German Chancellor Angela Merkel has all but accused the Russian government of attempted murder in the strange case of Alexei Navalny, the dissident figure who reportedly remains comatose in a Berlin hospital.
Merkel spoke after a German military laboratory announced earlier this week it had “unequivocal proof” that Navalny had been poisoned with “Novichok”, a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent.
“It raises serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer,” Merkel told media reporters. The chancellor’s assertions were immediately reinforced by the United States, Britain and the head of NATO, each demanding Moscow to be held to account.
The Russian government rejected the accusations, saying they were being made improperly. It noted that the German authorities did not inform Moscow of its claims directly, but rather communicated first with its Western allies. There is more than a suggestion that the Western response is being coordinated to railroad accusations against Russia without Moscow being afforded due process. There is a presumption of guilt which violates due process and diplomatic protocol. And, of course, this is not for the first time when it comes to Western contemptuous relations with Russia.
Contrary to Western assertions about Russia having to answer questions about the Navalny case, the onus is very much on the German authorities to explain their “findings” and to back them up with verifiable evidence. Otherwise it amounts to hearsay and innuendo.
First of all, the Germans say they have “unequivocal proof” that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, reportedly from tests carried out on his blood samples. But the German military laboratory and doctors in Berlin have not provided any biomaterials to Russia for the latter to independently verify the alleged detection of Novichok.
Secondly, the Russian doctors who first treated Navalny after he suddenly fell ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow on August 20 have affirmed that they carried out comprehensive toxicology tests on his biological fluids and organs, and they detected no traces of toxins. Specifically no traces of organophosphate nerve agents. The Russian medics concluded that Navalny may have become ill from a metabolic disorder, such as extremely low blood sugar.
The Russian doctors who treated Navalny, and possibly saved his life by their quick intervention, said they detected the presence of cholinesterase inhibitors which affect the nervous system, but such substances can be caused by a wide range of clinical pharmaceuticals, including those used for the treatment of diabetes which Navalny reportedly suffers from.
However, the crucial point is this: the Russian toxicology tests found no presence of Novichok or any other such nerve poison in Navalny’s body. The Russian medics reportedly still possess the original body samples taken when Navalny was being treated in Russia. It is the Germans who are claiming they have detected Novichok, but so far they have not provided verifiable proof. It is their word for it, that’s all.
There are more questions needing answers. Navalny was airlifted from Russia to Berlin on August 22 under heavy pressure from Germany and other Western states for Moscow to permit his relocation. Why the urgency to do so? Why did Moscow relent in allowing this strange foreign intervention in its internal affairs?
If, for argument sake, the Kremlin had in some way plotted to cause Navalny harm with Novichok or some other poison, why would Moscow permit his relocation to Berlin where toxicology tests would uncover the purported plot? That scenario is illogical.
Navalny’s aides immediately claimed he was poisoned when he fell ill. They said he may have been poisoned from drinking tea at Tomsk airport before his flight. But CCTV footage shows Navalny being handed the drink by an aide. So, if anyone intended Navalny’s intoxication from the beverage, they wouldn’t have known he was to be the person who received the drink.
Furthermore, the Russian scientists who invented Novichok have stated categorically that if the nerve agent was somehow involved in the Navalny case, then he would most likely be dead by now and not in a coma. Also, they say, his aides and those who treated Navalny onboard the flight from Tomsk, would inevitably have been contaminated and sickened, so deadly is this chemical weapon.
Let’s recap. Navalny did not have toxins in his body and specifically not organophosphate nerve agents of the Novichok type, according to the Russian toxicologists. Let’s give them benefit of doubt. The poison was only detected – allegedly – by the German military laboratory five days after Navalny was received at the Berlin hospital last weekend. Yet the Germans – and this is crucial – are not sharing their bio-evidence with Russia. They have instead rushed to make grave accusations against Moscow, along with their Western allies. Without a chain of verifiable evidence, this is a travesty of due process.
What this all relies on is presumption of guilt, as well as large prejudice stemming from Russophobia, and the invocation of dubious past unproven cases such as the 2018 alleged poisoning of British double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. The whereabouts of Skripal and his daughter Yulia, a Russian citizen, remains a mystery which only the British authorities can reveal, yet their strange case is thrown at Moscow to answer for, just like the current Navalny case.
The timing of the Navalny case is also significant. There are several current geopolitical factors at play. First there is the isolation of Washington at the United Nations in its attempt to force the reimposition of sanctions on Iran over the nuclear accord. This week saw Russian, Chinese, British, French and German diplomats meeting in Vienna in a bid to save the international nuclear deal in spite of American sabotage efforts. The Navalny case “poisons” diplomatic unity to defend the nuclear accord.
Another geopolitical factor is the political upheaval in Belarus. Washington and the European Union appear to be exploiting the unrest to destabilize relations between Russia and its neighbor. The Navalny case fits an agenda of undermining Moscow and impeding its relations with Minsk.
A third factor – and this may be the most significant – is the Nord Stream 2 gas supply project from Russia to Germany. The $11 billion, 1,200-kilometer pipeline has been targeted intensely by the Trump administration for derailment. There are also pro-Washington politicians in the ruling German Christian Democrat party who have been persistent in their opposition to the ambitious boost to energy trade between Russia and Europe.
The New York Times headlined on September 3: “Navalny Poisoning Raises Pressure on Merkel to Cancel Russian Pipeline”.
Last week, Merkel was insisting that the Navalny case did not impinge on the Nord Stream 2 project’s completion. This week, German military intelligence is claiming that Novichok was used to poison Navalny, and now Merkel is under intensified pressure to abandon the Nord Stream 2 project. As ever, the old criminologist question of who gains should be foremost here.
Indeed, there are several serious questions to answer in the Navalny case. But it is Germany and its Western allies who are best placed to provide answers, not Russia.