On August 20th, 2020, Alexei Navalny, a prominent anti-corruption advocate and fierce critic of the Kremlin rule, collapsed mid-flight on his way to Moscow from Siberia. Specialized laboratories in Germany, France, and Sweden, as well as the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) would later confirm that Navalny had been poisoned by the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. Despite Navalny’s lengthy yet full recovery, the topic of his poisoning has remained controversial due to the various narratives concerning who is responsible for his poisoning and the distinct lack of justice brought forth on Navalny’s behalf.
Although Russia has yet to be formally implicated in the crime, Navalny himself has outright accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the poisoning. Putin and Russian officials have repeatedly and vehemently denied any involvement in the attack. Nevertheless, other international leaders have voiced their suspicions and concerns surrounding Russia’s level of complicity in the poisoning, demanding that Russia conduct a transparent investigation into how a Russian citizen on Russian soil came to be the victim of a chemical nerve agent.
Alexei Navalny is an anti-corruption activist, blogger, and leader of Russia’s “non-system” opposition (i.e., an opposition party that is neither officially recognized nor tolerated by Russia’s parliament). He is widely known as the leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and often likens President Putin to a “would-be tsar” and accuses the president’s ruling United Russia party to be a “party of villains and thieves.”
”I assert that [Vladimir] Putin was behind the crime, and I have no other explanation for what happened,”-Alexei Navalny
In 2013, Navalny ran for Moscow mayor and garnered 27 percent of the vote in the mayoral election, nearly enough to force his opponent Sergey Sobyanin—who was hand-picked by President Vladimir Putin—into a second round. Since the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, Navalny and his party, Russia of the Future, have been denied the opportunity to compete in further elections. However, this has not dissuaded Navalny from his anti-corruption activist efforts. He has continued to organize and participate in numerous anti-Kremlin protests, some of these demonstrations even resulting in his imprisonment.
Until its disbandment in July 2020, Navalny had also led the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which had successfully uncovered corrupt dealings of Russian government-linked senior figures such as former Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, and then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. More recently, Navalny has been particularly critical and vocal about the amendments made to the constitution that would allow Vladimir Putin to remain president until 2036. He has expressed his belief that the vote to pass the amendment was rigged and likened it to a coup.
Although Navalny has not seriously threatened the Kremlin’s rule over Russia, Putin’s and the Russian government’s efforts to exclude him from Russian politics (i.e., barring him from participating in elections and arresting him for protesting) suggests that the Kremlin does see him as a threat. Thus, it is through this context that the rest of the world is viewing the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
The poisoning of Alexei Navalny took place on August 20th, 2020, with Navalny falling ill while on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow. Upon alerting a flight attendant of his belief that he had been poisoned and then promptly collapsing on the floor, the flight crew quickly acted and diverted the flight to Omsk, where Navalny received the standard treatment for nerve agent poisoning (i.e., atropine). However, the effort to treat Navalny for nerve agent poisoning was soon compromised when a team of Federal Security Service officers arrived at the Omsk hospital. The arrival of the FSS officers was soon followed by the medical team denying that Navalny had been poisoned and the emergence of various alternative narratives ranging from the ‘mistaken’ poisoning actually being a publicity stunt to it being a Western attempt to discredit the Kremlin.
However, not everyone was convinced by the alternative narratives Russia provided, including a German charity that offered to airlift Navalny from Omsk, Russia, to a hospital in Berlin, Germany, with the intention of improving his chances of recovery by providing the highest standard of treatment available. After two days of international pressure to evacuate Navalny to Germany, Russia finally conceded to the transfer. It would be over two weeks in the care of the Germans before Navalny would be taken out of his medically-induced coma, another week until he could breathe unassisted, and a total of 32 days before the Berlin hospital released him.
It was initially speculated that Navalny’s tea had been poisoned at the airport, but upon further investigation, it is now known that he was poisoned in his hotel room with a slower acting, yet deadlier variation of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. Though Russia denied finding any poisons in Navalny’s system, German chemical weapon experts conducted tests and found “unequivocal” evidence that Navalny had been poisoned with a military-grade variant of Novichok. These findings were later confirmed by specialized laboratories in Sweden, France, and the OPCW. Hence, challenging the claims of the Omsk medical team and casting further doubt over Russia.
Navalny maintains his belief that a Russian intelligence group perpetrated the attempt on his life with Putin’s personal approval. In an interview with Germany’s Spiegel International, Germany’s leading news site, Navalny says he sees no other possible explanation for who could be behind the attack other than Putin, considering it was a variant of Novichok that was used to poison him. He goes on to explain that the order to produce or use a military-grade chemical nerve agent such as Novichok could only come from the heads of the Russian intelligence groups (i.e., FSB, SWR, GRU), and even they would not have the authority to make such a decision without first gaining approval or instruction from Putin. For this reason, he sees no way that Putin was not involved in the attack against him.
