Despite Western and European countries and many reputable international organizations calling for objective investigations that will inevitably establish facts about the alleged “poisoning” of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russian officials have categorically turned down and confidently played against such suggestions.
He is a Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for political office, to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia, President Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s government.
According to reports, 43-year-old Navalny collapsed while flying from Tomsk (Siberia) to Moscow on August 20. He has been in a coma and unconscious since that date. When he was first treated in a Russian hospital, the doctors claimed that there were no traces of poison in his body, a claim that Russian authorities continue to endorse.
The late August case involving Navalny has added to the list. For example, the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko is not the first time the Kremlin’s secret services have been implicated in deaths on British soil.
On March 4, 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, were poisoned in the city of Salisbury, England with Novichok nerve agent, according to UK sources and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Now Navalny’s alleged poisoning has attracted global attention including the French and German government, and the European Union regional bloc. Chancellor Angela Merkel personally offered Germany’s help in treating Navalny and has called for a full Russian investigation — a sentiment echoed by officials from the United States, France and Norway.
France has condemned as a “criminal act” the apparent poisoning of opposition leader. In a statement released, the French foreign ministry demanded that the Russian authorities undertake a “quick and transparent investigation… those responsible for this act must be identified and brought to justice.”
Similarly, German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said in an official statement: “The fact that Alexei Navalny has fallen victim to an attack with the use of a chemical nerve agent in Russia is a blatant incident. At the request of Berlin’s Charite University Hospital, the Bundeswehr special laboratory has carried out a toxicological study of Alexei Navalny’s samples. Indications of a Novichok-type military-grade toxic nerve agent was definitely discovered.” Seibert said.
As a result, the German government announced that Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, the same family of nerve agents that was used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Officials said that they have obtained “unequivocal proof” from toxicology tests. It called on the Russian government for an explanation.
While President Putin has not spoken publicly about Navalny, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov explained to local Russian media that there were absolutely no grounds to accuse the Russian state of being involved in the poisoning of opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
“I’d rather be careful about speaking of accusations against the Russian state. After all, there are no such accusations, and there are no grounds whatsoever to accuse the Russian state,” Peskov said, adding, “We aren’t inclined to accept any accusations in this context.”
Peskov noted that the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has filed a request for legal assistance from Germany. Berlin has received the request, “but has not given an answer thus far”, he said.
Speaking on the Rossiya-1 television channel about Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that the situation surrounding Russian opposition activist Navalny should remain within the purview of healthcare professionals rather than policymakers.
“They rushed to microphones immediately as though they rehearsed it in advance, as though this information campaign was prepared in advance and all that was left to do was to press the button to release these carbon-copy statements all over the world,” she said in an interview with the Vecher (Evening) with Vladimir Solovyov program on the Rossiya-1 television channel.
“If politicians start taking the job away from medics, I don’t know where this world may find itself. Such things, I mean anything that concerns diagnoses, healthcare prognoses, concrete and clear wordings related to diagnosis, must be within the purview of medics. As soon as politicians start substituting for medical institutions and doctors, you can speak immediately about absolute unscrupulousness,” Zakharova told the television channel.
“What do politicians, what does the German Foreign Office, and what does the German leadership have to do with that? We need formulas, we need statements by medical institutions, and we need documents that should be provided in reply to an official inquiry from the Russian side. Put the findings on paper and pass them on to the Russian side. Our embassy works round-the-clock, and it is looking forward to receiving these materials. All the rest is called simply an information campaign, and we’ve been through that stuff before,” she added.
Many Russian media outlets, in particular the independent newspaper Kommersant, has given an almost minute-by-minute chronology of what happened after the plane with Navalny on board was landed at the Omsk airport. The public figure was promptly taken to the toxicology department of the local hospital and his treatment and examination began. Tellingly, literally within 24 hours, at the request of Navalny’s relatives and supporters, he was allowed to be taken to Germany for treatment.
On September 4, an article run by the Nezavisimaya Gazeta highlighted on how the West threatens heavier sanctions against Moscow over Novichok claims in Navalny case. It said the outcome of Navalny’s toxicological examination has fuelled discussions of sanctions against Moscow. German and American politicians had demanded that Russia should be punished for the alleged use of a nerve agent similar to Novichok.
