Kremlin critic defies Vladimir Putin to return to Russia after Novichok poisoning


Moscow: Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was bound for Russia on Sunday to return home for the first time since he was poisoned last summer despite Russian authorities threatening to arrest him upon arrival.

Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic critics, was flown to Berlin in August last year for emergency medical treatment after being poisoned with what German tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent.

Alexei Navalny boards his flight to Moscow at Berlin Brandenburg airport on Sunday.Credit:AP

“This is the best moment in the last five months,” he told reporters after he boarded the plane in the German capital, bound for Moscow. “I feel great. Finally, I’m returning to my home town.”

He announced his decision to return from Germany on Wednesday, and a day later Moscow’s prison service said it would do everything to arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case he says was trumped up.

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German physicians publish case report on Navalny’s treatment for ‘Novichok’ poisoning




A team of physicians from the Charité Hospital in Berlin, where Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny was treated following his poisoning in August, have published an article in the scientific journal The Lancet on the case of a 44-year-old man from Russia suffering from Novichok nerve agent poisoning. While the patient isn’t identified in the scientific article itself, the Charité Hospital confirmed in a press release that the case report details Navalny’s treatment. 



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Smiling Navalny sits on a hospital balcony after Novichok attack


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The Kremlin’s investigators want to speak to Alexei Navalny ally Maria Pevchikh (pictured) over the dissident’s poisoning 

The Kremlin’s investigators want to speak to a woman living in Britain over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, it has emerged. 

Maria Pevchikh, 33, was with Navalny on a trip to Siberia when he was taken ill on a plane last month and airlifted to Berlin in a coma after what Germany has called an assassination attempt. 

With Moscow under pressure to explain what happened, the UK-based Pevchikh could now face questions from investigators she says are ‘doing the opposite’ of trying to solve the case. 

While suspicion has fallen on Vladimir Putin after three laboratories found evidence of Novichok, pro-Kremlin media has claimed that Western intelligence or Navalny’s own allies could have staged the poisoning to embarrass Putin. 

The Gazprom-owned channel NTV claimed there was a ‘British footprint’ in the case while Moscow has played down the Novichok finding despite results from laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden.    

Pevchikh, an employee of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, denies any involvement and blames Russian authorities for Navalny’s illness. 

Recovery: Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia pose for a picture on a balcony of the Charite hospital in Berlin where the Russian opposition leader is being treated

Recovery: Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia pose for a picture on a balcony of the Charite hospital in Berlin where the Russian opposition leader is being treated 

Speaking to BBC Russian, Pevchikh directly blamed Russian authorities for Navalny’s poisoning.   

‘They tried to kill a person with a chemical warfare agent. Somewhere in the middle of Siberia, he almost died, and most likely would have died in Omsk if he had not been released from there’ to go to Berlin, she said. 

She accused the Russian Investigative Committee of seeking to cover up those responsible for the poisoning.

‘The primary task still remains – to find the person who wanted to kill Alexei Navalny.,’ she said.

‘The only problem is that we all understand – this is not what they are trying to do, they are doing the opposite.’

Pevchikh claimed she had been secretly filmed on previous trips from London to Russia, and that footage of her was released to pro-Kremlin media after after Navalny’s poisoning.  

Russian media has quoted her father claiming he invented ‘special needles that allow a substance to be injected into the body without going through the bloodstream’.

She has not spoken to her father for 15 years after her parents’ divorce, she said.

Another source close to Navalny said: ‘This sinister campaign is all about them getting ready for being forced to admit Novichok was indeed used on Navalny.

‘They will then blame his companions when this was done by the Russian authorities.’

Pevchikh is portrayed in Moscow as being close to the British authorities.

But Navalny ally Vladimir Ashurkov said she had merely been an intern to a Westminster politician as a student about 10 years ago.

Navalny today demanded that Russia return the clothes he was wearing when he fell ill on the flight in Siberia last month. 

He also hailed his wife Yulia for helping to nurse him back to health after he was taken ill and spent weeks in a medically-induced coma.  