Navalny believes that one of the reasons Putin targeted him was because of the current political climate in Russia. He mentions Russia’s political unrest, explicitly citing Khabarovsk Krai and its capital city, Khabarovsk, which has become the epicenter of Russian anti-government protests that have lasted over several months. Navalny speculated the Kremlin realized—with what is happening in Khabarovsk—that they needed to take extreme measures to prevent a “Belarusian scenario” (note: Belarus is experiencing protests on an unprecedented level and is facing political upheaval). 14 In this case, ‘extreme measures’ refer to the poisoning of Navalny since he could be viewed as a possible catalyst for a situation, such as the one in Belarus, developing in Russia.
Russia has adamantly and repeatedly denied any involvement in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Public denials have come from the Government of the Russian Federation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin, and other Russian officials. Before the adamant denials came, the Kremlin had expressed its doubts that Navalny had been poisoned and continued with its narrative that Russian doctors had not found any traces of poison in his blood. At one point, the Kremlin even accused Germany of refusing to provide evidence to support their claims of Navalny being poisoned. Germany responded to the accusation by pointing out that since Navalny was in Russian care for over 48 hours, Russia should have their own samples confirming Navalny had been poisoned.
”There are very serious questions that only the Russian government can answer — and must answer,”-Angela Merkel
Once other reputable facilities confirmed Germany’s findings, Russia dropped the narrative that Navalny had not been poisoned and swiftly started denying all involvement. Putin even suggested that Navalny had poisoned himself while also accusing Navalny of working under the CIA and following the intelligence agency’s instructions. Thus, shifting the blame of Navalny’s near assassination onto Navalny himself and the U.S. Other denials of involvement came from President Putin during his marathon year-end news conference in December 2020. In the news conference, he once again vehemently denied government involvement in the poisoning. He supported his denials of Russian involvement by saying, “If there was such a desire, it would have been done.” Despite the confidence in which Putin spoke this statement, it is reasonable to infer that Navalny was not swayed by the sentiment, considering he has yet to retract his accusation that Putin is behind his poisoning.
International response has been fairly consistent when it comes to the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Global leaders who have made a statement concerning the issue have condemned the perpetrator’s actions in the attack against Navalny and have demanded a full and transparent investigation from Russia. Yet, very few government officials have outright accused Russia of the poisoning despite the obvious suspicion surrounding the situation. One of the exceptions of the refusal to outright accuse Russia is then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who expressed the opinion that ‘senior Russian officials’ were probably to blame. Former CIA Russia Chief, Steven Hall, also outright accused Russia’s government of being behind the attack, making the same point that Navalny himself made that “there’s no doubt whatsoever” the order to poison a Russian opposition leader could only come from and be approved by the highest levels of Russian government and intelligence services. Hall cites that there is a history of Russian politicians, journalists, human rights activists, whistleblowers, and others who have died or have been killed under mysterious circumstances (i.e., Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Sergei Magnitsky, Natalya Estemirova, Boris Nemtsov). Hence, making the point that in-house assassinations of the Kremlin’s opposition are something Russian intelligence has been doing for decades, if not longer.
Since Germany hosted and treated Navalny for his poisoning, it is no surprise that the nation has been one of the most prominent international voices on the incident. In a press conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, like most nations, condemned the poisoning. She then went a step further by elaborating that the attack on Navalny was attempted murder and that he was “the victim of a crime intended to silence him.” Even though Merkel did not make an outright accusation against Russia, her statement still spoke volumes when considering who Navalny is and who would want to silence him. Navalny is a fierce critic of the Kremlin; therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the entity wanting to silence Navalny is the same entity he is speaking out against. Hence, Merkel’s statement was just short of her outright accusing Russia of complicity in Alexei Navalny’s attempted assassination.
Other international responses came from NATO, the G7 Foreign Ministers, and the House of Representatives. All three made official statements condemning the attack on Alexei Navalny and called upon Russia to cooperate in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ international investigation so that the perpetrators of the crime can be found and held accountable for their actions. The world is not demanding that Russia prove its innocence. However, they are asking for cooperation and transparency from Russia in the ensuing investigation so that justice can be brought forth on behalf of Alexei Navalny.
