Soon after a private plane carrying poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny touched down in Berlin last month, doctors treating him at the prestigious Charite hospital there became so alarmed they called in the army.
Navalny was certainly not suffering from low blood sugar, as the Russian doctors who first treated his mysterious illness had claimed, or even a standard detective-novel poison like arsenic or cyanide.
It was, the German doctors suspected, something far more dangerous, requiring the attention of the army’s chemical weapons specialists, German officials said.
On Wednesday, the German government confirmed the doctors’ fears: Navalny, 44, had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok family, a potent class of chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union that was used at least once before in recent years in an attack on a Kremlin enemy. Navalny remains in critical but stable condition at the Charite hospital, in a medically induced coma.
The Novichok revelation, which the German government said was based on “unequivocal evidence,” provided the strongest indication yet that the Kremlin, which has denied involvement, was behind the poisoning. Western intelligence agencies have assessed that only the Russian government would likely have access to such a dangerous weapon.
That thrust what had begun as a domestic Russian political scandal into the international arena, with serious implications for Moscow’s relations with the West.
Already, the German government has briefed its allies in the European Union and NATO, and plans to provide information about its findings to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world’s chemical weapons watchdog. All day Wednesday, Western governments issued condemnations of Russia, with the United States raising the possibility of imposing financial sanctions on those involved.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who over the years has taken pains to preserve Germany’s diplomatic relations with the Kremlin, took the unusual step Wednesday of publicly calling Russia out.
“Mr. Navalny has been the victim of a crime,” Merkel in a statement. “It raises very serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer.”
Russia is unlikely to provide such answers.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin said it had not been informed of Germany’s findings before they were announced, Russian state news agency Tass reported.
“No, such information was not conveyed to us,” said the presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. He added that Russian doctors had found no evidence of any poisonous substances in Navalny’s system before he was moved to Germany.
German officials said the Russian ambassador had been briefed around the same time the findings were made public.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Wednesday that American officials found the German conclusion about the use of Novichok “very credible” and “deeply concerning.” He said Washington was discussing a response with Germany and other allies.
It is unclear what Western governments can do to curtail such behavior. Despite years of escalating sanctions, expulsions of diplomats and international isolation, the Kremlin, according to Western intelligence agencies, continues to act concertedly to undermine U.S. and European institutions and violate international norms.
The German revelation comes less than a month after U.S. intelligence officials declared that Russia was seeking to interfere in the 2020 presidential election in the United States, using a range of techniques designed to denigrate Joe Biden and boost President Donald Trump.
And it comes a day after Facebook and Twitter announced that they had disrupted a disinformation operation launched by the same Kremlin-backed group, the Internet Research Agency, that interfered in the 2016 election.
Attacks against the Kremlin’s enemies both in Russia and abroad have also become increasingly brazen. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, who was Navalny’s predecessor at the helm of Russia’s opposition, was shot dead on a bridge near Red Square, just outside the Kremlin walls.
An attacker doused Navalny with a green liquid in 2017 that damaged his sight. In December, a former Chechen rebel commander was shot to death in a park in Berlin.
And in March 2018, operatives from Russia’s military intelligence service, known as the GRU, traveled to Britain, where they poisoned Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who had served prison time in Russia for spying for the British before being traded in a spy swap.
At the time, few in the world had heard of Novichok, a nerve agent that Soviet chemists devised for battlefield use.
It was that substance, British authorities said, smuggled into the country in a perfume bottle, that sickened Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
The Skripals survived the attack, as did two other people who came into contact with the poison, but it killed one person, a woman who handled the perfume bottle after the would-be assassins had discarded it.
Navalny’s team of doctors said in a statement that they expected a lengthy recovery and that they could not rule out lasting effects.
The United States stopped producing nerve agents in 1970, after the development of “third generation” nerve agents like sarin and VX. Soviet scientists kept at it for two more decades, developing a “fourth generation,” the Novichok group of weapons. The U.S. still has some of its aging stockpile of nerve agents, while Russia claimed in 2017 to have eliminated all of its chemical weapons.
The Skripal poisoning provoked international fury, resulting in Britain and its allies expelling more than 120 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers as well as imposing punishing sanctions.
The poisoning also turned Novichok into something of a Russian calling card.
With the substance again being used, this time to poison the Russian government’s most visible opponent, critics accused the Kremlin of thumbing its nose at its opponents both at home and abroad.
“In 2020, poisoning Navalny with Novichok is the same as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime,” Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, wrote on Twitter.
The Navalny case also sends an unmistakable message from Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, at time when Russians are holding enormous protests in the country’s Far East and pro-democracy forces have flooded the streets in neighboring Belarus, said John Sipher, a former chief of station for the CIA, who was once posted to Russia.
“In a country that’s ruled by fear you need to send signals to the population about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” Sipher said. “They want to make it clear to the people inside that if you screw with the czar, you’re going to get killed.”
Navalny, the most persistent critic of Putin, fell ill Aug. 20, on a flight back to Moscow, after spending several days meeting with opposition candidates in Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city. He had been promoting a strategy aimed at drawing support away from the dominant United Russia party before nationwide municipal elections Sept. 13.
His plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, another Siberian city, where he was first hospitalized. He was flown to Berlin two days later.
On Wednesday new details emerged about the race to identify the source of his illness.
Shortly after Navalny arrived in Germany, on Aug. 22, his doctors requested the assistance of the German military’s Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology in Munich, where there are scientists with expertise in nerve agent attacks, said a senior German security official who was not authorized to provide details about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It was only this week that military scientists made their final determination about the poison and informed the German leadership, the official said. The results were so highly classified, the official said, that even Navalny’s doctors were not immediately informed, though they had been operating under the assumption of a nerve agent attack and providing the appropriate treatment.
The Novichok class of nerve agents contains many possible variations, and the official would not provide the precise chemical formula of the substance found in Navalny, saying such information had received the highest German security classification.
German military scientists, the official said, “were 100 percent certain that it was Novichok.”
“It’s not nearly certain. It’s not probably certain. It’s absolutely certain,” the official said.
The case is expected to further strain ties between Berlin and Moscow that have been tense since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Merkel said Wednesday that Germany would consult with its European and NATO partners about a coordinated response.
“The world will wait for answers,” she said.
Germany and Russia share deep cultural and economic ties, and Merkel, who is fluent in Russian, has insisted on maintaining a dialogue with Putin through regular calls.
But she has also resisted Moscow as it has pivoted against the West. She led Europe’s move to impose economic sanctions in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, expelled two Russian Embassy employees after the German federal prosecutor’s office said it suspected Russia in the Berlin park killing near her chancellery, and is seeking sanctions against the head of Russia’s military intelligence agency over a 2015 cyberattack on the German Parliament.
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