With international pressure building over Russia’s continued imprisonment of dissident Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin went after his critics Wednesday in a fiery state of the nation speech, warning countries who attempt to meddle not to cross unspecified “red lines,” without mentioning his domestic political antagonist by name.
As Putin spoke, protests broke out across Russia, where demonstrators chanted “Let Navalny go!” in reference to Putin’s most vociferous critic and the man believed to have been poisoned by Russian operatives last summer with Novichok, the Cold War-era neurotoxin developed in the former Soviet Union.
Navalny, who on Friday ended a three-week-long hunger strike and is said to be close to death, was very nearly killed by the exposure to Novichok, whose use as a means to exterminate political enemies first came to light in the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England. Before that, says Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, “nobody was thinking about the use of Novichok for assassination purposes” and even if they were, only a dozen or so labs in the world, he said, would be able to definitively detect it.
How many other perceived enemies of the Kremlin have been poisoned with Novichok and how long Russia’s special military intelligence units have been using the banned chemical is unclear. Novichok is a clear, odorless organophosphate. Mere drops of it are eight times more powerful than the highly toxic nerve agent VX. “These are the most lethal nerve agents we’re aware of,” says Koblentz.
In the case of Navalny, who collapsed in agony on the floor of a Moscow-bound plane from Siberia in August, screaming “I’ve been poisoned, I’m dying,” the dose should have been fatal, toxicologists say. It is believed that the toxin, which can take hours to enter the bloodstream via the skin, but is quick-acting once it’s entered, was planted in Navalny’s underwear.
Making it even harder to detect, death from Novichok poisoning can appear to have been triggered by natural causes. Overstimulating the nervous system and interfering with muscle function, causing spasms, then paralysis, the end result is an inability to breathe and depletion of oxygen, followed by heart attack or stroke.
"If things would have worked according to plan, Navalny would have died on that airplane,” said Marc-Michael Blum, a chemical arms expert, who was called in on the Skripal case. Blum believes the point of using Novichok on Navalny was that detection of the poison would have been difficult and that life support measures on the long flight to the Russian capital would not have been available.
“Then he would have arrived in Moscow. He would have been taken to a morgue and there would have been some kind of autopsy. Maybe they would have done the toxicology screen, a classical toxicology screen, and ... they would have found nothing. And it would then probably have gone undetected."
Instead, the pilot of that S7 Airlines flight made an emergency landing an hour after takeoff. Navalny, in a coma, was met by an emergency team, who injected him with atropine, an antidote for toxins. While doctors at the hospital diagnosed low blood sugar as the culprit, his staff immediately suspected poisoning, collecting an opened water bottle from the as yet uncleaned hotel room in Siberia where Navalny had been staying. Learning of Navalny’s grave state, a German foundation transported him via medical plane to Berlin, where the water bottle was sent to a military lab along with Navalny’s blood samples. The findings confirmed the presence of Novichok, a substance which Russia denied possessing or poisoning Navalny with.
In March 2018, when former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a park bench frothing at the mouth in Salisbury, British investigators quickly discovered that the doorknob to their house had been wiped with Novichok. That discovery came as a surprise, given that Putin announced in September 2017 that “the last chemical ammunition from Russian chemical weapons stockpiles” were being destroyed as part of an international chemical weapons ban signed in 1997.
When the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that Novichok had sickened the Skripals, that realization had swift political consequences for Russia: The U.K., U.S. and other allies expelled over 100 Russia diplomats, later slapping on sanctions.
“Russia is not supposed to have these weapons anymore,” said Roland Freudenstein, policy director of the Brussels-based Martens Centre for European Studies. “It’s a massive violation of commitments that Russia has made” — as a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Skripals eventually recovered from their poisoning Novichok, as did an attending policeman exposed to the toxin. Three months later, a few miles away from the scene of the crime, a man found a perfume bottle in a trash bin, and presented it to his girlfriend, who sprayed it on her wrists, unaware that it contained the nerve agent. She died and he narrowly recovered. Two years later, Navalny also nearly perished, spending over a month in the German hospital, most of it in intensive care.
David Stulík, senior analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague, said the attempted political hit in Salisbury was a wake-up call that is still having ramifications across the continent.
