The Russian Patient Belarus, the Kremlin and the Attack on Alexei Navalny

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s condition is apparently improving as he receives treatment in Berlin. But was he really poisoned at the behest of the Kremlin? There is plenty to indicate that he was.

By Alexander ChernyshevChristian EschMatthias GebauerChristo GrozevChristina HebelMartin KnobbeMathieu von RohrMarcel RosenbachFidelius SchmidChristoph SchultChristoph Seidler und Severin Weiland

It is the evening before he would be poisoned, the evening before the star of the Russian opposition would be transformed into a hospital patient, and Alexei Navalny is in excellent form. He is making an appearance in the university town of Tomsk, located in western Siberia, and his local supporters have asked him a question that he has had to answer so many times before: How is it possible that he’s still alive?

It’s the last stop on Navalny’s long trip through western Siberia, which began in Novosibirsk, but now Russia’s most famous opposition politician has made his way to the smaller city of Tomsk, a city that hasn’t benefited much from the region’s oil wealth.

He kept his arrival secret, because he is reporting on corruption among local representatives of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. It isn’t a good idea for him to cause a stir and he knows that he is constantly under surveillance.

Nowhere on the invitation for the evening’s event did it say that Navalny himself would be showing up. The opposition activists meet up in the organization’s regional office located on the fifth floor of a red brick building. Around two dozen people have shown up.

Navalny speaks about the approaching regional elections in September and their importance for Tomsk, where a new city parliament will be chosen. He starts by explaining his tactics for doing as much damage as possible to United Russia and then opens up the floor for questions.

One listener wants to know what Navalny has to say about accusations he’s actually a Kremlin stooge. He is still alive, after all. And wouldn’t a real Kremlin opponent have been killed long ago?

Navalny smiles. “I now have to justify myself for the fact that I haven’t been murdered?” he responds. The anecdote was shared by a meeting participant with whom DER SPIEGEL spoke.

Navalny points to the pin that someone is wearing reading “Nemtsov Bridge,” a reference to the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot and killed on a bridge near the Kremlin. Navalny says: “If they kill me, it will just create more problems for those in power. Just as was the case with Nemtsov. Demos, insignias, T-shirts with his name, and the rest of it.”

Nobody in the room knows that these are the last hours in which Navalny will be able to speak. Soon, he will be closer to death than to life.

A Heavily Guarded Hospital Room

Navalny, the Russian patient, is now in the center of Berlin, just 600 meters from the Chancellery. He has been here since a week ago Saturday. Though his symptoms are reportedly improving, he is still in a coma in the ICU of Berlin’s Charité University Hospital. And his room, behind a rather nondescript door, is heavily guarded by German federal police officers.

Although his life is no longer in danger, as the clinic announced late last week, he is still in serious condition. Charité also announced last week that the cause of his illness is, in fact, poisoning. “The clinical findings indicate an intoxication with a substance from the family of cholinesterase inhibitors,” the hospital said in a statement. Lasting damage to his nervous system cannot be ruled out.

Navalny came to Berlin because German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally intervened on his behalf, and there is a very real chance that he would no longer be alive today had she not done so. Sources close to the chancellor say that she has requested daily and detailed briefs about his condition.

But it wasn’t just Navalny who came to Germany, so too did the questions about what actually happened to him. The poisoning of the Russian opposition leader is no longer just a suspenseful mystery — it has made it onto the international political stage.

There are myriad questions that must now be answered. Who poisoned Navalny and what is their connection to the Kremlin? Did Putin himself order the poisoning of his most vocal critic? Where did the poison come from? How was it administered? And is there a connection between Navalny’s fate and the people in Belarus who – much to Putin’s annoyance – have been protesting for weeks against the election fraud perpetrated by dictator Alexander Lukashenko? Is the timing just a coincidence, or were the demonstrations in Minsk the reason for the attack?

The German government now has to find a way to deal with a regime that is clearly prepared to simply eliminate its harshest critics. With a regime whose enemies are also killed outside of Russia. And with a regime which has continued to develop into a pariah state and a dark adversary to Europe.

A Story of Pain

It’s Tuesday of last week and Navalny’s chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, is sitting in a café in the heart of Berlin, just a few kilometers from Charité hospital. He has taken an hour out of his day to talk about what he thinks happened and why his friend and boss might have been poisoned.

