- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2020

German officials said Wednesday that the nerve agent Novichok was used to poison leading Russian dissident Alexei Navalny two weeks ago, and Berlin joined with other world leaders in demanding the Kremlin explain itself amid a growing belief that Moscow is steadily moving to eliminate its political opponents.

Novichok is a military-grade agent developed during the Cold War and not widely available outside Russia. The German test results on Mr. Navalny, who is recovering in Berlin’s Charite hospital, confirmed the presence of the agent and led Chancellor Angela Merkel to dub the suspected poisoning “attempted murder.”

Novichok also was used to the sensational poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England two years ago, according to British testing. Mr. Skripal was a one-time double agent who had defected to Britain.

“There are very serious questions now that only the Russian government can answer, and must answer,” Mrs. Merkel said Wednesday. Mr. Navalny “was meant to be silenced, and I condemn this in the strongest possible manner.”

An opposition politician and anti-corruption activist, Mr. Navalny has long been a thorn in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was apparently poisoned with a spiked cup of tea where returning for a visit to Far Eastern Russia where anti-government protests have broken out in recent weeks, and has been in a coma since being flown to Germany for treatment.

Ms. Merkel was joined by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other leading officials from around the world in calling for Mr. Putin to publicly answer for why one of his most vocal critics suddenly fell ill.

“The Russian government must now explain what happened to Mr. Navalny,” Mr. Johnson tweeted Wednesday.

Amid the global outcry, the Trump administration was mostly silent Wednesday. President Trump has said little about the incident in the two weeks since an otherwise healthy Mr. Navalny fell mysteriously ill while traveling on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. His supporters claim he was slipped poison tea while on the plane.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week called for a “full and transparent investigation” into the matter.But those comments aren’t enough for administration critics who say the president is once again failing to stand up to an increasingly brazen Russia.

“Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the same substance as other Putin critics. Trump says nothing,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, tweeted Wednesday. “His silence & weakness speak volumes. It’s clear he can’t stand up to Putin or support democratic values.”

Meanwhile, analysts say the targeting of Mr. Navalny is part of a larger strategy being employed by Mr. Putin and his top aides to consolidate power as the longtime president’s popularity softens. A prime organizer of popular protests in 2012, Mr. Navalny has emerged as one of Mr. Putin’s loudest domestic critics and, the Kremlin fears, would be well-positioned to lead another popular uprising inside Russia.

Those fears have taken on extra weight in recent weeks amid pro-democracy demonstrations in the former Soviet republic of Belarus. Specialists say Mr. Putin is well aware that pro-democracy sentiment in the region could easily spread to Russia and is taking dramatic preemptive action.

“The message is clearly sent whether or not Navalny ultimately dies: dissent is deadly,” said Matthew Schmidt, a national security and political science professor at the University of New Haven who studies Russia extensively.

Navalny is only a threat to Putin if he fears that the political winds Navalny most embodies, the movements that are now aflame both in Belarus and the Russian Far East, represent a real and emergent threat to his system of rule,” he said. “There are no lines that Putin won’t cross.”

Russian officials were mostly silent about the incident on Wednesday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian authorities are “ready and interested in full cooperation and exchange of information” with Germany but added that Berlin still hasn’t provided any official response to its requests for information, the Associated Press reported.

Russia’s Sputnik News outlet also seemed to try to throw cold water on the notion that Novichok was used, quoting Leonid Rink — identified as one of its developers — saying that Mr. Navalny’s coma didn’t match the agent’s chemical profile.

“There would be convulsions and so on. Completely different symptoms,” he said, according to Sputnik.In its own statement Wednesday, Charite hospital said that Mr. Navalny “continues to improve” and that the chemical receptors in his nerves are gradually returning to normal.

“Recovery is likely to be lengthy,” the hospital said. “It is still too early to gauge the long-term effects, which may arise in relation to this severe poisoning.”

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