LONDON—The poison that struck down Vladimir Putin’s nemesis Alexei Navalny has been identified as Novichok—a nerve agent concocted by Soviet scientists during the Cold War.
German authorities say they’ve found “unequivocal” evidence that the notorious chemical weapon, which is stored only in Russia’s state-controlled laboratories, was used against Putin’s number one foe.
There was no conclusive proof that the deadly agent had ever been used—or even existed—until Putin’s GRU intelligence agents deployed it in the British city of Salisbury in 2018 on former spy Sergei Skripal. The reckless use of the nerve agent against a former KGB agent ended up killing an innocent British woman who came across a vial of the deadly poison discarded in a park.
The 2018 attack was so appalling that Western leaders, including President Donald Trump, successfully rallied together in a co-ordinated response that saw scores of Russian diplomats expelled from diplomatic posts across the U.S. and Europe. Sanctions were also imposed by the U.S. under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Act.
Following the revelation on Wednesday that Novichok was used on Navalny, German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the “attempted murder” and demanded answers from Putin. Britain said it was already working on a coordinated response to punish Russia for the chemical attack.
“The Russian government must now explain what happened to Mr. Navalny,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “We will work with international partners to ensure justice is done.”
The CBW Act demands that a U.S. president imposes sanctions within 90 days of the determination that chemical weapons had been used. Trump has yet to respond to the news out of Germany that the poison was Novichok—indeed since the attack on Navalny took place on August 20, he has chosen not to join a global chorus of condemnation, saying only that the U.S. would be “looking into it.”
After the announcement from the German authorities, Trump is unlikely to be able to ignore the attack for much longer.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot released a statement that said the U.S. was “deeply troubled” by Wednesday’s development.
“Alexei Navalny’s poisoning is completely reprehensible. Russia has used the chemical nerve agent Novichok in the past,” the statement said. “We will work with allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable, wherever the evidence leads, and restrict funds for their malign activities.
“The Russian people have a right to express their views peacefully without fear of retribution of any kind, and certainly not with chemical agents.”
In a statement published Wednesday morning, Germany’s federal government said special toxicology tests carried out on Navalny since he arrived in Berlin from Russia had given “unequivocal proof” that a Novichok agent was used on the Russian opposition leader.
“It is a shocking event that Alexei Navalny was the victim of an attack with a chemical nerve agent in Russia,” said the statement. “The federal government condemns this attack in the strongest possible terms. The Russian government is urged to explain itself.”
Navalny was transported from Siberia to Berlin last month after he fell ill due to the suspected poisoning of his tea. Navalny’s team allege that he was poisoned on the orders of Putin—but the Kremlin has denied having any involvement in his hospitalization.
His closest aide, Kira Yarmysh, described how Navalny fell ill after drinking a cup of tea at Tomsk airport. He then boarded a flight to Moscow but became extremely unwell en route. Since an emergency landing in the Siberian city of Omsk, he has been critically ill.
Last week, the German hospital where he is being treated said tests had shown that Navalny was likely poisoned. Doctors found evidence of “cholinesterase inhibitors” in his system. Nerve agents are among the poisons that can inhibit cholinesterase—but the hospital didn’t name exactly what type of substance was found until Wednesday.
Following the Skripal poisoning, William Atchison, a professor of toxicology at Michigan State University, explained why Novichok agents are so powerful.
He wrote for The Daily Beast at the time: “Novichok kills by disrupting communication between nerves and muscles or nerves in the brain. They work within minutes by paralyzing the muscles responsible for breathing, and stopping the heart.” He added that, even if victims survive, they will continue to suffer the nerve agent’s effects with possible seizures, neuromuscular weakness, and liver failure.
Russia has still not admitted that its Novichok program even exists.