He sets two mobile phones on the table and orders a black coffee and bread with jam as a constant stream of messages lights up his phones. He painstakingly taps out his answers. A man with large eyes and a reddish beard, when Volkov speaks, he is so precise, concise and impatient that it seems as though his thoughts have already raced on ahead and he can hardly wait for his conversation partner to catch up. It would be easier to imagine the former IT entrepreneur in Silicon Valley than in Russian politics.

With Navalny in a coma, Volkov must try to replace him as well as he can. He is also helping Navalny’s wife Yulia and their family, who are also in Berlin. Volkov is trying to continue carrying out Navalny’s work. Volkov says the goal is “to hurt Putin and the Kremlin.”

The story of Alexei Navalny’s poisoning is one of pain – of the excruciating pain that the Kremlin likely inflicted on the country’s most prominent opposition activist because he had the temerity to get involved in politics. That’s Volkov’s view. He was poisoned, Volkov is convinced, because Navalny knows the regime’s Achilles heel and has gone after it with all the power at his disposal. He believes that Putin is to be blamed for Navalny’s suffering, despite all the confusing messages from Russia that keep popping up on the screens of Volkov’s mobile phones. “If it walks like a duck and swims like a duck, then it’s a duck,” he says.

Heading for Home?

The events that have taken place since Navalny lost consciousness speak for themselves. On Aug. 20, a Thursday morning, Navalny and his two assistants headed to the small airport in Tomsk for their flight back to Moscow. After passing through security, Navalny bought a tea for 100 rubles at the Wiener Kaffeehaus and sat down to wait for flight S7 2614 to Moscow, which was scheduled to take off at 7:55 a.m. The 3,000-kilometer flight usually takes over four hours.

Navalny’s plans for the day included recording his weekly internet program, but he was ultimately unable to do so. He didn’t make it back to Moscow either, even though his plane took off with just an eight-minute delay.

In video footage taken inside the plane, Navalny can be heard screaming in pain shortly after takeoff. The pilot changed course to make an emergency landing in Omsk, though a bomb threat at the airport almost prevented the landing. On the ground in Omsk, Navalny was brought to Emergency Hospital No. 1, where he was immediately given atropine, a common antidote for certain nerve agents, and placed in an artificial coma.

The doctors’ initial suspicion was that Alexei Navalny had been poisoned. Specialists were brought in from the capital, while blood and urine samples were sent to Moscow laboratories for testing.

Then, though, the doctors in Omsk suddenly claimed that no toxins had been identified. The chief physician at the hospital, playing nervously with a pen throughout his statement, said he suspected metabolic problems or a blood sugar issue. He made it sound as if the entire problem could have been avoided if Navalny had just sucked on a bit of candy.

Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh tweeted out that the family was told that Navalny had been contaminated with a substance dangerous to both him and his surroundings. It didn’t sound like a blood sugar issue.

Were the doctors threatened? Did they receive bad information from the Moscow laboratory? Was it because the chief physician is a loyal member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia? Or with the men in civilian clothing who were in his room and who likely belonged to the domestic intelligence service FSB? Were they just waiting until the traces of the poison had disappeared?

Not Fit for Travel

The situation didn’t change for almost two days, even though Navalny’s family – his wife Yulia and his brother Oleg – continually demanded that the patient be transferred. On the Friday of the week he was poisoned, a Challenger jet belonging to the Nuremberg airplane charter company FAI arrived in Omsk, ready to fly Navalny to Berlin. The specialized plane was equipped with a mini-ICU onboard, complete with a doctor and two paramedics. But the chief physician and the rest of the hospital leadership refused to release their patient, saying he was not fit for travel.

By that point, it seemed as though half of Europe was invested in Navalny’s fate. Both Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were offering medical assistance.

In conversations with Berlin government officials, one gets the impression that Germany deliberately got involved in the case. Merkel personally intervened to urge Putin to grant the Navalny family’s wish that he be allowed to seek treatment in Germany. In contrast to her standard procedure, she didn’t call the Russian president personally, instead using a long-planned telephone meeting between Putin and the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö to communicate her desire that Navalny be allowed to leave Russia.

Niinistö is seen as someone who Putin trusts. Still, the Finnish president told DER SPIEGEL, he didn’t have to do much convincing, saying that Putin told him he didn’t have a problem with the transfer. A half hour after the conversation, permission was granted for Navalny to be flown out.

