Hello! This week we just have one story, which overshadowed all the other Russian news: the momentous announcement that opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent. We look at what we know, why it happened now, who ordered it, and the likely consequences.
Russia crosses rubicon with Navalny Novichok poisoning
The German authorities announced Wednesday that tests carried out in a military laboratory revealed traces of Novichok were used to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Novichok is a once-secret nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union and — if we discount the conspiracy theories — its presence indicates Russia’s secret services masterminded the attack. Russian stock markets and the ruble plummeted on the news. While the consequences of this for Russia may not be immediate, they will almost certainly be serious and long-term.
The German government published Wednesday afternoon a statement that described how a military laboratory, certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), had found traces of a Novichok nerve agent in samples taken from Navalny.
Later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a special briefing. She told reporters that: “There is unequivocal proof of the presence of this agent in the samples. It is therefore clear that Alexei Navalny is the victim of a crime. The aim was to silence him. I condemn this in the strongest possible terms.” She called on Russia to answer a series of questions.
German officials are already discussing possible sanctions. By Wednesday evening, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg , and a White House spokesperson had all condemned the poisoning. In Moscow, the response was predictable. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, insisted Russia knew nothing about any attempt to use Novichok, adding that the Russian doctors who treated Navalny prior to his airlift to Berlin found no trace of any toxin. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement complaining that Berlin had presented no evidence to back up its claims.
The following day, embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko hurried to Moscow’s aid, apparently trying to curry favor with the Kremlin. In the presence of visiting Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Lukashenko spun a fantastic tale about how Belarusian spies had intercepted a top-secret phone call “between Berlin and Warsaw”. His conclusion? The attack on Navalny was a smokescreen, designed to “stop Putin poking his nose into Belarus”.
Mishustin’s face as he listened to Lukashenko’s outlandish story quickly became meme of the week in Russia.
Two days later, Belarus published a recording of the intercepted phone call — it was widely mocked as an embarrassingly crude fake.
The Berlin hospital where Navalny is being treated published Wednesday an update on his health. While Navalny’s condition is improving, he remains on a ventilator in intensive care. His recovery is expected to be slow, and there could be long-term health effects.
The market reaction
The markets were unanimous in their response. Within 20 minutes of the German government statement, the ruble dropped over 2.5 percent against the dollar, its biggest fall in more than 6 months. The Moscow Exchange lost over 1.5 percent in two days, while the dollar-denominated RTS was down 4 percent.
Most analysts said the market fell because of the threat of new sanctions. They said the sanctions risk will depress the ruble until the U.S. presidential election in November.
What the Novichok experts say
After the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, three people with knowledge of Soviet Novichok programme spoke publicly. All three were former employees of the state-owned institute where the poison was developed. Two of them, Vil Mirzayanov, who now lives in the U.S., and Vladimir Uglev, who still lives in Russia, took the view that Skripal and his daughter were victims of Novichok. A third, Leonid Rink, who also lives in Russia and was accused of involvement in the 1995 poisoning of banker Ivan Kivelidi, unwaveringly supported the Kremlin. All three now have broadly the same positions they held two years ago.
- In mid-August, immediately after Navalny was taken ill, Uglev said he was “100 percent certain” it wasn’t a case of Novichok poisoning because the symptoms were uncharacteristic. In an interview Wednesday, Uglev backtracked, saying it looked like Novichok had been “somehow concealed, completely distorting the usual progress of the poisoning”.
- One argument used by those who say Novichok could not have been used on Navalny is the absence of symptoms among the passengers on the flight where Navalny was taken ill. But in another interview, Uglev suggested Novichok could have been used in one of its solid forms rather than the liquid A-234 form used in the Skripal case. “If it was used as a liquid then, inevitably, others would have inhaled it and suffered injury … But this [solid] substance… would be completely safe for passers-by and very dangerous to the person to whom it is applied … in this case, only Alexei would be poisoned,” Uglev said.
- Rink told state-owned news agency RIA Novosti that Navalny’s poisoning was “pure politically-motivated nonsense” and that, if Novichok had been used, Navalny would “long since be in the cemetery”. Rink also said the symptoms did not match the use of Novichok, and that he thought it was more likely Navalny had pancreatitis.
- Mirzayanov appeared to offer a similar explanation to that given by Uglev. In an interview Friday he said it looked like the A-261 version of Novichok — also in solid form — was used on Navalny. He also warned that Navalny would likely never make a full recovery. “I have not heard of any cases of complete recovery following poisoning by an organophosphate chemical-warfare agent. The people who came into contact with such substances during the Soviet period never returned to their previous work,” he said.
- Russia’s official position is that all traces of the Soviet chemical weapons program were destroyed. Officially, Russia has never acknowledged the existence of Novichok.
Navalny’s poisoners picked a time when the attack had minimal political risk for the Kremlin.
- The referendum on changes to the Russian constitution earlier this year, which means President Vladimir Putin can now remain in power until 2036, showed the opposition is unable to organize significant street protests.
- Regional elections are scheduled later this month and Navalny was campaigning. The Kremlin sees the vote as a dress rehearsal for the 2021 State Duma election.
- Finally, the international repercussions might be weaker than usual. The U.S. is in the throes of a presidential election campaign, foreign policy is not a priority and, if Donald Trump is defeated, a new president will not take office until February 2021.
Most political experts who spoke to The Bell backed said either the poisoning was carried out with the Kremlin’s blessing, or it was the work of elements of the security forces acting without direct authorisation from Putin.
“The people who make these decisions live in a different information world,” said political expert Ekaterina Schulmann. “To us, it might make little sense to do this after successfully passing the constitutional amendments, especially while anticipating a second wave of coronavirus, awaiting the U.S. election and watching the Belarusian crisis unfold. But these people live by their own calendar. They have their own news agenda, their own significant dates and anniversaries, and — most importantly — their own peer group, whose opinion is important to them.”
Konstantin Kalachev, another political expert, said Putin was not necessarily informed in advance. “We can’t rule out the possibility that Navalny’s poisoners bypassed Putin and acted without his agreement. If that is the case, the state is losing its monopoly on power. And that is really frightening,” he told The Bell.
There are few – highly improbable – theories that exclude the involvement of top-level Russian officials. These include the possibility of an error by the German laboratory, a nefarious Western plot, and the outlandish idea that Navalny’s low-level enemies were somehow able to acquire a secret military poison and attack a man under constant surveillance.
There are clearly only two credible possibilities. Either the poisoning was sanctioned at the highest level. Or the security forces, or people connected with them, took the extraordinary step of doing this – knowing the full political and reputational consequences – without Putin’s prior approval. The latter scenario would indicate a serious rift in the Russian elite, and that the Kremlin was losing control over the country.
Immediately after Navalny’s poisoning, most experts told us the political consequences would depend on how the story developed. Now the story has developed, we asked them again.
- Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, said Navalny’s poisoning will radicalize future protests. The incident has the potential to unite disparate opposition groups, just as the assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in 2015. “In the spring and summer, people did not take to the streets because of the pandemic,” Makarkin said. “Now, after [protests in] Khabarovsk and Belarus, people are ready to come out – and these protests will not seek official permission.”
- Schulmann said the poisoning will be significant for international relations, but isn’t the kind of story that will “mobilize the wider public” inside Russia. Denis Volkov, deputy director of the independent pollster the Levada Center, agreed. The younger generation and active internet users will double down on their negative view of the Kremlin while the older generation will remain convinced that Russia is an innocent victim, he said. Volkov doesn’t think any protests are likely in the near future.
What will the opposition do?
Navalny’s supporters are now without a leader. But his poisoning could help to mobilize anti-government sentiment ahead of regional elections on September 13. In recent years, Navalny has built up a network of regional offices for his Anti-Corruption Foundation, and he was playing an active role in the current election campaign before he was attacked. Navalny’s electioneering was focused on popularizing the idea of ‘tactical voting’ in which people are encouraged to support the most successful rival to the ruling United Russia party in a bid to loosen the party’s stranglehold on power. The Anti-Corruption Foundation has identified the candidates with the best chance of beating United Russia in each region via a website.
There are several members of Navalny’s circle who might step up as an interim leader. First and foremost is his wife Yulia; many see her as taking a similar role to that of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarus, who became a presidential candidate when her husband was jailed.
There are four other contenders. Leonid Volkov is currently head of Navalny’s campaign HQ, while economist Vladimir Milov was deputy energy minister 15 years ago. Then there are lawyers Lyubov Sokol and Ivan Zhdanov, who rose to prominence in the street protests that followed last year’s Moscow City Duma elections.
Milov told The Bell there was a surge of interest in tactical voting after Navalny’s poisoning, and more than double as many people have registered compared with last year. He also said Navalny’s absence will dispel the myth that the Anti-Corruption Foundation is Navalny’s personal fiefdom, and that his deputies are only capable of slavishly following his lead.
Why the world should care
Regardless of who took the decision to poison Navalny, responsibility lies with the Russian government and Putin personally. Attacking Russia’s most prominent opposition figure with a secret military toxin means a new ‘red line’ has been crossed: previously, nothing of the sort would have been acceptable. At the same time, this represents another gift to those calling for Russia’s international isolation. Their logic will be harder than ever to dispute.