Navalny, 44, held a coffee mug in one hand and wrapped his other arm around his wife’s waist as she looked over the skyline of Berlin from the city’s Charite hospital.   

‘Now I definitely know from experience: love heals and brings you back to life,’ he said. ‘Yulia, you have saved me, and let it go down in neurobiology textbooks.’ 

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny poses with his wife Yulia and their children last week at the German hospital where he is being treated after being poisoned with Novichok

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny poses with his wife Yulia and their children last week at the German hospital where he is being treated after being poisoned with Novichok 

Navalny said in his first blog post since emerging from a coma that there was evidence of Novichok ‘in and on my body’. 

A German military lab found ‘unequivocal evidence’ of the substance earlier this month, a finding supported by laboratories in France and Sweden. 

Navalny’s aides gathered discarded objects from his hotel room in the Siberian city of Tomsk and sent them to German experts who found Novichok on a water bottle. 

His friends have pointed the finger at Moscow, especially because the nerve agent was the same one used to poison Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, but the Kremlin denies any involvement. 

Russia’s transport police says it has questioned 200 people in a basic probe, but authorities have yet to open a full investigation. 

The Kremlin has played down Germany’s finding of Novichok, insisting that medical tests carried out by its own doctors found no poison in Navalny’s body.. 

Navalny said he ‘did not expect anything else’ after Russian talk shows suggested that Western intelligence or his own allies had carried out the attack.   

Navalny being taken to an ambulance in Omsk

Navalny fell ill on a plane following a trip to an airport cafe (pictured)

Navalny being taken to an ambulance in Omsk (left) after falling ill on a plane following a trip to an airport cafe (right) in August

He also demanded that Russian authorities return his clothes, which were removed before he was flown to Germany ‘totally naked’. 

‘Taking into account that Novichok was found on my body, and poisoning through physical contact is highly likely, my clothes are a very important piece of evidence,’ he wrote.

‘I demand my clothes be carefully packed in a plastic bag and returned to me.’ 

Outrage at Navalny’s poisoning has led to calls for renewed sanctions against Russia, including scrapping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.  

The Kremlin has rejected those calls, saying that the pipeline is ‘absolutely in line with the interests of both Russia and EU countries’.  

Doctors at the Charite hospital said last week that Navalny’s condition ‘continues to improve’, although possible long-term effects are not yet clear. 

At the weekend, a former Soviet scientist who was involved in creating Novichok apologised to Navalny and acknowledged that the substance was used against him. 

‘I offer my profound apologies to Navalny for the fact that I took part in this criminal business, developing this substance that he was poisoned with,’ said Vil Mirzayanov in an interview with Russia’s TV Rain on Saturday. 

Navalny arrives at Berlin's Tegel Airport after he was airlifted from Russia. Doctors at the German hospital say his condition has been improving

Navalny arrives at Berlin’s Tegel Airport after he was airlifted from Russia. Doctors at the German hospital say his condition has been improving 

Navalny's allies have pointed the finger at Russian president Vladimir Putin (pictured) after the opposition leader fell ill, but the Kremlin has dismissed the claims

Navalny’s allies have pointed the finger at Russian president Vladimir Putin (pictured) after the opposition leader fell ill, but the Kremlin has dismissed the claims 

Mirzayanov, who now lives in the United States, wrote the first articles on Novichok’s development in the early 1990s.  

‘Navalny will just have to be patient but in the end, he should be healthy,’ Mirzayanov said, predicting recovery would take ‘almost a year.’ 

He suggested that Navalny most likely took in the poison by mouth, since he appears not to have contaminated others. 

So far three scientists, now in their 70s, have made public statements after working on the top-secret Soviet project. 

Navalny has long been the most prominent opposition figure in Russia and his allies say he will return to the country once he has recovered. 

Putin’s spokesman said last week that Navalny would be free to return to Russia, where he has been arrested multiple times in what critics say were politically motivated crackdowns. 

