The German government says tests on blood samples taken from Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny showed the presence of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group, a poison suspected of being used in other attempts to silence outspoken Kremlin opponents.
Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, said in a statement on September 2 that tests at a special German military laboratory had shown proof of “a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.”
Western nations and officials in unison expressed outrage over the use of a military-grade agent banned by an international treaty to poison Navalny and demanded that Russia investigate the case.
The German Foreign Office said it would be informing the Russian ambassador in Berlin of the result and demanded Moscow issue a response.
“It’s a startling event that Aleksei Navalny was the victim of an attack with a chemical nerve agent in Russia. The German federal government condemns this action in the strongest possible terms. The Russian government is urged to explain itself over the incident,” Seibert said in a statement.
Navalny, 44, fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20, forcing the plane he was traveling on to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where he spent two days in hospital before being evacuated to Germany. He is in a medically induced coma in an intensive care unit at Charite Hospital in Berlin and is on a respirator.
“A longer course of treatment for the illness is to be expected. Long-term consequences of severe poisoning cannot be ruled out,” the hospital said in a statement on September 2.
Navalny is the latest Kremlin critic to take ill from a toxic substance. Activist Pyotr Verzilov was flown to Germany from Moscow in September 2018 for medical treatment after he was poisoned with an agent that affected his nerves.
Verzilov’s poisoning came just months after former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious in a park in the English city of Salisbury.
A British investigation determined that the Skripals had been poisoned with the deadly nerve agent Novichok and alleged that the attack was carried out by Russian state agents.
In the most infamous Russia-related poisoning, Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former state security service agent who defected to Britain and became a sharp critic of the Kremlin, died in November 2006 after being poisoned with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210.
Navalny, who has been attacked several times in the past, was visiting the Siberian cities of Novosibirsk and Tomsk for his latest investigation into government corruption when he fell ill.
Navalny’s team published the results of their Siberian investigation on August 31, claiming that 18 out of 50 lawmakers in Novosibirsk are owners or represent owners of construction companies.
The activist has made many enemies over the years with his investigative videos, which have targeted Kremlin insiders, including former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and former Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the poisoning was aimed “to silence him” while the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell described it as an “assassination attempt.”
The U.S. National Security Council called the poisoning “completely reprehensible” and said Washington would work with allies “to hold those in Russia accountable, wherever the evidence leads, and restrict funds for their malign activities.”
Novichok would only be available to the “richest and most powerful,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services at the Royal United Services Institute in London, in a September 2 blog post.
“No local FSB officer or city mayor would be likely to be able to access such a nerve agent. Instead, someone would presumably need to be able to access the modern successors to the old Soviet ‘Kamera’ poisons lab,” Galeotti said, noting the SVR foreign intelligence service or FSB security service likely have access to Novichok.
Russian doctors in Omsk said last week that they did not find any evidence of poisoning in Navalny. The doctors updated their findings on September 2, saying the activist had carbohydrate metabolism complications and pancreatitis.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov reiterated that message, claiming there were no poisonous substances found in Navalny before his transfer to Germany on August 22.
Meanwhile, Navalny’s team said it had filed a lawsuit in Moscow against the Russian government for not opening an investigation into the poisoning. A hearing in that case will be held on September 4.
Novichok group chemicals were developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and are more toxic than other nerve agents.
They work by blocking messages from the nerves to the muscles, causing a collapse of many bodily functions. They can lead to vomiting, sweating, a loss of consciousness, coma, and death.
Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) treaty agreed in November to update the list of banned Schedule 1 chemicals to include the Novichok group following the Skripal poisoning.
CWC member states are not allowed to possess, develop, stockpile, use, or transfer Schedule 1 substances, said Julia Masterson, a researcher at the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
Russia initially objected to the proposal from Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States to add the Novichok group to the list.
They were officially included on June 7, meaning its existence and use in Russia violated the international treaty.
Germany said it would contact the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the treaty’s watchdog, and “discuss an appropriate joint reaction with the partners in the light of the Russian agreement.”
The OPCW will carry out its own investigation into the incident.
Depending on its findings and Moscow’s cooperation, the OPCW Exeuctive Council could recommend that CWC state parties vote to restrict or suspend Russia’s rights and privileges as a member of the CWC or refer the case to the UN, Masterson told RFE/RL.
The OPCW’s Executive Council may discuss the investigation at its upcoming meeting in October, she said.
The British government expelled 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow refused to cooperate with an investigation into the Skripal poisoning.
“We will work with international partners to ensure justice is done,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement, calling the use of the agent “outrageous.”
With reporting by AP, dpa, and Deutsche Welle