The Implications of the Poisoning of Alexey Navalny

Russia’s leading opposition leader Alexey Navalny is alive, which was not a foregone conclusion three weeks ago. On August 20, he collapsed on a plane from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow and was rushed to a local hospital in Omsk. Following his delayed transfer to Berlin, German chancellor Angela Merkel on September 2 announced that Navalny was “beyond a doubt” the victim of an attack with a military-grade chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group, citing the findings of German military chemical weapons specialists. Merkel alluded to “serious questions that only the Russian government can answer—and must answer,” chiefly whether the Russian state carried out an attempted assassination of its most prominent political opponent using a banned nerve agent under the Chemical Weapons Convention or if it has lost control over its chemical weapons stockpile. Just over two years since the 2018 attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, this latest incident has once again jolted Europe and Russia’s fragile relations, with wide-ranging political, economic, and strategic ramifications. And as large demonstrations continue across Belarus and in Khabarovsk, Navalny’s attempted assassination also sheds light on the nervous state of Russia’s leadership.

Q1: What is Novichok?

A1: Of the various different types of chemical agents, usually categorized by their impact on the human body, nerve agents are considered the deadliest because of their ability to disrupt neural pathways to vital organs, resulting in a loss of the body’s control over respiratory muscles and potentially leading to cardiac arrest. Sarin and VX are the most common, the former used by the Assad regime in Syria and the latter most recently in the February 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Novichok (“newcomer” in Russian) refers to a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s as part of a chemical weapons program known as “Foliant,” which former Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov revealed to the public in 2008. Novichok gained global notoriety in March 2018 when it was used in an assassination attempt on former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, which British authorities attributed to the Russian state. The incident triggered an update to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, and use of any chemical weapons that was signed by 193 states, including Russia. Before Salisbury, the CWC annex did not explicitly mention Novichok, but in November 2019 CWC parties agreed by consensus to add the Novichok group to “Schedule 1,” a list of chemicals classified as chemical warfare agents and therefore subject to strict restrictions and declaration requirements under the Convention.

The confirmed use of a nerve agent from the Novichok family against Alexey Navalny is the last example of a worrisome trend of increasing possession and use of chemical weapons by both state and non-state actors. Although industrial-scale chemical weapons programs meant for battlefield use have mostly vanished, chemical weapons have been repurposed for more targeted aims, including tactical operations, assassinations, and collective punishment and terror. They pose a persistent and growing threat to the non-proliferation regime.

Q2: How has Europe reacted?

A2: Reactions from EU and NATO leaders to Chancellor Merkel’s unequivocal announcement of the use of Novichok have been unified thus far. European leaders have unanimously called for Russia to investigate and explain the use on its soil of a banned chemical agent, developed by Russia, against a political opponent. UK prime minister Boris Johnson quickly denounced the incident as an “outrageous” act and demanded an explanation from Moscow, while French minister of Europe and foreign affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian stressed it was “essential and urgent for the Russian authorities to establish without delay the circumstances in which the use of a nerve agent against Mr. Navalny was even possible.” EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen declared the attack “despicable and cowardly” and insisted the perpetrators be “brought to justice,” while NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg “utterly condemned” the use of this nerve agent, stating it is “even more urgent that Russia conducts a full and transparent investigation.” On September 4, the North Atlantic Council was briefed by Germany on the findings of their specialist laboratory and then issued a statement confirming the unity of the Alliance on this issue. Likewise, Germany on September 8 briefed its G7 partners, which then released a statement along the same lines.

Of course, the Kremlin has denied all accusations that the Russian state had a hand in Navalny’s poisoning—or even that he was poisoned at all. The official Russian position remains that doctors in Omsk found no traces of poison in his system; therefore, there was no poisoning. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that there were “no grounds whatsoever to accuse the Russian state,” while Russian state-backed media outlets have actively worked to discredit the German findings with a variety of narratives: some deny Mr. Navalny was poisoned at all, and others frame the attack as an elaborate Western plot to destabilize Russia internally.

Q3: What role could the OPCW play?

A3: The Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced it stood ready “to engage with and to assist any States Parties that may request its assistance.” As a first step, upon Berlin’s request, the OPCW could conduct an independent Technical Assistance Visit, with a view to cross-checking and corroborating the data and results of German doctors, as it did in 2018 at the request of the UK government, which confirmed London’s assessment. An independent and publicized OCPW investigation would make it harder for Russia to pursue its strategy of disinformation and politicize the issue as part of some alleged Western plot.

The next key step is attribution, based on a preponderance of evidence, in order to indict and prosecute the individual, entity, or country responsible for this act. To this end, the OPCW could deploy its Investigation and Identification Team, initially established in June 2018 to investigate the chemical weapon attacks in Syria but whose mandate includes responding to requests from any state party to investigate a chemical weapons use on its territory. But because the poisoning occurred on Russian soil, any investigation would need the approval and support of Russian authorities, who are unlikely to provide it. The poisoning of Navalny illustrates the limitations of the OPCW, which is being blocked by one of its members from fulfilling its mandate.

France and Germany announced in a joint communiqué on September 4 that they would also work on joint initiatives under the auspices of the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. Launched in January 2018, the Partnership is a French-initiated multilateral initiative that unites 40 countries (including the United States) and the European Union behind the objective of reinforcing the OPCW by collecting and sharing information related to the use of chemical weapons and coordinating sanctions against CWC violators. The Partnership serves as a coordinating platform for like-minded countries and could be used by France and Germany as a venue to increase political pressure on Russia. But Moscow is sure to dismiss whatever claims or policies emerge from the platform; it will likely argue it is yet another Western guise to weaken Russia.

Q4: What retaliatory measures could be envisioned?

