Nerve agent Novichok found in Russia’s Alexey Navalny: Germany

Novichok, a Soviet-era chemical weapon, was used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom.

Tests performed on samples taken from prominent Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny showed the presence of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the German government said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement on Wednesday testing by a special German military laboratory had shown “proof without doubt of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group”.

“It is a dismaying event that Alexey Navalny was the victim of an attack with a chemical nerve agent in Russia,” Seibert said. “The German government condemns this attack in the strongest terms. The Russian government is urgently requested to provide clarifications over the incident.”

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was not informed of the German findings and had no such data, the TASS news agency reported.

But the German chancellor did not mince words.  

“This is disturbing information about the attempted murder through poisoning against a leading Russian opposition figure,” Merkel told a news conference. “Alexey Navalny was the victim of an attack with a chemical nerve agent of the Novichok group.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged Moscow to investigate the poisoning, and said the Russian ambassador had been summoned to explain the evidence.

“This makes it all the more urgent that those responsible in Russia be identified and held accountable,” Maas told reporters. “We condemn this attack in the strongest terms.”

Novichok – a military grade nerve agent – was used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom. 

The Charite hospital in Berlin, where Navalny is being treated, has reported “some improvement” in his condition, but he remains in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator.

‘Joint response’

Navalny, 44, a politician and corruption investigator who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on August 20 and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.

He was later transferred to Charite hospital, where doctors last week said there were indications he had been poisoned.

Seibert said the German government would inform its partners in the European Union and NATO about the Novichok test results. He said it would consult with its partners in light of the Russian response “on an appropriate joint response”.

Navalny’s allies in Russia have insisted he was deliberately poisoned by the country’s authorities, accusations the Kremlin rejected as “empty noise”.

“To poison Navalny with Novichok in 2020 would be exactly the same as leaving an autograph at a crime scene, like this one,” Navalny’s longtime ally and strategist Leonid Volkov said in a tweet that featured a photo of Putin’s name and a signature next to it.


Kremlin-linked poisonings

The Russian doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia have repeatedly contested the German hospital’s conclusion, saying they ruled out poisoning as a diagnosis and their tests for poisonous substances came back negative.

Al Jazeera’s Aleksandra Stoyanovich-Godfroid, reporting from Moscow, said Russia’s response was so far “cautious and restrained”. 

“The Russian doctors released Navalny with a ‘metabolic disorder’ diagnosis. Two labs in Russia didn’t find anything suspicious and a pre-investigation didn’t find anything leading to foul play,” she said. “On the other hand, the opposition is saying, ‘We knew [it was Novichok] – all the symptoms are there.'”

Novichok is a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and ’80s. It is a cholinesterase inhibitor, part of the class of substances that doctors at the Charite initially identified in Navalny.

Navalny’s allies said the German government’s identification of the poison used against him suggested the Russian state had been behind the attack.

“Only the state [FSB, GRU] can use Novichok. This is beyond any reasonable doubt,” Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on Twitter, referring to the FSB internal security and GRU military intelligence services.

‘Poisoned’ Kremlin critic Navalny arrives at Berlin hospital

‘Never blame one area’

Bharat Pankhania, from the University of Exeter Medical School, said while Russian authorities have access to chemical weapons such as Novichok, so too do other countries.

“It’s well known in the intelligence communities, despite international agreements, nations were developing these agents, and we know the Soviet Union as it was breaking up did have supplies,” Pankhania told Al Jazeera.

“But that is also not to say other states do not also have access. We should never blame one area, we know other states also have access to nerve agents.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova that Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, who was summoned to the foreign ministry on Wednesday, asked for evidence and received “no answer, no facts, no data, no formulae”.

“Russia as before expects an official answer from Berlin to the request of the Prosecutor-General’s Office” to share medical data on Navalny, she said.

The Navalny case has drawn parallels with two suspected Kremlin-linked poisonings in the UK.

British authorities identified Novichok as the poison used in 2018 on former Russian spy Skripal and his daughter in the southern city of Salisbury. The Skripals recovered, but a local woman who picked up the discarded perfume bottle in which the poison had been carried, later died in hospital.

In 2006, Putin was blamed for the radiation poisoning death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in central London, after he drank tea laced with polonium-210.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies