On Oct. 5, the Russian Foreign Ministry published a brief statement recounting a phone call between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian. The statement refers to the poisoning of the Russian dissident activist and politician, Alexey Navalny.
Navalny was hospitalized on Aug. 20 when he suddenly fell seriously ill during a flight from the Siberian city of Omsk to Moscow. Still in a coma, Russian authorities allowed him to be sent to Germany for treatment.
On Sept. 2, a German laboratory found that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok, the same nerve agent used to poison ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England in 2018.
Labs in Sweden and France backed up the Novichok finding, as did the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global watchdog group in Geneva, this week.
That didn’t stop Lavrov. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement on the Lavrov-Le Drian conversation reads:
“Sergey Lavrov pointed out that any attempts to make a political issue out of the so-called Navalny case, including within the OPCW, were unacceptable, and reminded his counterpart that Russia has not yet received a reply to an official request submitted to Paris by the Prosecutor-General’s Office of the Russian Federation as part of an international mechanism for legal assistance.”
This is misleading, and not just for rejecting scientific evidence. The Navalny case is political at its core. As one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, Russian authorities have tried to silence Navalny for years.
Navalny ran for Moscow mayor in 2013 and unsuccessfully attempted to run for president of Russia in 2018. He leads a Russian political party whose candidates have run in multiple local and national elections in recent years.
Navalny had suffered several attacks prior to his poisoning on Aug. 20 this year, all apparently connected to his political activities.
Navalny’s poisoning isn’t the first such case. Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was twice hospitalized, in 2015 and again in 2017, after suspected poisonings.So was Navalny, in 2019. Opposition activist Pyotr Verzilov was hospitalized in 2018 when he fell seriously ill. Like Navalny, he was treated in Germany, where doctors determined he had been poisoned.
And, although not a politician, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, also a Putin critic, was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006 and died as a result.
The fact that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a class of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union, casts suspicion on the Russian state, especially after the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury. British investigators indicted two men they said were active Russian intelligence agents in connection with that case.
As in the Salisbury incident, Russian officials and state media have promoted contradictory alternative explanations for what happened to Navalny.
On Oct. 6, the day after the Lavrov/Le Drian phone conversation, the OPCW confirmed that Navalny’s blood and urine samples contained biomarkers for a cholinesterase inhibitor. Novichok is a type of cholinesterase inhibitor.
The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement attacking the OPCW’s report as a “fantastic story” and part of a “pre-planned conspiracy scenario.”
OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias called the findings “a matter of grave concern.” Russia is among the 193 parties to the chemical weapons convention.
“States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention deem the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances as reprehensible and wholly contrary to the legal norms established by the international community,” Arias said in a statement.
Navalny remains in Berlin. A spokesperson said last month that his apartment in Moscow had been seized and that his bank accounts were frozen, the BBC reported.