The new sanctions could particularly include a ban on the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and Russian gas exports, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.
There is excess supply on the oil and gas market, which makes it easy to implement sanctions, Associate Professor with the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration Sergei Khestanov pointed out in his comments run by the newspaper. “Any sanctions that will reduce currency inflows from exports would be rather painful,” he stressed.
TeleTrade Chief Analyst Mark Goikhman believes that the Navalny incident makes the danger of “sanctions from hell” against Russia more real. “Those would include restrictions or even a ban on foreign investments in Russian federal loan bonds, the blocking of Russian banks’ dollar accounts in US banks and a ban on foreign payment by Russian contractors,” he explained.
On the other hand, some experts don’t expect serious sanctions to be imposed on Moscow. According to Oleg Cherednichenko, an Associate Professor at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, the German government’s statements are largely declarative. “As for real action, it will be considered after a thorough investigation of the Navalny incident takes place. If sanctions are introduced, they are most likely to be individual,” the expert added.
Cherednichenko also doubts that new sanctions will be slapped on the entire Nord Stream 2 project. “The project has recently become an ace up the sleeve of European and American politicians that they use to score political and economic points,” the analyst emphasized.
The Kommersant daily newspaper, however, highlighted that nerve agent as grounds for poisoning relations between Moscow and the West. German authorities announced on that Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was poisoned by the same substance that former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been two years ago in the United Kingdom.
Back then, the West furnished a coordinated response, which resulted in an unprecedented diplomatic scandal with Moscow. But this time, just after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech, calls were made for imposing sanctions against Russia. In turn, Moscow believes that the conclusions of the German specialists were unfounded and demanded facts, according to the article.
Program Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Ivan Timofeev, explained that sanctions against Moscow could be imposed for human rights violation and for using weapons of mass destruction, and the latter was the most likely scenario. “The mechanism created back in 2018 implies freezing assets and visa sanctions against those who create chemical weapons, use them or are involved in preparing their use. The mechanism was used against four Russian citizens, who were involved in the Salisbury incident, according to the EU,” Timofeyev said.
According to him, the poisoning scandal could also affect the EU’s stance on the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. The United States threatens to impose sanctions, the expert said. “For example, there is President Donald Trump’s decree of August 1, 2019: it stipulated sanctions over the Salisbury case, but can be used in the Navalny case. Further restrictions are possible on loans for Russia, new export and import restrictions, downgrading the level of diplomatic relations and restrictions against national airlines,” he said.
The US won’t miss a chance to punish Russia for human rights violations by possibly using the Magnitsky Act. The decisions on sanctions are unilateral, extrajudicial and political, the expert said, stressing: “The key question is how far the EU and especially the US will go given the possible harm for themselves.”
First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council’s (Upper House of Parliament or the Senate) Committee on Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Dzhabarov, told Izvestia that Moscow was again up against provocations. “You can say whatever you want. But show the documents, the results of tests and the official conclusions of the doctors. Invite our specialists so that they also assess the results. It’s clear that this is another show. We have nothing to hide and nothing to apologize for. The Russian side should now demand the official results of the examination, which our specialists should study,” the senator said.
German political scientist Alexander Rahr noted that Moscow and Berlin now need dialogue and a conference of Russian and German doctors should find out what tests the blogger underwent in Russia and Germany.
One of the creators of the Soviet nerve agent Novichok, Leonid Rink, dismissed Germany’s claims about Navalny’s poisoning as absolute nonsense. “Navalny had no symptoms linked to Novichok. If there had been, they would have been detected in Russia because this thing had a very quick effect,” the scientist told Izvestia, noting that if the opposition figure had been really poisoned by this substance, “he would have been dead now.”
IDN noted that several Russian media reports have asked Russian authorities to open an investigation into the apparent poisoning of opposition leader, absolute failure to do so will heighten suspicions that top-level Russian officials were involved in this crime or its cover-up. The world must know the truth about this brazen attempt on the life of a Russian opposition leader.
Arguably, Russia doctors claimed that there were no traces of poison in his body; a claim that Russian authorities vehemently continue to endorse. But Russian media say it is necessary to ascertain the truth through an independent investigation and Russia has to exonerate itself, or else to have an increasingly tainted image. Alexei Navalny’s case undoubtedly bears similarities to other poisoning incidents in the political history of Russia.