When the German government said Wednesday that Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny had been poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok, one thing was certain: The apparent murder attempt would become a full international crisis.
Navalny remains in a serious condition at the intensive care unit of the Charité Hospital in Berlin. But the identification of Novichok as the poison has already raised serious questions about whether Navalny was the target of a state-orchestrated assassination.
“There are very serious questions now which only the Russian government can and must answer,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement Wednesday.
After Navalny fell ill while en route from Siberia to Moscow last month, there was room for speculation about who might have ordered an attempt on his life — the anti-corruption campaigner, after all, had many powerful enemies in Russia.
But Navalny’s supporters are now pointing the finger of blame directly at Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“In 2020, poisoning Navalny with Novichok is exactly the same as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime,” Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff wrote over a picture of the President’s signature, in a tweet that has since been deleted.
The Kremlin’s response, thus far, has been: What poisoning? Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov — who has taken pains not to refer to Navalny by name, calling him only “the patient” — has refrained from calling it a poisoning, and Russian officials have declined to launch an investigation.
By any measure, Navalny is lucky to be alive; Novichok is no ordinary poison. Vil Mirzayanov, a former Soviet chemist, described Novichok’s lethality in stark terms.
Death can be quick if the right dose is administered, Mirzayanov said. But even a dose that doesn’t cause immediate death can inflict “torturous” illness, he added. “They will start convulsions, and stop breathing and then lose vision, and there are other problems — vomiting, everything. It’s a terrible scene.”
The UK government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down said the military-grade agent was used in the attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
Novichok was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s. At the time of Skripal’s poisoning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the attack, partly because Russia had previously produced the agent and was still capable of doing so.
And Mirzayanov, who was also a former head of the technical counterintelligence department in the Soviet Union, said an attacker using Novichok needed to be a “very well educated and a trained person” to make it ready to use.
But while the UK government and the EU have expressed deep concern about the apparent use of Novichok, one doesn’t expect to see major hand-wringing from the Russian government.
After Salisbury, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova routinely mocked May’s statement that it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the Salisbury poisonings.
And after Britain produced time-stamped CCTV footage of the two Russian men accused of the Salisbury attack, the pair appeared in a bizarre television interview with Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia’s state-run RT network, just a day after Putin publicly suggested the men should come forward and tell their story.
It was a strange performance, with the two men insisting they were in the business of selling nutritional supplements and saying the purpose of their brief trip was to see Salisbury’s historic cathedral spire.
The video was something else: a bit of crude propaganda meant to distract and sow doubt. RT’s Simonyan appears to have reprised her role as smoke-blower-in-chief in the case of Navalny, suggesting on Twitter — without evidence — that Navalny’s sudden and severe illness was caused by low blood sugar.
Dmitry Polyanskiy, the first deputy permanent representative of Russia to the UN, went on Twitter in late August to allege that claims that Navalny was poisoned were simply a pretext to bash Russia.
“Before our critics will predictably promote ‘Russia did it’ narrative I once again appeal to their common sense,” he wrote. “WHY would we do it? And in such a clumsy inconclusive way?”
But one could argue the opposite: That the brazenness of Navalny’s poisoning is precisely the point, by sending a message of impunity.