With that, Russia’s leading opposition politician – a man whose name Putin has never even deigned to utter – became something of a special guest of the chancellor. Early that Saturday, the patient was picked up at Berlin’s Tegel Airport with a police escort. The German military made a special, covered stretcher available out of concern that Navalny could pose dangers to others. Lights flashing, he was then brought to Charité.

On Monday, the Berlin hospital confirmed what the Omsk clinic had been at pains to deny: Navalny was poisoned.

“The Patient”

One reaction to the fate Navalny has suffered is particularly interesting for the fact that it doesn’t exist: namely that of the Kremlin. Russia’s government agencies are acting like nothing happened.

The Kremlin continues to avoid uttering Navalny’s name, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov using the appellation “the patient” when speaking of Navalny. And the Kremlin has refuted any culpability, in part because it denies the existence of any criminal offense that needs be investigated. In Peskov’s words: “There must be a reason for an investigation. For the moment, all you and I see is that the patient is in a coma.”

When expressing sympathy, they merely say that, “like every citizen,” they wish the man well. It was only last Thursday that state prosecutors announced a preliminary investigation after the bizarre theory was espoused by Moscow that the entire affair could have been staged by Germany.

Indeed, the more the Kremlin insists that Navalny is meaningless, the more it proves the opposite. He is perhaps Putin’s most frustrating opponent because he is constantly demonstrating what the country is missing. And he is dangerous because he destroys Putin’s dream of complete stability.

When Putin gave a long television interview last Thursday, not a single word was mentioned about Navalny. Instead, Putin announced that Russia had established a kind of “security taskforce” for Belarus to help Alexander Lukashenko out should he need it. And again, the question arises whether events in Belarus and those surrounding Navalny are linked.

An Example to Be Followed?

Is Putin afraid that he could become the target of the kinds of protests currently aimed at his counterpart in Minsk? Is he afraid of Navalny, his worthiest public opponent, who repeatedly called Belarus an example to be followed?

Alexei Navalny is an exceptionally talented politician. He compensates for much of what Russia doesn’t have enough of or lacks altogether: extra-parliamentary opposition, critical television broadcasters, labor unions, and even investigative journalism, to some extent. It is impossible to imagine Russia without him – and that is one of the few things he has in common with Putin.

“Navalny has a unique talent. His political instincts almost never lead him astray,” says Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist in Moscow. “And he has charisma, a physical presence.”

His political career began back in the 1990s with Yabloko, a liberal party that was primarily popular among professors and attracted single-digit support. Navalny was a rather atypical member of the party: a young lawyer and anti-corruption activist who was critical of the party leadership and leaned far to the right politically. He had close ties with nationalists, which led to his expulsion from Yabloko. From that point on, he was his own party leader.

Fall 2013 was the first time that Putin truly realized that Navalny was more capable than other anti-Kremlin activists. The previous year, Putin had returned to the Kremlin as president after a four-year stint as prime minister. After quelling the widespread opposition protests that accompanied the move, Putin felt so secure in the Kremlin that Navalny was allowed to become a candidate for mayor in Moscow.

Navalny, of course, didn’t really stand a chance. His role was to make the election appear more legitimate. Except that he almost pushed incumbent Sergey Sobyanin into a run-off election after unexpectedly pulling in 27 percent of the vote.

Extraordinary Obsessiveness

Seven years have passed since then, during which the Kremlin has consistently applied the lesson it learned back then: Never again allow Navalny to play an official political role. Meanwhile, Navalny – who many opposition activists can’t stand – has spent the last seven years hammering away at the Putin fortress.

His obsessiveness is extraordinary. In December 2016, Navalny announced that he was going to run against Putin in the 2018 presidential elections. Many Russians thought it was crazy, given that the Kremlin still makes decisions regarding who is allowed to be a candidate and who is not.

But Navalny drove up the price for the anticipated ban of his candidacy. He mobilized supporters in the regions, traveled throughout the country and campaigned like a real candidate for the presidency. It was as though he were telling his supporters that if they acted like there was real politics in Russia, it would be so.

The Kremlin rejected Navalny’s registration, of course. But with his campaign, Navalny had essentially created a new opposition party, even if it wasn’t referred to as such. It had everything that a party needs: regional chapters, a voter base, a leader and, even though it is rather imprecise, an ideology. He himself describes it as: “Don’t lie, don’t steal.” Over the years, he has moved to the left politically, paying more attention to social issues, while little of the nationalism and xenophobia from earlier has remained. Aside from his demand that Russians be allowed to carry weapons.

At the same time, Navalny has built up his own small media empire, which is a necessity given that Kremlin broadcasters avoid mentioning him.

A New Genre

Navalny’s broadcaster is YouTube. In 2015, he posted a clip called “Chaika,” which means “seagull,” about the family of then Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, whose sons have a number of business interests, including waste management. The video was essentially the birth of a new genre in Russia: The lively, fast-moving anti-corruption documentary, full of humor and professionally produced.

Instead of rows of dry numbers, Navalny’s videos show sprawling villas photographed from above, private images posted by the powers that be on Facebook and Instagram, well-designed information graphics and Navalny making personal visits. “Chaika” was enormously successful. According to surveys taken in 2015, 5 percent of the population had seen the film and 38 percent had heard or read about it.

His biggest success came in 2017 with a film about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Navalny’s crew flew a drone over Medvedev’s secret residence on the Volga River and over his winery in Tuscany. The YouTube film has been clicked on 38 million times. It also triggered large youth demonstrations and badly damaged Medvedev’s reputation. “He supposedly got drunk for a week right afterwards, and he looked like it too,” Navalny said in a 2017 interview with DER SPIEGEL.

Every Thursday evening at 8:00 p.m., he speaks to the viewers of his YouTube channel, called “Navalny Live.” On Aug. 13, exactly a week before his poisoning, he made his last appearance on the channel. Wearing a coat and tie, he resembled a breakfast television host with his demonstratively good mood.

“Grab State Power By the Throat”

The focus that day was the protest movement in Belarus. He devoted two-and-a-half hours of the three-hour show to the neighboring country, clearly excited as he sought parallels to Russia. He was pleased to point out that the slogans used by demonstrators in Minsk were similar to those in the far-eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk, where tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating against Putin for weeks. “Khabarovsk, listen carefully,” he said before he began talking about the strikes in Belarus. Those strikes, he said, demonstrate how to “grab state power by the throat.”

In late July, Navalny said on his show that “Lukashenko is the father, Putin’s political teacher.” He said: “The man has established a regime and Putin merely copied it. Lukashenko is consistently two to three years ahead of him.” In other words, Belarus is the crystal ball through which Putin can peer into his own future.

Navalny’s followers have been electrified by what is happening in Belarus. A scenario has come true there that they would like to see repeat itself in Russia: A real opposition candidate allowed to run for election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in this case. Lukashenko opened the door just a crack, and the opposition streamed through.

On election day in Belarus, Navalny’s team put together six straight hours of coverage. It included personalities like Leonid Volkov and Vladimir Milov – and all were talking about the neighboring country. From the point of view of Navalny’s enemies, it was clear that he was trying to ensure that the sparks of Belarus would start a fire in Russia.

Many among the Russian elite would like to see harm come Navalny’s way. Few others have made so many powerful enemies at once. The villain protagonists portrayed in his investigative reports include Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika; Alexander Bastrykin, the former chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office; former Prime Minister Medvedev and his ministers; Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov; Rosneft boss Igor Sechin; executives at state-owned companies; the head of the space agency; members of Russian parliament, the Duma; as well as officials with United Russia, the ruling party.

Some have openly threatened Navalny in the past. Putin’s former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, who is now head of the powerful National Guard, openly called for a duel with him. Among those particularly angry with him is Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s former chef, who has risen to become the head of a conglomerate of companies that includes Wagner, a private army of mercenaries. It has been reported that he helped exert influence on the election campaigns in the United States and Britain.

Ultimately, it may be Navalny’s own people who make an important contribution to resolving what actually happened. This week, after publication on Friday of the German version of this article, they published their own report on the research they conducted in Siberia.

Navalny is thought to have been in Novosibirsk to investigate members of the United Russia party in the Siberian city – all of whom are active in the local construction industry, where there have been numerous corruption scandals. They reportedly have close ties with the former deputy regional director of the FSB, who now heads the FSB in Tomsk. Navalny is said to have been kept under close surveillance while in the city, his last stop before continuing on to Tomsk. “They follow us on foot, tail us with entire convoys of cars, each of us tailed by two or three cars,” Navalny staffer Georgy Alburov said in a video on a local YouTube channel. “And they try to watch where we were going. What we are doing. They filmed us secretly.”

Did Orders Come from the Top?

