Alexey Navalny, a critic of President Vladmir Putin, fell into a coma last month in Russia and is currently being treated in Berlin. His case has drawn parallels with two suspected Kremlin-linked poisonings in Britain.
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned with the same type of Soviet-era nerve agent that British authorities identified in a 2018 attack on a former Russian spy, the German government has said, citing new test results.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement that testing by a special German military laboratory at the Charite's request had now shown “proof without doubt of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.”
“It is a dismaying event that Alexey Navalny was the victim of an attack with a chemical nerve agent in Russia,” Seibert said. “The German government condemns this attack in the strongest terms." The Russian government is urgently requested to provide clarifications over the incident," he added.
The Russian rouble extended losses against the euro after the German government statement.
Navalny, 44, a politician and corruption investigator who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on August 20 and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.
He was transferred two days later to Berlin’s Charite hospital, where doctors last week said initial tests indicated Navalny had been poisoned.
British authorities identified Novichok as the poison used in 2018 on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury. The nerve agent is a cholinesterase inhibitor, part of the class of substances that doctors at the Charite initially identified in Navalny.
Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack, which the Skripals survived, but one member of the public was killed.
Germany demanded a response from the Russian government. The Kremlin said on Wednesday it hadn’t been informed yet of Navalny being poisoned with a nerve agent.
“Such information hasn’t been relayed to us,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the state TASS news agency.
Seibert said the German government would inform its partners in the European Union and NATO about the test results. He said that it will consult with its partners in light of the Russian response “on an appropriate joint response.” Germany also will contact the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, he added.
Navalny’s allies in Russia have insisted he was deliberately poisoned by the country’s authorities, accusations that the Kremlin rejected as “empty noise.”
“To poison Navalny with Novichok in 2020 would be exactly the same as leaving an autograph at a crime scene, like this one,” Navalny’s longtime ally and strategist Leonid Volkov said in a tweet that featured a photo of Putin's name and a signature next to it.
The Russian doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia repeatedly contested the German hospital’s poisoning conclusion, saying they had ruled out poisoning as a diagnosis and that their tests for cholinesterase inhibitors came back negative.
In the Charite's latest update, the hospital said Navalny was still in an induced coma but in stable condition. His condition is serious, but there is no acute danger to his life, say his doctors.
The European Union has condemned "in the strongest possible terms" the poisoning of Navalny and called on Russia to thoroughly investigate the assassination attempt and bring those responsible to justice.
"The use of chemical weapons under any circumstances is completely unacceptable and a breach of international law," the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said in a statement.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has also condemned the "shocking" use of a Novichok nerve agent to poison Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and demanded a proper investigation by Moscow.
"The use of a military-grade nerve agent makes it even more urgent that the Russian authorities conduct a full and transparent investigation," Stoltenberg said, insisting those responsible must be held accountable.
"We will be consulting with Germany and all Allies on the implications of these findings. NATO regards any use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security."
Germany announced Alexey Navalny was victim of a Novichok attack. I utterly condemn the use of a military-grade nerve agent, which makes it even more urgent that Russia conducts full & transparent investigation. We’ll consult with Germany & all #NATO Allies on the implications.— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) September 2, 2020
The White House called the findings "completely reprehensible" and said the United States would work to hold "those in Russia accountable."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has demanded Russia explain what happened to Alexey Navalny and pledged to work to ensure justice is done.
"It’s outrageous that a chemical weapon was used," Johnson said on Twitter. "The Russian government must now explain what happened to Mr Navalny – we will work with international partners to ensure justice is done."
It’s outrageous that a chemical weapon was used against Alexey Navalny. We have seen first-hand the deadly consequences of Novichok in the UK. The Russian government must now explain what happened to Mr Navalny – we will work with international partners to ensure justice is done.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 2, 2020
Novichok is a class of military-grade nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Western weapons experts say it was only ever manufactured in Russia. After the Skripals were poisoned, Russia said the US, Britain and other Western countries acquired the expertise to make the nerve agent after the Soviet Union collapsed, and that the Novichok used in the attack could have come from them.
According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, there is no record of Novichok having been declared by any nation that signed the chemical weapons convention.