Russian opposition leader Navalny ‘Novichok poisoning’ a test for the West

Russian opposition leader Navalny 'Novichok poisoning' a test for the West
Alexei Navalny pictured in February this year. Source: Reuters
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Daily US Times: Germany’s government says on Wednesday that Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was poisoned by a sophisticated nerve agent known as Novichok. It said toxicology tests at a military laboratory showed “unequivocal proof” of an agent from the Novichok group. The revelation makes this case even more serious than it already was.

Most importantly, it will increase suspicions that the Russian state was behind his poisoning, though Russia has been denying the allegation.

Novichok – meaning “newcomer” in Russian – applies to a group of synthetically produced nerve agents originally developed by the Soviet Union in a laboratory in Uzbekistan before the USSR disintegrated in 1991.

Intelligence agencies from western countries believe that Novichok has since been refined into a hard-to-detect assassination weapon in covert techniques practised by operatives of the Russian military intelligence GRU, including being smeared on to door handles. Novichok can be deployed in both solid and liquid forms.

 Russian police carry Alexei Navalny from an anti-Putin protest in Moscow, May 2018. Photograph: AP

Two of those operatives were widely believed to have poisoned the former double agent and Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018 using Novichok. A local Wiltshire resident, Dawn Sturgess, subsequently died after handling the contents of the discarded perfume bottle used to disguise the nerve agent.

Western governments reacted forcefully to this failed assassination attempt in Britain. In a co-ordinated move, 20 countries expelled more than a hundred Russian diplomats and spies, dealing a huge blow to Russia’s intelligence-gathering networks in the West.
Even covert agents in deep cover inside Britain, whom Moscow believed were operating undetected by the British security service MI5, were ordered to leave.

This was all in marked contrast to the mild British government response – since criticised – to the poisoning of former KGB officer and defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. After the agonising death in a London hospital by radioactive Polonium poisoning of this former Russian colonel, branded as a traitor by Moscow, an investigation dragged on for years while the two Russian suspects remained at large in Russia.

Source: Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon photos

Critics believe the lack of a forceful response by the Western countries encouraged hardliners in the Kremlin to sanction the targeting abroad of those considered traitors to the Russian state.

Alexei Navalny, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, has no shortage of enemies. As a vigorous campaigner against corruption, he has amassed millions of young followers but also lots of angered by him as their nefarious activities have been exposed in his popular videos. There are plenty of people both in business circles and government who would like to see him removed from the public sphere.

But Novichok, unlike naturally occurring toxins that can be refined from natural products found in the countryside, is not something casually cooked up by amateurs. It is a military-grade chemical weapon that tends to point the finger of suspicion towards Russia.

Although Mr Navalny appeared to be poisoned on Russian soil, rather than in a Nato member country, Angela Merkel, the Germany’s Chancellor, said “there were now very serious questions which only the Russian government could and must answer”.

Navalny in court after his one of his arrests. Source: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also voiced similar comment, saying that the Russian government had a clear case to answer about what happened to Mr Navalny. He said Britain would now work closely with Germany and other allies to show there were consequences for using banned chemical weapons. The White House National Security Council issued a statement saying it would work with allies to hold those in Russia accountable.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former British Army officer and chemical weapons expert, has been warning for years that the unchecked use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians alike in populated areas by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria sends a dangerous signal.

How governments now react to this latest use of a Novichok nerve agent against a front run critic of Putin and a public political figure will be influenced in part by the findings of the global chemical watchdog, the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW.

“Russia/Novichok – again. A test for the West on how we collectively respond,” the chairman of Britain’s Parliamentary Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP, tweeted.

You may read: Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok – Germany