Novichok - From Russia with Love

While in no way a pioneer, President Putin has nevertheless perfected the art of political murder since assuming office in 2000. There has been a macabre and disturbing pattern of political poisonings in Russia. Moscow has been successful in silencing many of its opponents and defectors, yet that silence could one day come at a price.

On 20 August, Russian opposition leader and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation Alexei Navalny was poisoned in Tomsk with what German authorities described as a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok family, a chemical weapon that first came into the spotlight after being used in the 2018 attack in Salisbury on ex-Soviet spy Sergei Skripal.

However, Navalny is hardly the first outspoken critic of President Putin to suffer a potentially lethal medical emergency under such suspicious circumstances. While the country has a long history of poisoning political dissidents and defectors, the world will most likely be left in the dark as to who exactly ordered this latest poisoning.

 

A History of Political Dissidents’ Poisoning

In a scenario like something out of a spy movie, this case is the latest in a long line of dramatic and unusual assassination plots against political dissidents. It is a story which has repeated itself several times in the last few years in which Navalny is one among the several intelligence officers, politicians, journalists and high profile activists who have fallen ill from poisoning, fatally in some cases.

Notwithstanding falling out of windows or being gundowned in the street, poison has played a disproportionate role in the assassination of anti-Putin dissidents. High-profile victims have for example included former Russian spy turned dissident Alexander Litvinenko, former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushenko, journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, and the previously mentioned case of Sergei Skripal. While Putin emerged as the prime suspect in each (attempted) assassination, those responsible for committing the crime which always seemed to benefit the Kremlin were very often not brought to justice. 

In the words of former CIA chief of Russia operations, Steven Hall,  “this is something that the Russian intelligence services have been doing literally for decades, if not longer”. Russian intelligence officials have mastered the art of political poisonings both at home and abroad with nerve agents - among the deadliest being Novichok whose use is forbidden by international law - first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

 

“While Putin emerged as the prime suspect in each (attempted) assassination, those responsible for committing the crime which always seemed to benefit the Kremlin were very often not brought to justice.”

 

Under Putin, many have observed a worrying trend of Kremlin opponents being poisoned since he first took office turning this deadly silent killer into the post-Soviet Kremlin’s favourite weapon whilst using the cover of anti-Russian hysteria each time the West points the finger at Putin.

 

Putin’s Perfect Weapon 

Whatever the outcome, whether fatal or not, Novichok remains an effective weapon for a regime which has a long history of both intimidating and killing individuals deemed a threat to state security, and should the targeted individual survive, it clearly relays a warning message.

This scare tactic should in principle deter anyone from pursuing activities which Moscow may see as unacceptable such as investigating corruption and other criminal activities, or simply calling for reforms whilst being openly critical of Putin. Having to go through a tremendously painful ordeal after being exposed to a potentially deadly chemical substance with little to no chance of full recovery should be enough of a warning for many.

This message is not limited to the poisoned individual, but is sent out to anyone and everyone letting them know that they could be next. Overwhelmed by a constant climate of insecurity and fear, prospects of being the next victim could be enough for many to give up their activities.

 

“The use of a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union unequivocally increases the likelihood of the Russian government’s implication in Navalny’s poisoning.”

 

However, the most important advantage of using poison remains the deniability factor. The use of a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union unequivocally increases the likelihood of the Russian government’s implication in Navalny’s poisoning. Yet, Russia vehemently denies its involvement in any case of poisoning in the same way it denied sending its military in Eastern Ukraine as well as being behind major cyber attacks in recent years.

This element of “plausible deniability” along with the psychological impact of this Bondesque method on the victim and others make using Novichok particularly appealing to Putin and his clique. 

 

An Additional Test for the West

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and world leaders have together expressed strong condemnation of the poisoning of Putin’s main critic, notably pointing out that any use of chemical weapons was a clear breach of international law.

The EU has demanded an independent and transparent investigation by the Russian authorities and, adding to what can only be described as a farce, asked for those responsible to be held accountable - a request which most likely will fall on deaf ears.

While punitive measures are expected, the question remains whether the West will adopt a firm and united stance by imposing tailored sanctions. The economic consequences of the pandemic and the oil crisis, swelling demonstrations in Belarus against longtime President Alexander Lukashenko combined with increased fatigue and discontent with Putin are likely to pave the way for growing opposition within Russia with Navalny at its head should he fully recover.

Thus, complacency is not an option. European nations should further embrace imagination in their response to Moscow’s latest aggressive behaviour at a time when Putin’s grip on power is being increasingly tested with a constant fear of a Ukraine-style Maidan revolution in Russia.

Adding to Moscow's aggressive behaviour in the region and hostile dynamic towards the West through efforts to disrupt and delegitimize Western democracies, Putin has for years demonstrated his willingness to eliminate dissidents, both at home and abroad, with little regard for international law.

Strict sanctions which would reflect the severity of Moscow’s most recent violation of international law could include a rejection of the highly controversial Nord Stream 2 project which not only further strengthens Russia’s power but rewards its aggressive behaviour. 

The natural gas pipeline would not only increase German, and European, reliance on Russia but would severely threaten Europe's security environment, not to mention further fragmentation within the European community as a result of the project. What is especially worrisome is Moscow's past use of energy resources as a tool of blackmail and there is no apparent reason for Moscow to abandon this strategy in the future.

 

“Europe should also think out of the box (...) by financially supporting Belarusian civil society, promoting local independent journalism and increasing media coverage of ongoing events in both Russia and Belarus all the while increasing cooperation with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.”

 

Yet, Europe should also think out of the box, as stated by Russian security affairs expert Mark Galeotti, by financially supporting Belarusian civil society, promoting local independent journalism and increasing media coverage of ongoing events in both Russia and Belarus all the while increasing cooperation with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

This softer approach, while not further contributing to Russia’s economic decline, would project the Western narrative to Russian audiences and promote wider aspirations for freedom and democracy in the long term, aspirations which Putin and his allies seek to undermine. 

The promotion and protection of democracy, one of the bloc’s core missions, when fully committed to it, can be Europe’s strongest response to Putin’s asymmetric assault on democracy in Russia.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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