A4: Unified political statements are useful but have limits. As Russia is unlikely to launch a transparent investigation into the poisoning, Germany may explore additional diplomatic measures to enforce accountability from Moscow, which could include issuing démarches, postponing meetings and visits with senior Russian officials, expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officers (in 2018, 143 Russian intelligence officers were expelled following the Skripal case), or even closing consulates. Already, France postponed a ministerial meeting with Russia.

The Russian ruble and Moscow Exchange plunged following Merkel’s September 2 announcement, anticipating additional Western sanctions in response to the poisoning. Some members of Congress have already called for additional sanctions under the Magnitsky Act and CWC. As the holder of the EU rotating presidency, Germany has announced the European Union will discuss possible sanctions against Russia if Moscow fails to rapidly clarify the circumstances surrounding this assassination attempt at the next European Council meeting on September 24. Europe responded to the 2018 Skripal poisoning with targeted sanctions against Russian individuals, including travel bans and asset freezes. But in a sign that Germany could push for harsher punishment, its minister for Europe told reporters that Germany is open to “all sanctions options” and that Navalny’s poisoning, as a violation of the CWC, was of “an international, rather than bilateral, nature.”

It is unclear how the absence of the technical evidence needed to attribute the act to specific Russian individuals or entities will play out. While its absence should make it harder for Europeans to adopt targeted sanctions, paradoxically it may make the case for broader, sectoral sanctions similar to what the European Union imposed in 2014 in response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. But any EU sanctions would require unanimity, and countries with softer stances toward Russia, such as Hungary, might resist imposing more damaging sanctions without clear evidence.

A third course of action could hit Russia where it hurts—energy—without adopting new sanctions. Under increasing domestic and international pressure, Chancellor Merkel declared, through her spokesperson, that Berlin has not ruled out a suspension of Nord Stream 2, the controversial €10 billion ($11.8 billion) gas pipeline project that would double Russian natural gas shipments to Germany. This statement reflects the strong political reaction coming from senior members of Merkel’s political party. While Nord Stream 2 certainly provides Germany a strong source of leverage against Russia, and while the Germans may use strong words (and the Russians seem to be matching them), it is unlikely at this late date (the pipeline is nearly completed) that Merkel would take such a step as it would have significant consequences for the German economy. Ukraine, of course, would be the greatest beneficiary of a decision to prevent Nord Stream 2’s completion.

Q5: Who could have done it? And what does it say about Russian politics?

A5: Navalny’s poisoning has upturned politics at home as well as abroad, raising questions of the Kremlin’s involvement and the state of the regime. Although Navalny’s anti-corruption exposés and his voter mobilization against the Kremlin earned him enemies in and beyond the Kremlin, the use of Novichok points in the direction of Russia security services, which in theory have exclusive access to such a weapon. As Putin’s most dangerous political opponent (the Kremlin refuses to refer to him by name), Navalny occupies a special status within Russian politics. An attempt on his life would only be sanctioned at a high level, likely ruling out an operation by a mid-level security official or hired hand as an interpreted “favor” to those above.

Whether Putin himself ordered the assassination remains an open question, but that is secondary to a scarier reality: he has created and presided over a system in which such actions are understood to occur with impunity. Many political figures within or with access to the highest circles of Russian power have long argued—at times against Putin himself—that Navalny threatens political stability and should be removed from politics. Previously, this meant arresting him or his family members, raiding his foundation, or investigating and politically disqualifying Navalny. But this stark change of approach speaks to a different atmosphere within Russian’s fractious elite and a new political moment for the Kremlin.

For months, Putin has bounced from crisis to mismanaged crisis and has remained largely out of sight. Politically weakened by a sharp drop in energy prices, paltry emergency social spending, and a six-week national lockdown that devastated small businesses, Putin was jarringly absent from early management of the coronavirus crisis, instead choosing to relinquish responsibility (and blame) to regional governors. On July 1, a national referendum passed, allowing Putin to extend his term as president, but this was hardly a vote of confidence in his leadership: the vote was among the most unfair in Russia in decades, and a Levada poll taken right before the election found support for his term reset at only 54 percent. Shortly after, a new crisis emerged in the Far East region of Khabarovsk when the Kremlin’s removal of a well-liked opposition governor ignited the largest protests in the region in decades, which continue, though at a smaller scale, more than two months later. In August, popular protests erupted in Belarus against autocrat Alexander Lukhashenko over a blatantly rigged election. These protests had echoes of those in Khabarovsk, and the two movements began to reference each other in placards and chants.

The confluence of two democratic uprisings on Russia’s periphery created a political opportunity for Navalny: ahead of Russia’s September 13 gubernatorial and regional parliamentary elections, a test run ahead of the more consequential state parliamentary elections in 2021, Navalny sought to capitalize on the moment with a proven “smart vote” strategy to unseat Kremlin-backed candidates. The prospect of an embarrassing result for the Kremlin in the aftermath of a slew of poorly handled crises may have proven too threatening for either Putin or an emboldened member of his circle.

How Navalny’s poisoning will factor into the equation on September 13 and beyond is unclear. It could disrupt Navalny’s “smart vote” movement, which continues to press on without him but lacks a charismatic leader, or it could provide a new jolt of energy to grassroots opposition movements. But one thing is clear: Navalny’s poisoning is the latest symptom of a jittery Russian state that has grown more inflexible, more reactive, and more repressive. Like the movements in Khabarovsk and Belarus, this trend has a momentum of its own and will continue to shift the boundaries of response by the Russian government.

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Cyrus Newlin is an associate fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Pierre Morcos

Pierre Morcos

Former Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
Cyrus Newlin

Cyrus Newlin

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program