On August 20, Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny suddenly fell severely ill during a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. Witnesses described how the dissident collapsed in the lavatory of the plane and was screaming in pain as crew members tried to render aid.
After an emergency landing in Omsk, Navalny was seen being transferred off the plane unconscious, and he was later admitted to a hospital for what doctors initially claimed was ingestion of a toxic substance. On August 21, Russian doctors agreed to let Navalny be flown to Germany for treatment.
While still in a coma at Berlin’s Charite hospital, German doctors determined that Navalny had been poisoned by a chemical warfare agent commonly known as Novichok, a family of nerve weapons created by the Soviet Union.
Laboratories in France and Sweden later independently verified the German findings, as did the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Despite this, Russia continues to officially deny involvement in the poisoning and has promoted multiple contradictory counter-narratives.
On November 12, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put forward a new explanation, saying Navalny could have been poisoned either in Germany or en route from Siberia.
“We have all grounds to believe that everything, which had happened to him (Navalny) from the point of view of warfare agent’s entering into his body, could have happened in Germany or on the plane where he was loaded and sent to the Charite clinic,” Reuters quoted Lavrov as saying at a news conference.
The Russian state news agency TASS quoted Lavrov as adding:
"There are questions about what kind of people other than doctors were on board this plane."
Lavrov’s claims are false.
Reuters noted that Lavrov presented no evidence to support these claims. More importantly, it is undisputed that Navalny fell seriously ill in Russia during a flight from Siberia back to Moscow. The Russian doctors who treated him have never given a plausible explanation for why this happened, saying only that he could have had a “metabolic disorder” and that his seizure could have been caused by low-blood sugar.
Navalny emerged from a medically induced coma and recovered nearly three weeks later.
Novichok chemical agents were manufactured by the Soviet Union and, after its collapse, possibly by Russia. Novichok was used to poison the Russian ex-spy and defector Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, U.K., in 2018. In that case, four people, including Skripal’s daughter Yulia and two unconnected British citizens, also were poisoned. One of them, Dawn Sturgess, died as a result.
British and independent investigations identified three likely suspects in the case, all Russian nationals believed to be officers of the GRU, Russian military intelligence. As with the Navalny poisoning, Russia officially denied any involvement and spun out multiple other explanations.
In response to the Navalny poisoning, several European Union countries introduced new sanctions against individual Russian officials. Lavrov said during his November 12 news conference that Russia will introduce retaliatory measures against German and French officials in response to the sanctions.
Despite the poisoning, Navalny said after recovering that he plans to return to Russia.
Alexey Navalny is one of Russia’s most-recognized opposition figures and Putin critics. He is best known for his blogging and videos featuring investigations into corruption involving high-level Russian authorities. One of the most famous investigations focused on former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who served as the country’s president from 2008 to 2012. The video based on that investigation, titled “Don’t Call Him Dimon,” has been viewed on YouTube more than 36 million times.