The facts and context surrounding Alexei Navalny’s poisoning make it hard to deny that there is a strong possibility of Russian involvement. The chemical agent used to poison Navalny is one of the most significant indicators of Russian involvement. Novichok is a Soviet-era, military-grade chemical warfare agent, and as such, it is highly unlikely for anyone but a state actor to have access to it, and as a result, narrowing down the suspect pool tremendously. Another incriminating fact is that this is not the first time Russia has been suspected or implicated in a murder of mysterious circumstances involving Russian critics or ex-spies. Nor is it the first time that Russia has been implicated in an attempted assassination using Novichok. In 2018, former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned by Novichok in Salisbury, Britain. The United Kingdom and Western nations have since attributed the attack to Russia. Thus, showcasing that Russia had the means, history, and capability to execute such an attack as the one seen against Alexei Navalny.
Furthermore, Russia also had the motivation to assassinate Navalny. The Kremlin is aware of the political upheaval in Belarus, as Russia is experiencing its own political unrest in the form of protests in various regions of the nation. For this reason, Russian officials may be trying to avoid a ‘Belarussian scenario’ of their own by permanently removing Navalny—who may act as a catalyst for escalating the situation—from the picture. The assassination of Navalny may have been seen by the Russian government as a way to reduce the risk of the political upheaval that is happening in Belarus from happening in Russia. However, it is unlikely that just any member of the Russian government could have perpetrated the attack against Navalny. The use of Novichok indicates that Russian officials of the highest level were involved since the production and use of Novichok could only have been approved by the highest levels of Russian leadership. Therefore, Navalny’s accusations against Putin and the Russian government may turn out to be more than just conjecture.
The consequences will be many if it turns out that Russia was behind the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Not only will such a revelation cause further domestic unrest in Russia by fueling more protests against the state, but it will also escalate tensions between the West and Russia. A confirmed assassination attempt on Navalny using Novichok would mean that Russia is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a key international human rights treaty, and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international treaty that bans and regulates the use of chemical weapons. Russia has signed both treaties, and as a consequence of violating the ICCPR and CWC, other nations would be well within their rights to impose sanctions against Russia. Currently, Russia is already facing possible sanctions from the EU in response to Russia’s most recent arrest of Alexei Navalny upon his return to Russia from Germany on January 17th (note: as of February 2nd, Russia has sentenced Navalny to jail for nearly three years). If it is found that Russia poisoned Navalny, the threatened sanctions will likely come to fruition and be even more severe than the ones currently being voted on by the European Council. In response, Russia will undoubtedly retaliate to any sanctions imposed on them, as they have already threatened to cut ties with the EU if the EU imposes sanctions that could create risks for Russia’s economy. Cutting ties with the EU would undoubtedly isolate Russia from global life.
In conclusion, relations between the West and Russia are already unstable, and if Russian complicity in the Navalny poisoning is found, international relations will further destabilize. This destabilization of international relations will only be exacerbated if Russia decides to cut ties with the EU. The possibility of Russia excommunicating themselves from the EU and the potential violation of the ICCPR and the CWC will edge Russia into rogue state status if the international community deems these violations a threat to the security of other nations. Hence, the world may be seeing a severe decline in international relations with Russia if the suspicions surrounding Russian complicity in the Navalny poisoning end up being true. However, if Russian complicity is disproven the world may be facing an even larger global threat since that would indicate that a military-grade chemical warfare agent is in the hands of an unknown non-state actor.
1 Mike Corder & David Rising, Germany: OPCW confirms nerve agent used in Navalny poisoning, (AP News, 2020).
2. Alexei Navalny, interview by Benjamin Bidder & Christian Esch, Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny on His Poisoning, (Der Spiegel, 2020).
3. Martin Russell, The poisoning of Alexey Navalny, (European Parliamentary Research Service, 2020).
4. Russell, The poisoning of Alexey Navalny.
5. House of Representatives, H. Res. 1145- Condemning the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and calling for a robust United States and international response, (House of Representatives, 2020).
6. Russell, The poisoning of Alexey Navalny.
7. Henrik Arvidsson & Ruslana Arvidsson, Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny hospitalized for suspected poisoning: the future of Russian democracy, (ResearchGate, 2020)
8. Mark Galeotti, The Navalny poisoning case through the hybrid warfare lens, (Hybrid CoE, 2020), 3.
9. Galeotti, The Navalny poisoning, 3.
10. Navalny, Alexei Navalny on His Poisoning.
11.House of Representatives, H. Res. 1145.
12. Navalny, Alexei Navalny on His Poisoning.
13. Navalny, Alexei Navalny on His Poisoning.
14. BBC, What’s happening in Belarus?, (BBC News, 2020).
15. Russell, The poisoning of Alexey Navalny.
16. Corder & Rising, OPCW confirms nerve agent.
17. Jason Slotkin, Alexei Navalny Says Russia’s Putin Had Him Poisoned with Nerve Agent, (kpbs, 2020).
18. The Hindu, Vladimir Putin denies involvement in Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, (The Hindu, 2020).