Navalny has also been sued over his anti-corruption investigations and was barred from running in the 2018 presidential election, which Putin won.



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Alexei Navalny’s team says Novichok nerve agent found on hotel room water bottle, not airport tea


The nerve agent used to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detected on an empty water bottle from his hotel room in the Siberian city of Tomsk, suggesting he was poisoned there and not at the airport as first thought.

Mr Navalny fell violently ill on a flight in Russia last month and was airlifted to Berlin for treatment.

Laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden have established he was poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent, a poison developed by the Soviet military, though Russia denies this and says it has seen no evidence.

A video posted on Mr Navalny’s Instagram account showed members of his team searching the room he had just left in the Xander Hotel in Tomsk on August 20, an hour after they learned he had fallen sick in suspicious circumstances.

“It was decided to gather up everything that could even hypothetically be useful and hand it to the doctors in Germany,” the post published on Thursday (local time) said.

“The fact that the case would not be investigated in Russia was quite obvious.”

The video of the abandoned hotel room shows two water bottles on a desk, and another on a bedside table.

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Mr Navalny’s team, wearing protective gloves, are seen placing items into blue plastic bags.

“Two weeks later, a German laboratory found traces of Novichok precisely on the bottle of water from the Tomsk hotel room,” the post said.

“And then more laboratories that took analyses from Alexei confirmed that was what poisoned Navalny.

The door of a room in Xander hotel, where Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stayed during his recent visit to Tomsk, Russia.(Reuters: Maxim Shemetov)

Previously, Mr Navalny’s aides had said they suspected he had been poisoned with a cup of tea he drank at Tomsk airport.

Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister and an ally of Mr Navalny, said his team had outmanoeuvred the FSB security police with their quick thinking: “They took the evidence from under their noses and shipped it out of the country.”

Mr Navalny’s ally Georgy Alburov told Reuters “the bottles flew with Alexei” when he was airlifted to Germany on August 22.

Bottles gathered to avoid bystanders being killed

Mr Navalny is the most prominent political opponent of President Vladimir Putin, even though he has not been allowed to form his own party.

His investigations of official corruption, published on YouTube and Instagram, have reached audiences of many millions across Russia.

Police arrest Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny
Mr Navalny has served several stints in jail for organising anti-Kremlin protests.(Reuters: Grigory Dukor)

An investigator from Tomsk, looking into the suspected poisoning, visited the office of Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation in Moscow on Wednesday.

Russian investigators are conducting a preliminary probe into the case and want to question two of the foundation’s employees, Ilya Pakhomov and Maria Pevchikh, who were with Navalny in Tomsk before he fell ill last month, foundation head Ivan Zhdanov said.

Germany, France, Britain and other nations have demanded explanations from Russia, and there have been calls for new sanctions against Moscow.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Thursday that Germany had asked it for technical assistance.

Russia has carried out pre-investigation checks, but said it needs to see more medical analysis before it can open a formal criminal investigation.

Novichok was used to poison former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.

They survived, but a member of the public, Dawn Sturgess, died after picking up a contaminated bottle.

Moscow also denied carrying out that attack.

Members of the OPCW agreed in November 2019 to expand the agency’s list of banned “Schedule 1” chemicals for the first time to include Novichok nerve agents.

That ban went into effect last June.

Anton Timofeyev, a member of Mr Navalny’s team who was shown in the video gathering the samples from the hotel, said he had been mindful of the Skripal case at that moment.

“We were thinking some hotel maid will go and grab these bottles,” he told Reuters.

“Of course, they would have been poisoned.”

Reuters



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Novichok found on Alexei Navalny’s hotel water bottle, his team says


A video posted on Navalny’s Instagram account on Thursday showed members of his team inspecting his hotel room in Tomsk before he left the city on August 20 and collapsed on a flight home. The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, where he was hospitalised before being taken to Berlin two days later on a medevac plane.

