World leaders are demanding answers from the Kremlin after toxicological examinations indicated that the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent from the novichok family.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, revealed that tests carried out at a military laboratory had “identified unequivocally” the Soviet era nerve agent. She referred to the case as an “attempted murder” and said the findings raised “very difficult questions that only the Russian government can answer, and has to answer”.
The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, called the findings “outrageous” and said: “The Russian government must now explain what happened to Mr Navalny.”
The White House called the attack “completely reprehensible”. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called it an “outrageous and brazen attempt on Mr Navalny’s life” and noted that Donald Trump had yet to personally condemn the attack.
Navalny, whose foundation publishes investigations into corruption among high-level officials in Russia, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on 20 August and was transferred to Berlin two days later.
Doctors who treated him in the Siberian city of Omsk, where his flight made an emergency landing, insisted there was no proof of poisoning and were initially reluctant to allow him to leave the country on a specially equipped plane.
The discovery that novichok was used on Navalny will lead many to conclude that the attack was meant as a brazen message to critics of the Kremlin, and Navalny’s associates quickly pointed the finger at Putin.
“Choosing novichok to poison Navalny in 2020 is basically the same thing as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime,” wrote Navalny’s associate Leonid Volkov on Twitter, appending an image of Putin’s autograph to the tweet.
Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, wrote that it was “beyond any reasonable doubt” that only Russian security services would be able to use novichok.
The nerve agent was used to poison the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain two years ago. It is a cholinesterase inhibitor, part of the class of substances that doctors at Berlin’s Charité hospital initially identified in Navalny.
According to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, experts at the Charité sought advice from Porton Down, Britain’s secretive laboratory for research on chemical and biological weapons, because of possible similarities with the 2018 Skripal attack.
The use of novichok nerve agents was banned last year after being added to the chemical weapons convention’s list of controlled substances.
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “The Russian government has a clear case to answer. It is absolutely unacceptable that this banned chemical weapon has been used again, and once more we see violence directed against a leading Russian opposition figure.”
The US National Security Council noted that Russia had used novichok “in the past”, and said the US would “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 German government’s official statement described the attack on Navalny as an “astounding act” and appealed to the Russian government to urgently offer an explanation.
“We condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms”, said the foreign minister, Heiko Maas, adding that the Russian ambassador in Berlin had been summoned in light of the new findings.
Official reaction in Moscow on Wednesday afternoon was a mixture of denial and obfuscation. The Kremlin said it had not yet been informed of the findings, while some other officials suggested Russia was willing to work with German investigators, but attempted to cast doubt on the test results.
“The Russian side is still expecting an official answer from Berlin to the inquiry from the Russian prosecutor general’s office and Russian medical institutions,” said the foreign ministry in a statement.
The Russian doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia have repeatedly contested the German hospital’s conclusion, saying they ruled out poisoning as a diagnosis and that their tests for poisonous substances came back negative.
“We will demand that the Germans send their analyses so we can compare with our data and work out what really happened,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told Interfax. “We are ready to cooperate. The main thing is whether they are. Because ideally they should have invited us and familiarised our investigation team with their materials.”
Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said the German government would inform its partners in the EU and Nato about the test results. He said it would consult with its partners on appropriate next steps in light of any Russian response.
In the wake of the killing of a Chechen dissident in a central Berlin park last August, the German government was initially cautious to blame the Kremlin, even after federal prosecutors alleged that Russian state agencies had tasked the assassin.
The language of the German government’s statement on the Navalny affair could prompt a more decisive response. Merkel said on Wednesday that the poison attack went “against the basic values we stand for”.
Sergey Lagodinsky, a German Green MEP and former fellow student of Navalny’s at Yale University, said: “I’m impressed by the clear framing of the government’s response. The confirmation that a banned nerve agent was used to poison a Russian opposition politician brings this case on to an international level. We need an international investigation.”
Whether the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has the capacity to carry out such an investigation remains unclear.
On Tuesday, before the use of novichok was confirmed, Merkel had again confirmed that her government would continue and finish the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in spite of pressure from the US government.
The infrastructure project, which eastern European states fear will boost Russia’s geopolitical power, plays an important role in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, home to Merkel’s own constituency.
Navalny is being kept in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator at the intensive care unit of the Charité hospital. While his condition remains serious, a spokesperson said last Friday there was no immediate danger to his life.