlin said it had not been informed of Germany’s findings before they were announced, Russian state news outlet Tass reported.

“No, such information was not conveyed to us,” said the presidential spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov. He added that Russian doctors had found no evidence of any poisonous substances in Navalny’s system before he was moved to Germany.

German officials said the Russian ambassador had been briefed around the same time the findings were made public.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Wednesday that American officials found the German conclusion about the use of Novichok “very credible” and “deeply concerning.” He said Washington was discussing a response with Germany and other allies.

It is unclear what Western governments can do to curtail such behavior. Despite years of escalating sanctions, expulsions of diplomats and international isolation, the Kremlin, according to Western intelligence agencies, continues to act concertedly to undermine U.S. and European institutions and violate international norms.

Attacks against the Kremlin’s enemies both in Russia and abroad have also become increasingly brazen. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, who was Navalny’s predecessor at the helm of Russia’s opposition, was shot dead on a bridge near Red Square, just outside the Kremlin walls.

An attacker doused Navalny with a green liquid in 2017 that damaged his sight. In December, a former Chechen rebel commander was shot to death in a park in Berlin.

And in March 2018, operatives from Russia’s military intelligence service, known as the GRU, traveled to Britain, where they poisoned Sergei V. Skripal, a former GRU officer who had served prison time in Russia for spying for the British before being traded in a spy swap.

At the time, few in the world had heard of Novichok, a nerve agent that Soviet chemists devised for battlefield use.

With the substance again being used, this time to poison the Russian government’s most visible opponent, critics accused the Kremlin of thumbing its nose at its opponents both at home and abroad.

“In 2020, poisoning Navalny with Novichok is the same as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime,” Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, wrote on Twitter.

The Navalny case also sends an unmistakable message from Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, at time when Russians are holding enormous protests in the country’s Far East and pro-democracy forces have flooded the streets in neighboring Belarus, said John Sipher, a former chief of station for the CIA, who was once posted to Russia.

“In a country that’s ruled by fear you need to send signals to the population about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” Sipher said. “They want to make it clear to the people inside that if you screw with the czar, you’re going to get killed.”

Navalny, the most persistent critic of Putin, fell ill Aug. 20, on a flight back to Moscow, after spending several days meeting with opposition candidates in Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city. He had been promoting a strategy aimed at drawing support away from the dominant United Russia party before nationwide municipal elections Sept. 13.

His plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, another Siberian city, where he was first hospitalized. He was flown to Berlin two days later.

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