Navalny’s Instagram post said they went to the room an hour after learning that he had fallen ill, accompanied by a lawyer, and packed the bottles and other items for further inspection. In the video post, someone who appears to be a hotel employee could be heard telling members of the Navalny team that they need to ask police before taking any items from the room, and one of them answered they couldn’t do that.

“Two weeks later, a German laboratory found a trace of Novichok on a bottle from the Tomsk hotel room,” they said. “And then another three labs that took Alexei’s samples proved that he was poisoned with it. Now we understand: It was done before he left his room to go to the airport.”

The founder of the Berlin-based organisation Cinema for Peace, which helped organise the medevac flight for Navalny, said that some bottles were brought to Germany last month.

“I made sure that we flew some of Navalny’s water bottles with us on our plane with Navalny,” Jaka Bizilj said in a text message.

There had been previous speculation that Navalny was poisoned at the airport, where he drank a cup of tea before boarding the flight.

“We didn’t have much hope of finding something,” members of Navalny’s team said on Instagram. “But as it was absolutely clear to us that Navalny wasn’t just ‘slightly unwell’ or ‘under the weather’ and candy wouldn’t help, we decided to take everything that could hypothetically be of use and hand it over to doctors in Germany.”

They noted that they did so because they were aware that Russian authorities would be reluctant to launch a probe.

“It was quite obvious that they wouldn’t investigate the case in Russia,” they said. “And so it happened: Nearly a month after Russia hasn’t recognised that Alexei was poisoned.”

Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh tweeted that “Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok at the hotel before he went to the airport”.

But Lyubov Sobol, a top Navalny associate, later tweeted that while “traces of Novichok were found on a bottle from the hotel, it doesn’t mean that Navalny was poisoned specifically with the bottle”.

A German military lab determined that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, the same class of Soviet-era agent that Britain said was used on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the German lab conducted tests on “various samples from Mr Navalny,” but neither she nor other German officials have elaborated.

On Monday, the German government said independent tests by labs in France and Sweden backed up its findings. The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is also taking steps to have samples from Navalny tested at its designated labs.

The Kremlin has said that Russian doctors who treated him in Omsk found no sign that Navalny was poisoned. Russia has repeatedly prodded Germany to share Navalny’s analyses and other medical data and compare notes with the Russian doctors.

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German officials have responded to Moscow’s request for evidence by saying that Russian authorities must have the samples already since Navalny spent two days in the Omsk hospital.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who cancelled a scheduled trip on Tuesday to Berlin, said in a TV interview earlier this week that Russian authorities have conducted a preliminary inquiry and documented the meetings Navalny had before falling ill, but he emphasised that investigators need to see evidence of poisoning to launch a full criminal probe.

Lavrov accused the West of trying to smear Russia and use the incident as a pretext for new sanctions against Moscow. He argued that Navalny’s life was saved by the pilots of the plane who quickly landed in Omsk after he collapsed on board and by the rapid action of doctors there – something he said Western officials have failed to recognise.

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Novichok traces found on water bottle in Alexei Navalny’s hotel room, his colleagues say


Colleagues of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Thursday that a bottle of water with a trace of the Novichok nerve agent was found in his hotel room after his poisoning.

Navalny fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20 and was flown to Germany, where he was kept in an induced coma for more than two weeks as he was treated with an antidote.

On Tuesday, he posted a picture of himself from his hospital bed in Berlin.

A video posted on Navalny’s Instagram on Thursday showed his team working around his hotel room in Tomsk before he left the city and collapsed on a flight back to Moscow.

Navalny’s Instagram said they returned to the room an hour after learning that he had become ill and packed the bottles and other items for further inspection.

“Two weeks later, a German laboratory found a trace of Novichok on a bottle from the Tomsk hotel room,” they said.

“And then another three labs that took Alexei’s samples proved that he was poisoned with it. Now we understand: It was done before he left his room to go to the airport.”

A German military lab has determined that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, the same class of Soviet-era agent that Britain said was used on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, in 2018.

On Monday, the German government said independent tests by labs in France and Sweden backed up its findings.

