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Russia asked to come clean on novichok after Navalny poisoning – The Guardian

Russia asked to come clean on novichok after Navalny poisoning – The Guardian

Russia is under pressure to reveal details of its novichok chemical weapons programme after Nato called for an impartial international investigation into the “appalling” poisoning of Alexei Navalny.

Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, convened a meeting of member states to discuss the latest findings from Germany on the Russian opposition leader, who collapsed last month on a flight from Siberia to Moscow.

German doctors treating Navalny in Berlin announced on Wednesday he had been poisoned with novichok, a lethal Russian-made nerve agent.

Speaking after the meeting, the Nato spokesperson Piers Cazelet said Moscow had “serious questions” to answer. The attempted assassination of Russia’s leading opposition politician was a breach of international law, he said, adding: “Those responsible [must] be brought to justice.”

He continued: “The use of such a weapon is horrific. Nato allies are united in condemning this attack. It shows a total disrespect for human life. Time and again we have seen critics of the [Vladimir Putin] regime attacked and threatened. Some have been killed.”

Born in 1976 just outside Moscow, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer-turned-campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation investigates the wealth of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. 

He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia’s democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. 

Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months. 

He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny’s rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote ‘not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me; against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me‘. 

There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 he was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning. In 2020, he was again hospitalised after a suspected poisoning, and taken to Germany for treatment. The German government later said toxicology results showed Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.


Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP

However, the transatlantic alliance stopped short of announcing concrete measures such as sanctions or the expulsion of diplomats. In 2018, it expelled seven Russians attached to Nato following the novichok attack by two Kremlin military intelligence hitmen on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK.

Instead, Nato urged Russia to cooperate in an investigation being led by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Cazelet said Moscow should give the OPCW “complete disclosure” of its novichok programme, which Soviet scientists developed in secret laboratories late in the cold war.

There is little prospect of that. Soon after the Skripals’ poisoning, a team of Russian state operatives were arrested after they flew to the Netherlands and tried to hack into the OPCW’s building in The Hague. They were apparently seeking evidence that might be used to discredit the OPCW’s Skripal investigation.

Russia on Friday continued to offer alternative theories for why Navalny fell ill two weeks ago after drinking a cup of tea in Tomsk airport. Alexander Sabayev, the chief toxicologist in Omsk, where Navalny was treated in hospital, said no traces of poison were discovered.

Instead, Sabayev suggested Navalny’s condition might have been caused by dieting, excessive drinking, stress, fatigue, or a “simple lack of breakfast”. Navalny’s press aide, Kira Yarmysh, derided his diagnosis. Sabayev was the “lousiest” toxicologist in Siberia, she tweeted.

The claim is completely at odds with the findings of German experts. According to Der Spiegel, toxicology tests carried out in Munich found traces of novichok in Navalny’s blood, urine and skin as well as on a bottle he had with him when he collapsed on the flight back to Moscow. He was most likely already poisoned when he drank from the bottle, which his relatives kept and passed on to German doctors, it reported.

Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures, are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries.

The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.

Novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.

The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought they can be made in different forms, including as a dust aerosol.

The novichoks are known as binary agents because they only become lethal  after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than conventional nerve agents.


Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images Europe

The magazine said the finding delivered to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her cabinet on Wednesday was a “political bomb”.

Western leaders have to decide what, if any, punitive steps to take. While there are clear parallels with the Skripal case there are also differences: the attack against Navalny was against a Russian citizen inside Russia. Proof of state involvement is likely to have been destroyed.

The EU says it is considering sanctions against Russia, while Merkel has condemned Moscow in unusually blunt terms, calling the case a crime. On Friday, the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, spoke to his German counterpart, Heiko Maas. They agreed to work together, including with the OPCW, and to bring Russia to account.

Merkel is under growing domestic pressure to reconsider her support for the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Critics include politicians from the German Greens, the Free Democratic party and prominent figures in Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

They argue that a moratorium on the nearly completed twin pipelines would be one of the few ways Berlin can exert pressure on the Kremlin. However, Bavaria’s premier, Markus Söder, insisted the multibillion-euro infrastructure project should not be directly tied to diplomacy. Its completion was a matter for private businesses, he said.

Roderich Kiesewetter, a CDU member on the foreign affairs committee, argued that while Nord Stream 2 was a “massive mistake” Merkel had inherited from her Social Democrat predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, it could not be reversed while Germany also tries to phase out nuclear and coal, and condemns fracking.

“We’ve boxed ourselves in,” he told Berliner Zeitung.

Moscow is unlikely to offer the international community any help over Navalny. Russia’s foreign ministry insists the country does not have a novichok programme and claims it ended its chemical weapons activities in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Written by MyCountryUSA

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