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Top chemical weapons watchdog group confirms Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the substance was “similar” to Novichok.

A file photo dated September 29, 2019, shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a rally in support of political prisoners in Prospekt Sakharova Street in Moscow, Russia.
Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The world’s top chemical weapons watchdog group concluded that the substance ingested in August by Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critic, was a nerve agent with “similar structural characteristics” to Novichok — providing more evidence the Kremlin was behind a chemical attack on a political opponent.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’s (POCW) finding on Tuesday backs what a toxicology report in Germany found last month. Novichok is one of the world’s most lethal nerve agents. It was developed by the Soviet Union and was used on a Russian double agent in the UK two years ago.

That’s why the OPCW seemed especially concerned about what they concluded. “These results constitute a matter of grave concern,” it said in a statement. “The use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances [are] reprehensible and wholly contrary to the legal norms established by the international community.”

Luckily, Navalny was released from a German hospital on September 23 and is expected to make a full recovery. Such an outcome wasn’t guaranteed after he was placed in a medically induced after being poisoned before boarding a flight in Russia in August.

The confirmed use of a deadly nerve agent increases the likelihood that the Russian government was behind Navalny’s poisoning, as many have suspected, and has already led to condemnations from world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Sanctions from European countries may follow, though it’s unclear if the United States will take any direct action.

Which means the fallout from the suspected murder attempt might further split ties between a Europe united in its disdain for Russia’s actions and an America unwilling to chastise Moscow for the heinous act.

What happened to Navalny, briefly explained

On August 20, Navalny drank tea at a Siberian airport before boarding a flight to Moscow. He became ill on the aircraft, with a video purportedly showing the politician moaning and needing immediate medical attention.

The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, near Kazakhstan, where an ambulance waited to take him to a local hospital. But Navalny’s condition worsened, and he fell into a coma before he arrived at the facility.

Russia’s Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1, where Navalny was first treated, became the site of a frustrating standoff between Navalny’s family and supporters and the doctors overseeing his care. Navalny’s wife and team alleged the doctors were controlled by the Kremlin and tried to cover up the poisoning attack instead of properly treating their patient.

The physicians at the time said Navalny wasn’t poisoned but instead suffered from a “metabolic disorder” that led to low blood sugar. “Poisons or traces of their presence in the body have not been identified,” Anatoly Kalinichenko, the deputy chief doctor at the Omsk emergency hospital, told reporters on Friday. “The diagnosis of ‘poisoning’ remains somewhere in the back of our minds, but we do not believe that the patient suffered poisoning.”

A view of Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1 where Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny was staying.
Alexei Petrov/TASS via Getty Images

But Navalny’s team — including his wife Yulia Navalnaya, who was barred from seeing her husband in the Russian hospital, according to a spokesperson — suspected foul play. They had good reason to believe that: The Kremlin has a long, sordid history of poisoning political dissidents, defectors, and other enemies of the state.

“The medics are being totally commanded by the FSB and hardly release anything,” Vladimir Milov, a close Navalny associate, told me last week, using the acronym for Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB responsible for internal security, among other things.

“We of course cannot trust this hospital and we demand for Alexei to be given to us, so that we could have him treated in an independent hospital whose doctors we trust,” Navalnaya said in another press conference on August 21.

A medical plane sent by the Berlin-based humanitarian group Cinema for Peace Foundation arrived in Omsk on Friday to take the opposition leader to Germany for treatment. The Russian doctors initially blocked the transfer, saying Navalny wasn’t stable enough to travel, before finally allowing the German physicians to take a look at the patient’s condition.

Navalnaya wrote a letter to Putin, pleading for him to allow the transfer, and EU leader Charles Michel raised the issue and expressed concern about the situation in a Friday call with Putin. Late that Friday, the Russian physicians granted the transfer request, and Navalny arrived in Berlin over the weekend.

Hanging over all the drama is one pressing question: Did Putin have anything to do it?

As of right now, we don’t have a definitive answer to that question — and we may never get it. Turns out, that may be exactly the point.

Why Putin may be responsible for Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok

Ask people familiar with how the Russian government handles dissidents, and they unanimously note that what likely happened to Navalny is part of a long-standing Russian government playbook — one that Putin follows.

“Killing or intimidating ‘enemies of the people’ has been a staple of Kremlin policy for over 100 years,” said John Sipher, who ran CIA operations in Russia during his 28-year intelligence career before retiring six years ago.

“Putin has continued this tactic of killing his enemies at home and abroad, and has created a system where those who wish to earn the Kremlin’s support need to do [his] bidding,” Sipher said. “Whether or not Putin personally ordered the poisoning, he is behind any and all efforts to maintain control through intimidation and murder.”