One can only speculate over who exactly commissioned the attack on Navalny. Was it the enemies he made in West Siberia? “The local leadership is good at small-scale harassment – administrative detention and fines,” says Ksenia Fadeyeva, the head of Navalny’s Tomsk headquarters. “But Navalny is Putin’s enemy. Neither the governor nor the local chiefs of the security organs would dare to do something like this without clearing it with the very top.”

Did Putin himself have Navalny removed because he viewed him as a threat? “I would never believe that Putin feels weak or vulnerable toward Navalny,” analyst Tatiana Stanovaya says. “Putin believes he is one of a kind and that his system is stable. He doesn’t even consider Navalny to be a politician, but rather a fraud and busybody without any political weight. That’s why he never refers to him by name. Others view Navalny as a serious threat, including Security Council of Russia head Patrushev, FSB head Bortnikov and foreign intelligence service director Naryshkin. But not Putin.”

One thing can be said for certain though: Navalny’s poisoning is a product of the system Putin built. And few have doubts that there is a direct line from this act to the highest levels of Russian leadership.

It starts with the technique used: poisoning, possibly with a military-grade nerve agent. It may be true that the services have lost their monopoly on such methods, but it is a typical technique used by intelligence. Moscow intelligence expert Andrei Soldatov says Putin has done everything in his power in the last four years to bring the entire state apparatus under strict control. “That someone would carry out an independent operation in an atmosphere like that is much harder to imagine than it would have been 15 years ago,” he says.

And Gleb Pavlovski, who was once a powerful Kremlin spin doctor, is certain: “An assassination attempt is very dangerous for whoever commits it. You can only protect yourself at the very top – I would say at one level of leadership below Putin and his immediate environment, at least.” He doesn’t believe that Putin was asked for permission. “Putin would probably forbid something like that because he’s careful. He doesn’t like to give direct orders anyway. But you don’t have to ask him either. The person who did it presumably assumes that he is acting in Putin’s interest – that he is doing what Putin himself refrains from doing out weakness of will but really ought to do.”

In other words, Putin himself doesn’t poison any opponents, but he has created a system that allows it to happen free of punishment – and he provides cover for the perpetrators.

Badly Shaken Relations

Even Angela Merkel, who for years has treated Putin with equal amounts of toughness and patience, has increasingly despaired of late when it comes to the Russian president. It was on full display in mid-May in German parliament.

Immediately prior to the chancellor’s appearance, Germany’s Federal Prosecutor had blamed the Russian military intelligence service GRU for hacking attacks on the Bundestag in 2015. Two email accounts from Merkel’s parliamentary office were hacked. “I can say very honestly that it pains me,” a visibly upset chancellor told parliament, adding that it was all the more troubling because she “strives every day to improve relations with Russia.”

And it wasn’t just the hacking event that shook German-Russian relations so deeply. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office also accused Russian state agencies of having commissioned the murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvil, a Chechen man with a Georgian passport, in broad daylight in a park in central Berlin in August 2019. Germany subsequently expelled two Russian diplomats, and government officials have said that more action could follow.

German politicians were at least as outraged over the way Russia handled the fallout from the assassination as they were with the crime itself. The German Foreign Ministry submitted 17 requests for assistance in solving the crime and not a single one received a response. As such, it is hardly surprising that in their first joint statement on the Navalny case, the chancellor and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called on Moscow to resolve the crime. Measured against the general standard for German diplomacy, the language chosen for the statement was unusually clear. “The country’s authorities are urgently called upon to fully investigate this matter,” they said in a joint statement. “And to do so in a completely transparent way.” Those responsible must be “identified and brought to justice.”

It was an attempt to put the ball in Russia’s court: If you claim you had nothing to do with it, then prove it.

“Poisoning Must Have Been Ordered from High Up”

Estonian Defense Minister Jüri Luik told DER SPIEGEL: “I am 100 percent certain that decisions of that magnitude are not made by governors or lower officials. Navalny’s poisoning must have been ordered from high up. The Skripal case shows that the truth always comes out in the end.”

So far, it doesn’t appear that the Navalny case will lead to a tightening of existing EU sanctions against Russia, but the situation could change quickly.

“It is sobering that all efforts to improve relations with Europe are being rejected by the Kremlin,” says Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy coordinator for Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats in the Bundestag. “If the evidence mounts that Navalny was the victim of poisoning and that it was either tolerated or even commissioned by the state, the European Union must act in a united and determined manner and also scrutinize current economic relations with Russia.”

Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democrats’ party group in the Bundestag, is calling for the “rapid introduction of a person-specific EU sanctions mechanism that can be used in the event of serious human rights violations.” Those responsible must “quickly feel the consequences of their criminal actions,” he says.

Clues About the Substance Used

The exact substance used in Navalny’s poisoning still hasn’t been determined. “It should still be possible to find the signature of the substance used in samples of Navalny’s blood plasma,” says chemist Marc-Michael Blum, who headed the laboratory of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for two years.

At the very least, there are clues about what it could be. After admitting the prominent patient to the hospital, doctors at Charité found that an important enzyme was blocked in his nervous system: acetylcholinesterase.

“A number of chemical substances can have these effects, including, in particular, organic phosphoric acid esters and phosphonic acid esters,” says chemical weapons expert Ralf Trapp. Experts also refer to these substances as organophosphates.

Some pesticides fall into the category, but also chemical weapons developed for military purposes, such as tabun, sarin, soman, the nerve agents of the V series as well as the Novichok family of poisons.

Those who come into contact with these substances show severe poisoning symptoms: The substances cause saliva and tears to flow, a loss of control over the bowels, muscle twitching and a decreased heartrate. They can also cause central respiratory paralysis.

If the poison is inhaled, it only takes seconds, or perhaps a few minutes, for it to take effect. If it is ingested through food, experts say it takes 30 minutes to, at most, an hour. If the poison enters the body through the skin, several hours can pass before it takes effect. It’s possible that the latter was what happened to Navalny, meaning that the much-speculated tea at the airport may not have played a role.

A History of Poisonings

Contact poisoning is what took place on March 4, 2018. In the British town of Salisbury, agents from the Russian military secret service GRU coated the door handle of the home belonging to former double agent Sergei Skripal with a deadly nerve poison, also an organophosphate. It belonged to a family of chemical warfare agents previously known only to specialists – a group of agents collected under the name Novichok. The substances were initially developed in a few high-security laboratories in the Soviet Union and were later further refined in Russia.

The former spy and his daughter Yulia, who had just arrived from Russia for a visit, both came into contact with the substance on the door handle and were later found unconscious on a park bench. Both were admitted to the hospital with severe symptoms of poisoning, and they barely survived.

A related case now seems to be of particular interest to the doctors at Berlin’s Charité University Hospital: the poisoning of Bulgarian weapons manufacturer Emilian Gebrev five years ago. It turns out that a GRU agent who also played a role in the Skripal poisoning had entered the country shortly before Gebrev’s collapse. DER SPIEGEL has learned that experts at Charité last week contacted Gebrev’s Bulgarian doctors to compare their clinical findings with those of Navalny. They apparently see parallels.

In Navalny’s case, Charité experts are investigating the use of a nerve agent. In Berlin, officials have also requested help from the German army, the Bundeswehr, and from Porton Down in Britain.

The Bundeswehr maintains a laboratory for pharmacology and toxicology in Munich, and the strictly shielded complex is home to what are likely Germany’s most accomplished experts on poisons and chemical warfare agents. Officially, the Bundeswehr will neither confirm nor deny that its scientists are actively involved in the matter. Insiders say that in such a highly politicized case, they don’t want to appear as playing an active role as that may provide Moscow with additional fodder for disinformation campaigns.

Porton Down is the center of British biological and chemical weapons research. It became globally famous in connection with the Skripal case. Scientists there quickly confirmed the use of Novichok and later became the target of numerous false conspiracy theories spread by the Russian state media, which claimed the poison really came from Porton Down.

Poison attacks on those deemed persona non grata have a long tradition in Russia. Pyotr VerziIov has a lot to say about it. He’s one of the most famous opponents of the Kremlin in Moscow and is part of the activist artist scene. Verzilov is the ex-husband of Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and his last big action took place during the final match of the World Cup in Moscow in 2018 when he and three friends managed to run out onto the field in police uniforms.

Soon after, Verzilov was attacked. He was suddenly no longer able to see or speak correctly and then he lost consciousness. He was also flown to Berlin for treatment at Charité hospital. Doctors in Berlin considered poisoning to be “the most plausible explanation.”

A “Very Convenient Working Method”

“When I saw the pictures of Alexei Navalny in Omsk,” Verzilov says, “it was immediately clear to me that he had been poisoned. I’ve been through all that, too.” He helped chief of staff Volkov bring Navalny to Berlin and facilitated the contact with Charité. He thinks it would have been much harder to fly Navalny out of Russia without international pressure.

