Sipping his tea at an airport in Tomsk, Siberia, on August 20, prominent Vladimir Putin critic Alexei Navalny may or may not have noticed an unusual taste.
But his drink had been laced with an extremely toxic nerve agent known as Novichok, which last made news in 2018, when Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked with the same chemical in Salisbury, U.K. Novichok, which means “newcomer” in Russian, is a class of advanced nerve poisons developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mr. Navalny became seriously ill on the plane to Moscow he boarded shortly thereafter and, after an emergency landing, he was taken to a hospital and, after several days, was evacuated to Germany, where he remains hospitalized in a medically induced coma.
Russia has denied any role in the case, as it did in the 2018 Salisbury one. It maintains that its doctors, the first to examine Mr. Navalny before he was transferred to Germany, say that he was not poisoned. Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced that he saw no grounds yet to suspect a crime was committed, the Interfax news agency reported.
But Mr. Navalny has been a thorn in the side of the Russian regime, a relentless and public advocate for reforms aimed to curb government corruption. With a massive social media following, he has described Mr. Putin’s United Russia party as the “party of crooks and thieves.”
And, although he omitted “murderers,” some experts on Russia contend that there is a long list of Kremlin critics who have been silenced at home and abroad by either assassinations or poisonings, and that the crimes were not committed by rogue elements but by agents of the government.
Among those who dismiss the Kremlin’s professions of innocence is chemist Vil Mirzayanov, who was part of the team that developed the Novichok toxin. Speaking to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he explained that the government must have been behind both the Skripal poisoning and the Navalny one, because “Russia is the country that invented it, has the experience [and has] turned it into a weapon.”
Steve Hall, who ran the Russian operations division of the CIA for three decades until his retirement in 2015, concurs. “It’s the Russian intelligence services that are responsible for [the poisonings],” he told National Public Radio.
Stopping slightly short of openly accusing the Kremlin of orchestrating the attempted murder of Mr. Navalny, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg noted, “There is proof beyond doubt that Mr. Navalny was poisoned using a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok group,” condemned what he called the “appalling assassination attempt” and called on Moscow to respond to international investigators.
In September 2017, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed the full destruction of the large stockpile of chemical weapons owned by Russia.
The Novichok class of poisons, however, was never declared to the OPCW because of the unique nature of their chemical structures. Nevertheless, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he had discussed the “utterly deplorable” incident with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, and called the alleged attack a “violation of international law.”
And the U.K. Foreign Office said Mr. Raab and Mr. Maas had agreed to “work together closely,” along with OPCW, to ensure Russia was held accountable for its international obligations.
With pro-democracy protesters in neighboring Belarus seeming to have gained the upper hand in the wake of rigged presidential elections, Mr. Putin may fear that the unrest could spread to Russia. In fact, ongoing protests in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, spurred by the arrest of a local governor on murder charges by federal authorities, have drawn tens of thousands of Russian citizens to the streets. A recent fall in the Russian leader’s usually sky-high approval ratings may also have made him more determined to squelch opposition to his rule.
Mr. Putin’s hold on power is secure until 2036, due to constitutional changes approved in a disputed referendum earlier this year. But it is well within the realm of reason to imagine that the most recent assassination attempt may have been intended as a signal to those who oppose the regime that they would do well to desist from anti-government activity.
That possibility, along with American intelligence agencies’ reported revelation about Russia’s payment of bounties to Taliban terrorists for the bodies of U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan, should remind us that, even decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, tactics that the USSR employed with amoral abandon did not disappear along with that regime.