Poisoning people is kind of the Kremlin’s thing. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko campaigned against a Putin ally for the presidency of Ukraine. But then he fell ill, with his face mysteriously and suddenly blotchy and the left side paralyzed. He also suffered immense abdominal and back pain. He said he had been poisoned — with dioxin, a toxic chemical, no less — but Russian officials have long denied having anything to do with what happened to him. (Oh, and Yushchenko ended up winning the presidency.)

File pictures show Ukrainian opposition and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev July 6, 2004 (left) after he received his presidential candidate certificate and giving a press conference in Kiev on October 29, 2004 (right), two days before the presidential elections.
Anatoliy Medzyk/Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

In 2006, two Russian agents put polonium-210 — a highly radioactive chemical — in former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko’s tea at a London hotel bar (he had defected to the UK). It took weeks for Litvinenko to die, and he blamed Putin for orchestrating the attack.

“You may succeed in silencing one man,” Litvinenko said from his hospital bed, “but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.” Russia continues to deny any involvement in Litvinenko’s death.

In 2018, the UK determined that Russian operatives poisoned a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain with Novichok, one of the world’s most lethal nerve agents (that just so happens to have been developed by the Soviet Union), putting both victims in the hospital in serious condition. They both recovered from the attack and are now in an unknown location — hiding out of fear of another potential attack.

And while poison is one of the most commonly used assassination tools, the Kremlin isn’t above using more prosaic methods. Boris Nemtsov, for instance, was shot near the Kremlin in February 2015. Nemtsov had been digging up dirt on the government’s misdeeds, which may have prompted Putin allies to want him dead. A man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder, but many critics believe the whole trial was a sham and a cover-up by the president’s team.

The common thread among all of these episodes, as Sipher alluded to, is that it’s unclear just how directly Putin may or may not have been involved. Plausible deniability is baked into the cake of his authoritarian system. Everyone who works in the government knows what Putin wants without him having to explicitly ask. That means Kremlin operatives have the green light to pursue some of those goals — like knocking off a political rival — while officially keeping Putin out the loop.

That, in a sense, is how he gets what he wants without having his fingerprints on the government’s dirtiest actions.

So Putin could have ordered Navalny dead himself, but it’s equally possible that someone who wanted to make Putin happy did it on their own initiative. “Navalny has lots of enemies,” said Judy Twigg, a Russia expert at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Navalny has been repeatedly jailed for instigating protests against Putin and was twice attacked with an antiseptic green dye in 2017. “It looks funny but it hurts like hell,” Navalny tweeted about the attacks.

And last summer, while Navalny was serving a 30-day prison sentence for leading anti-government protests, he was taken to the hospital with symptoms of facial swelling, itching, and a rash. As the Guardian reported at the time, doctors at the hospital said Navalny was experiencing an allergic reaction to something but didn’t say what that something was.

One of Navalny’s personal doctors also examined him, though, and she said he was suffering from “the result of harmful effects of undefined chemical substances ... induced by a ‘third person.’”

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, his wife Yulia, and others march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow on February 29, 2020.
Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

In other words, poison. There’s still no official proof of foul play (of course).

But beyond this very suggestive history, there are two other potential context clues that point the finger in Putin’s direction in this latest incident.

First, if the FSB did indeed put pressure on the Omsk hospital, as the Navalny associate Milov alleged, that would imply that Putin or someone close to him cares deeply about how Navalny’s situation is handled.

Twigg told me it’s certainly possible the FSB was involved. “The FSB would surely be highly engaged in a situation where there’s contact with foreigners,” said Twigg, especially since employees of the state — which includes most Russian medical staff — must report their contacts with international visitors, such as the German doctors.

Of course, any state security officials that were involved may have just been following protocol by inserting themselves into a situation that would clearly garner global attention. But their suspected role in keeping the German doctors from initially seeing Navalny, if true, could mean they were trying to hide something — like, say, any evidence of poison coursing through the opposition figure’s veins.

Second, things aren’t looking too great for Putin right now. He’s overseeing one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, facing protests that question his leadership, and watching as his ally in Belarus faces nationwide calls to step down. With all that instability, Putin may have wanted to target his main political rival to send a strong message.

“This is an escalation and a sign that the regime is anxious and eager to clamp down once and for all,” Alina Polyakova, the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, told me.

If that was the plan, it’s unclear whether it will actually work. If Navalny fully recovers, he may have even more credibility to form a larger opposition movement against Putin as a result of the suspected attack, experts say. Instead of getting rid of his biggest political rival, Putin (or whoever might be responsible) may have just made him more powerful.

Whether or not Navalny bounces back and is able to wield that power is what many inside and outside Russia — and certainly many inside the Kremlin — will be waiting to see.