“After the poisoning of the Skripals, the Brits started to exchange information with allies” — specifically about two Russian spies, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, whom they alleged were behind the act. By doing so, other mysterious crimes and the actions taken by Unit 29155, a previously unknown Russian military intelligence group that the two are members of, have come to light.
As documented in a recent report by Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, the would-be killers of the Skripals had, in 2014, visited an arms depot in the Czech Republic posing as inspectors. Later, members of Unit 29155 traveled to Bulgaria, staying at a hotel near the office of Emilian Gebrev, an arms dealer who rented the Czech depot, and was believed to be selling arms to Ukraine to aid in their fight against Russia. Shortly after their visit to the Czech arms depot, 50,000 tons of arms and ammunition blew sky-high, killing two Czechs, and shortly after the visit to Bulgaria by members of Unit 29155, Gebrev nearly died from poisoning. The cause is now believed to be Novichok, wiped on the handle of Gebrev’s car door.
In a development that is rattling Europe, the government of the Czech Republic Thursday expelled most of the Russian Embassy in Prague, having days before charged that Russian agents Mishkin and Chepiga were behind the arms depot explosion. The embassy, said Stulík, is known as a center for Russian intelligence operations, and the expulsion will cripple such activities. “All the people in key positions are now gone,” he said, “and capabilities were significantly reduced.”
Stulík added that international intelligences agencies have told him they are reopening other cases of poisonings and mysterious deaths in light of the recent revelations about Novichok and Unit 29155.
Among those who may have been victims: Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza. Now living in the U.S., Kara-Murza, who is vice chairman of Open Russia, a pro-democracy organization founded by oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another Putin foe, barely survived poisoning in both 2015 and 2017 with an as-yet-unknown substance. The editorial board of the Washington Post recently called on the FBI, which investigated his second poisoning, to reveal if his poisoning was caused by Novichok. Democracy activist and Pussy Riot manager Pyotr Verzilov was writing a report about the death of three Russian filmmakers investigating graft in 2018 when he lost sight, hearing and quickly lapsed into a coma after giving an interview criticizing Putin. He, too, wonders if Novichok was the culprit. Bellingcat has identified other possible victims in recent years.
Russia crime expert Mark Galeotti believes that the spate of poisoning stems from the the massive political uprising in Ukraine in 2014 — one that prompted the Ukrainian president to hightail it out of the country (along with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was working for him).
“To the paranoid old men in the Kremlin,” Galeotti said, “it wasn’t about a population rising up against a corrupt government. It was a CIA and MI6 plot to steal Ukraine from Russia for the West. I think that’s the point where they decided, ‘We are at war — a political war with the West.’ That’s when they decided, ‘Well, if you’re in a war, you do these kind of things.'” Which is why he believes since then “we’ve seen an increase not just in poisonings, but a whole variety of covert and nonmilitary attacks” — among them, disinformation campaigns and election meddling.
Not to mention trumped up charges to lock up political opponents.
Notably, in January, when Navalny regained the ability to talk, walk, read and write, he flew on his volition back to Russia, where he was promptly arrested at Moscow’s airport and hauled off to jail. At a hearing in February, he was found guilty of violating his parole from a previous sentence — for failing to notify authorities of his travels when he was airlifted to Germany in a coma — and sentenced to 3-and-a-half years in prison.
“It takes a long time for people to fully recover and build up again,” said Alastair Hay, professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, who doubts Navalny could have fully recovered from his poisoning. “This will have weakened him,” Hay added. “And then the hunger strike. All will contribute to his state of health now.”
“Navalny,” said Galeotti, “is a threat [to Putin] in the sense that he’s a potential catalyst” who is able to motivate what Galeotti calls “the coalition of the fed up.” Whatever their beefs against Putin’s regime — corruption, lack of democracy, lightened wallets, “Navalny gave them an excuse to come together and say ‘We want something done!’” Galeotti added.
Agnieszka Legucka, a Russia expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, sees the Novichok poisonings as signal to those, like Navalny, who oppose Putin. But it is also a “very important message to NATO countries that Russia is using a forbidden chemical weapon that Russia says it doesn’t have — that it can harm not only its own citizens but citizens in any city, any country outside of Russia.” It’s a means, she said, for Putin to level the playing field. “Russia feels that it’s been marginalized” and that it has limited options to change that scenario. One option is the use of threats. “If you’re afraid of Russia, that means it exists,” she said.
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