Verzilov says he has been good friends with the opposition leader for years and that they regularly go running together. Navalny once even asked him how quickly it takes to recover completely after a poisoning.

Verzilov is convinced of Kremlin involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. He says that Putin and those close to him act as though they are living in the times of Machiavelli. Everyone poisons, murders and weaves conspiracy theories against others, he says.

For the country’s leadership, he says, poisonings have become a “very convenient working method,” because it is much more effective than prison sentences, which always require legal proceedings. There’s also a danger of sparking new protests if those verdicts are deemed to be unjust.

Poisoning also causes prolonged suffering, which distinguishes it from other forms of murder. Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, for example, were both shot, and they died quickly. Poisoning takes longer.

Secret service expert Andrei Soldatov says that the psychological effect of the prolonged suffering caused by poisoning is intended. “The process of dying drags on and on – and this alone means that such an attack has a stronger effect on society. It’s like a hostage situation that drags on. And for the friends and relatives, it is terrible to see how the victim gradually changes.” Every poison attack contains a message, Soldatov says – to the victim’s fellow activists and to society. In Navalny’s case, the message is: Anyone who interferes with politics is putting him or herself in grave danger.

With the poisoning of Navalny, the price for participation in public life in Russia has risen dramatically. And because it is so obvious that Putin bears political responsibility and that he shows no interest in solving crimes, Russians can draw their own conclusions.

But what was the motive? Chief of Staff Volkov suspects that Russia’s leadership feels threatened by Navalny’s strategy of “smart voting,” which refers to the highly organized funneling of protest votes. It’s a typical Navalny idea: modern, service-oriented and aggressive. He takes care of regional analysis so that voters must only glance at their smartphones to determine how to vote in a way that will hurt Putin the most.

It abolishes the separation, so important for Russia, between the permitted opposition and the “non-systemic,” radical one that is not allowed access to the elections. Navalny’s people decide which official candidates get their votes, thus making those candidates their own. Doing so helps them sidestep bans on their own candidates in some areas. The strategy proved extremely successful in the 2019 municipal elections in Moscow.

Belarus “Was the Trigger”

“Navalny has found the antidote to Putinism,” commented fellow activist Vladimir Milov in assessing “smart voting.” He thinks that the turmoil in Belarus is also important. “That was the trigger,” Milov claimed in one of his last YouTube appearances. “Oh, look how frightened Putin is!” He says the attack on Navalny is “the direct result” of this “panic.”

The one doesn’t exclude the other. The pooling of the protest votes that took place in Lukashenko’s brutally simple regime with more primitive methods – because only one real opponent was admitted in the election – needs to be fought for with more refined methods in Putin’s more refined system. But the goal of the protest vote is the same: to give the leadership a slap in the face.

“It’s all very similar,” says Moscow opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov. “On the one hand, you have two dictators who are losing their popularity. And on the other, a growing willingness to protest.”

Omega Plaza is an office building with a reddish granite façade in the southeast of Moscow, located near the Avtozavodskaya metro station. This is where Navalny’s TV studio and office is located. Police search the offices and seize computers and equipment here frequently.

Lyubov Sobol, 32, the producer of Navalny’s YouTube channel, apologizes for running late. “We’re currently broadcasting live – the protests in Belarus,” she says. “I’ll be right back.”

She slumps down into the sofa and her 6-year-old daughter plays on a mobile phone next to her. Looking pale, Sobol takes a deep breath. Then she starts speaking, quickly and quietly. “The president is very afraid that what we are seeing in Belarus will be repeated in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of people on the streets who are no longer willing to accept the Lukashenko regime, who want to live in a normal country.”

The lawyer has been working for Navalny since 2011. When she met him for the first time, she told him how happy she was that he hadn’t been arrested and killed.

“It was a joke and we laughed, but looking back from today’s perspective it was a very bitter joke,” Sobol says as her eyes well up with tears. Her voice cracks and she takes a breath. Everyone on Navalny’s team is aware of the perils their work entails. “But it is the choice we made. And we will keep going,” she says.

Navalny’s YouTube broadcast aired on Thursday without him. In Berlin, his aide Volkov doesn’t have any good news about the state of Navalny’s health. “We have to lower our expectations,” he says. “And we have to understand that we won’t be getting Alexei back as he was any time soon.”

Der Spiegel

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