Alexei Navalny: Putin critic ‘without doubt’ poisoned with novichok, hospital tests find

Hospital tests have shown Putin critic Alexei Navalny was “without doubt” poisoned with nerve agent novichok, the German government has said.

Tests performed on samples taken from the Russian opposition leader from his hospital bed in Berlin showed the presence of the Soviet-era agent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

He said testing by a special German military laboratory showed proof of “a chemical nerve agent from the novichok group”.

Novichok was used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 2018 and is one of the most deadly nerve agents ever created.

Mr Navalny, 44, was taken ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on 20 August and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.

After much opposition from the Kremlin and doctors in Omsk, Mr Navalny was eventually flown to Germany on a medical plane to Berlin’s Charite hospital, where doctors last week said there were indications he had been poisoned – something Russian doctors denied.

Mr Seibert said the German government will inform its partners in the European Union and NATO about the test results and will consult with them “on an appropriate joint response” after Russia responds to the results.

Russian state news agency Interfax said medics in Omsk diagnosed Mr Navalny with carbohydrate metabolism disorder and pacreatitis, and the Kremlin is now awaiting Berlin’s reply to a request for legal assistance.

A source with details of a Russian inquiry into Mr Navalny’s hospital admission said the inquiry is “a purely procedural formality and there are still no reasons whatsoever to assume that Navalny was poisoned”.

Analysis: Using novichok to poison another Putin critic shows the Russian president does not care how the world views him

By Diana Magnay, Moscow correspondent

If poisoning is the hallmark of the Russian secret services, then doing it with a military-grade nerve agent of a novichok type is a very clear statement.

The Kremlin was all too aware of the international furore unleashed by the use of novichok on the former GRU agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury two years ago.

That it has been used again so brazenly against the Kremlin’s most prominent adversary Alexei Navalny points to the total indifference those running the show in Russia have towards how they are perceived, both abroad and domestically.

President Putin famously cannot even bring himself to mention Navalny by name. His spokesman referred to him as his family battled to get him to Germany only as “the patient”. They have refused to launch a criminal investigation.

The German government is urging the Russian government to explain itself.

In time-honoured fashion, Russia’s foreign ministry now says it needs more information from the German prosecutor’s office. Expect this to go on, but Russia will clarify nothing.

What they have done is try to rid themselves of the one man who poses some kind of threat to Vladimir Putin ahead of key regional elections the Sunday after next.

Next door, in Belarus, popular champions have put the regime on the back foot. President Putin does not want to see that kind of unrest bleed into the Russian sphere, especially with ongoing protests in the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk.

As has become depressingly clear too, a tough international response – whatever that may end up being – does not result in a shift in the Kremlin’s thinking. If anything, as Putin has aged, it has hardened.

On Friday, Mr Navalny’s doctors said his symptoms are improving and he is now stable, with “no immediate danger to his life” – although it “remains too early to gauge potential long-term effects”.

They said the poisoning was “severe” after confirming earlier last week he had been poisoned with a substance from the cholinesterase inhibitor group – a series of chemicals that prevents the breakdown of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine.

If acetylcholine builds up, it creates a blockage in the nervous system.

They said Mr Navalny remains in an induced coma in intensive care on a mechanical ventilator and is being treated with atropine, which is used to treat certain types of nerve agent and pesiticide poisonings.

There are more than 100 formulations in the novichok family, all developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

Novichok agents are dispersed as an ultra-fine powder rather than a gas or vapour and can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.

They are “highly illegal, extremely powerful” and are created to avoid detection, biological and chemical specialist Andy Oppenheimer told Sky News.

Significantly, several of the novichok chemicals are so-called binary weapons – with two less-toxic precursor chemicals that can be mixed prior to use.

This makes them safer to transport and handle.

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