Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that testing had “identified unequivocally” that Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition politician, had been poisoned. Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, one of a family of exotic Soviet-era chemical weapons. Novichok is a favorite weapon of Russian intelligence operatives.
Navalny, a very high-profile critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was flown to Germany last month after falling ill while on a domestic flight. Navalny was reportedly drank a cup of tea that was laced with the nerve agent before boarding the plane.
But the 44-year old’s condition has improved. He has now been taken out of a medically induced coma.
“The patient has been removed from his medically induced coma and is being weaned off mechanical ventilation,” Berlin’s Charite hospital, where Navalny is being treated, said in a statement. “He is responding to verbal stimuli. It remains too early to gauge the potential long-term effects of his severe poisoning.”
Navalny’s supporters have accused Russian intelligence operatives of slipping the Novichok into his tea. While this seems like a storyline from the Cold War or a James Bond film, the Russians haven’t shied away from using the poison on critics or enemies of Putin, even far from their home.
In March 2018, in Salisbury, U.K., two Russian operatives attempted to assassinate former Russian spy Sergei Skripal with Novichok A234. Skripal’s daughter Yulia also fell ill after she was exposed to the nerve agent. The Skripals survived and eventually recovered but an English woman who came in contact with a perfume bottle the poison was stored in, died. The two Russian operatives left behind a sloppy trail of evidence that investigators followed in the attempted assassination.
Skripal had been a Russian GRU agent but had begun working for British MI6. The intelligence he passed on to British intelligence was instrumental in identifying over 300 Russian agents. Skripal was arrested and put in prison, but he was released in a spy swap the Russians conducted with the United States. He lived in the U.K. His daughter remained in Moscow and joined him there for a visit, shortly before the attack. The pair, after recovering, spent a year in an MI-6 safe house. They now live under assumed names in New Zealand.
In 2006, another former Russian intelligence operative, Alexander Litvinenko, who was a member of the FSB, was poisoned in London after drinking tea that had been laced with a lethal dose of polonium-210. He died three weeks later from acute radiation syndrome. Litvinenko had been critical of the corruption in Putin’s government and had fled to the U.K.
In Navalny’s case, doctors and scientists at the Bundeswehr Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology in Munich, with aid from the British scientists that had worked on the Skripal case, were able to track down and positively identify the poison as Novichok.
Russia, as it had done in the Skripal case, denies that it is involved in the poisoning of Navalny. It accused Germany of failing to provide evidence about the poisoning that Russia had requested in late August. German diplomats rejected that notion, correctly pointing out that Navalny had clearly fallen ill in Siberia on August 20 and had been treated there before being flown to Germany.
“All evidence, witnesses, traces, and so forth are in the place where the crime was committed, presumably somewhere in Siberia,” said German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger.
The Russians have denied any wrongdoing, ignoring the facts in the case and calling them disinformation. The Russian foreign ministry said there was an “ongoing massive disinformation campaign” aimed at “mobilizing sanctions sentiment.”
“Unfounded attacks on Russia are continuing,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. These had led to a “whipping up of hysteria” that had “nothing to do with Navalny’s health or “finding out the genuine reasons for his hospitalization.”
Because of this latest assassination attempt by Russian intelligence operatives, Chancellor Merkel’s office indicated that she might be willing to rethink the fate of Nord Stream 2, a controversial German-Russian gas pipeline project, as Berlin’s frustration over Moscow’s stalling in the investigation grows. Some in Merkel’s own government are calling for the German government to at least look at the possibility of canceling the pipeline.
Chancellor Merkel had been reluctant to tie the pipeline to the Navalny case, but now is entertaining that option as political fallout over the case grows. The pipeline is planned to run from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.
The foreign ministers of the G7, the world’s largest economies, have called on Putin and Russia to find and prosecute those responsible for the poisoning of Navalny.
House Democrats and Republicans of the Foreign Affairs Committee have asked President Trump to investigate and possibly sanction Russia over Navalny’s poisoning. But the White House thus far has ignored the facts. According to a statement released by the president on Friday, the administration had not yet seen proof that Navalny was poisoned.