Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group, the German government said Wednesday. The toxicology results will further raise suspicion of the Kremlin’s involvement in the attack.
Navalny, who fell ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk last month, is being treated at Berlin’s Charité hospital. He was airlifted there from Omsk after two days of painstaking negotiations between his family and personal doctor and Russian authorities, who were hesitant to release him.
Steffen Seibert, spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement that a toxicology test conducted by the Charité hospital laboratory showed “unequivocal evidence of a chemical nerve agent of the Novichok group” in Navalny’s system.
Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent, was used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the British city of Salisbury in 2018. The substance disrupts the nervous system and causes bodily functions to shut down.
Seibert said the German government would inform its partners in the EU and NATO about the test results and consult with them on a joint response. Speaking on German TV later on Wednesday, Merkel said the test results proved “that Alexei Navalny is the victim of a crime.”
“He was meant to be silenced, and I condemn this in the strongest possible manner,” she said. “There are very serious questions now that only the Russian government can answer, and must answer.”
In the first US statement, White House Nation Security Council spokesperson John Ullyot wrote on Twitter: “The United States is deeply troubled by the results released today. Alexei Navalny’s poisoning is completely reprehensible. Russia has used the chemical nerve agent Novichok in the past. We will work with allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable, wherever the evidence leads, and restrict funds for their malign activities.”
Ullyot added: “The Russian people have a right to express their views peacefully without fear of retribution of any kind, and certainly not with chemical agents.”
Allies of Navalny, a staunch critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, have accused the Kremlin of deliberately poisoning the opposition leader.
The German finding will add credence to their claim and make it more difficult for Russia’s leadership to deny any role in the poisoning, since access to the country’s stock of Novichok is highly regulated and limited to those with high-level clearance.
“In 2020, poisoning Navalny with Novichok is exactly the same as leaving an autograph at the crime scene. Like this,” tweeted Leonid Volkov, another Navalny ally, adding a photograph of Putin’s signature.
“Novichok can only be administered by the government,” and with the approval of the GRU military intelligence agency and FSB federal security service, tweeted Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, upon hearing the news. “That is without any sensible doubt.”
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told Russia’s TASS news agency that Germany had not notified the Kremlin before publishing its statement. He did not comment further.
But Russian officials and Navalny critics were quick to downplay the severity of the situation and deny the poisoning last month, claiming that his illness was caused by “metabolic disorder caused by a steep drop in blood sugar” and not poison.
In videos posted to Instagram by a passenger aboard Navalny’s Tomsk-Moscow flight on Aug. 20, the politician can be heard howling in agony from the plane’s bathroom. After the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, an unconscious Navalny was wheeled on a stretcher to an ambulance and rushed to the city’s hospital, where he fell into a coma.
He has remained in a coma for almost two weeks. The Charité hospital said in a statement on Wednesday that Navalny is in serious condition and on a ventilator. The hospital said he is gradually recovering but may have “long-term consequences” as a result of the poisoning.