19. Russell, The poisoning of Alexey Navalny.
20. Steven Hall, interview by NPR, ‘No Doubt’ That Navalny Poisoning Was Russian Operation, Former CIA Russia Chief Says, (NPR, 2020).
21. Angela Merkel, Germany: Alexei Navalny poisoned with nerve agent, (DW News, 2020)
22. House of Representatives, H. Res. 1145.
23. Niha Hussain & Sanjeev Chaand Sharma, Novichok: an overview of the world’s deadliest nerve agent, (ResearchGate, 2019), 49.
24. Corder & Rising, OPCW confirms nerve agent.
25. Arvidsson, Aleksei Navalny hospitalized for suspected poisoning.
26. Hall, Navalny Poisoning Was Russian Operation.
27. House of Representatives, H. Res. 1145.
28. Yuliya Talmazan, Matthew Bodner & Patrick Smith, Alexei Navalny, leading Putin critic, sentenced to nearly 3 years in jail, (NBC News, 2021)
29. Scott Neuman, Russia Threatens To Cut Ties With EU If Sanctions Are Imposed Over Jailing Of Navalny, (npr, 2021)
Arvidsson, Henrik & Ruslana Arvidsson. 2020. “Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny hospitalized for suspected poisoning: the future of Russian democracy.” ResearchGate, August 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343774911_Russian_opposition_leader_Aleksei_Navalny_hospitalised_for_suspected_poisoning_the_future_of_Russian_democracy_Syndicated_news_article
BBC. 2020. “What’s happening in Belarus?” BBC News, September 8, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53799065.
Bodner, Mathew, Patrick Smith, Yuliya Talmazan. 2021. “Alexei Navalny, leading Putin critic, sentenced to nearly 3 years in jail.” NBC News, February 2, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/alexei-navalny-leading-putin-critic-faces-trial-100-supporters-arrested-n1256440
Corder, Mike & David Rising. 2020. “Germany: OPCW confirms nerve agent used in Navalny poisoning.” AP News, October 6, 2020. https://apnews.com/article/international-news-chemical-weapons-vladimir-putin-berlin-german b71fbf91b861e3b03f8255537806dc54
Galeotti, Mark, 2020. “The Navalny poisoning case through the hybrid warfare lens.” The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats 1, no. 4 (Fall): 3-7. https://www.hybridcoe.fi/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/202010_Hybrid-CoE-Paper4_Navalny-case-through-a-hybrid-lens.pdf
Hall, Steven. 2020. “’No Doubt’ That Navalny Poisoning Was Russian Operation, Former CIA Russia Chief Says.” Interview by NPR, September 3, 2020. Audio 4:00, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/03/909243842/no-doubt-that-navalny-poisoning-was-russian-operation-former-cia-russia-chief-sa
The Hindu. 2020. “Vladimir Putin denies involvement in Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny’s poisoning.” The Hindu, December 17, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/vladimir-putin-denies-involvement-in-kremlin-foe-alexei-navalnys-poisoning/article33355455.ece#
House of Representatives. 2020. “H. Res. 1145 – Condemning the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and calling for a robust United States and international response.” The House of Representatives, November 18, 2020. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/1145/text
Hussain, Niha & Sanjeev Chaand Sharma. 2019. “Novichok: an overview of the world’s deadliest nerve agent.” The British Student Doctor Journal 3, no. 1 (Winter): 49-51.10.18573/bsdj.78
Merkel, Angela. 2020. “Germany: Alexei Navalny poisoned with nerve agent.” DW News, September 2, 2020. Video 2:42, https://www.dw.com/en/navalny-novichok-germany-russia/a-54794283.
Navalny, Alexei. 2020. “Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny on His Poisoning.” Interview by Benjamin Bidder & Christian Esch, Der Spiegel, October 1, 2020. Print, https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/alexei-navalny-on-his-poisoning-i-assert-that-putin-was-behind-the-crime-a-ae5923d5-20f3-4117-80bd-39a99b5b86f4
Neuman, Scott. 2021. “Russia Threatens To Cut Ties With EU If Sanctions Are Imposed Over Jailing Of Navalny.” npr, February 12, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/02/12/967344804/russia-warns-eu-against-imposing-sanctions-over-jailing-of-opposition-leader
Russell, Martin. 2020. “The poisoning of Alexey Navalny.” European Parliamentary Research Service, September 2020. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2020/652078/EPRS_ATA(2020)652078_EN.pdf
Slotkin, Jason. 2020. “Alexei Navalny Says Russia’s Putin Had Him Poisoned With Nerve Agent.” Kpbs, October 1, 2020. https://www.kpbs.org/news/2020/oct/01/alexei-navalny-says-russias-putin-had-him/