The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is also taking steps to have samples from Navalny tested at its designated labs, Germany has said.

The Kremlin has bristled at calls from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders to answer questions about the poisoning, denying any official involvement.





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France and Sweden Confirm Novichok Poisoning of Navalny, Backing Germany


BERLIN — Laboratories in France and Sweden have confirmed that the substance used to poison the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny was indeed a form of the nerve agent Novichok, the German government said on Monday, results that match Berlin’s own findings and provide additional confidence that the Russian state was involved.

“Three laboratories have now independently provided evidence of a substance from the Novichok group as the cause of Mr. Navalny’s poisoning,” a German government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement. “We renew the call for Russia to explain what has happened.”

Mr. Navalny, whose room in the prestigious Charité hospital in Berlin remains heavily guarded by the German police, continues to improve, the hospital said in a statement on Monday. He is breathing by himself again and able to walk. “He is increasingly being mobilized and intermittently able to leave his sick bed,” the statement read.

Russian officials did not immediately respond to news of the results from French and Swedish laboratories, but they have insisted since Mr. Navalny first fell ill that there was no proof he had been poisoned. They have suggested several alternative theories, including a drug overdose and low blood sugar.

In his statement, Mr. Seibert described the use of Novichok — a class of potent chemical weapons developed by the Soviet Union and used at least once before in an assassination attempt by Russian intelligence operatives — as a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Russia is a signatory.

But even as patience with President Vladimir V. Putin is running thin, Berlin is struggling to figure out a good way to respond. Some have suggested canceling the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which is nearly complete. So far, however, the German government, together with the United States and its European allies, has not taken any action aside from raising the prospect of additional sanctions on Russia.

It is the latest episode in the German-Russian relationship, which is close but complicated — and increasingly contradictory.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been unusually clear in her sharp condemnation of Moscow’s increasingly brazen actions and lack of cooperation. The poisoning of Mr. Navalny came less than a year after a former Chechen rebel leader was assassinated in broad daylight in a Berlin park, a killing that German federal prosecutors believe was orchestrated by the Russian state.

Ms. Merkel, who normally speaks with Mr. Putin by phone at least once a week, has not spoken to him since Mr. Navalny’s poisoning, a senior German security official said.

President Emmanuel Macron of France raised the issue of Mr. Navalny’s poisoning in a phone call with Mr. Putin on Monday, affirming the French laboratory results and expressing “serious concern” over Mr. Navalny’s poisoning. He asked that “all light be shed, without delay, on the circumstances and responsibilities of this attempted assassination,” according to a readout of the call provided by the French government. The readout did not include Mr. Putin’s response.

Ms. Merkel has been one of the tougher leaders in Europe when it comes to Russia, demanding a strong line on maintaining economic sanctions against Moscow after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, even in the face of pushback at home and in other capitals.

But she has also worked hard to keep the diplomatic lines to Moscow open. The two countries have deep economic links, not least in the energy market, and a sizable faction in German politics believes that Russia should be an important partner.

Ms. Merkel appears to be treading carefully once again — at least for now.

German officials did not raise Mr. Navalny’s poisoning last week, when Dmitri Kozak, a close confidant of Mr. Putin, was allowed to land in Berlin for talks related to the war in Ukraine, despite a travel ban.

German officials have refused to rule out a re-evaluation of the Nord Stream 2 project, which would directly connect Russia and Germany. Ms Merkel has long defended the project, and experts say it is unlikely that the project will be scrapped as part of the response to the poisoning.

The German response so far contrasts sharply with Britain’s reaction in 2018, after the poisoning of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian spy, in the English city of Salisbury. Once the British government announced that Russian operatives had used a Novichok class poison in that case, it gave the Kremlin 24 hours to respond, after which it imposed sanctions and rallied allies to expel dozens of Russian diplomats.

But German officials insist that the poisoning of Mr. Navalny is not a bilateral issue between Germany and Russia. Unlike Mr. Skripal, Mr. Navalny was on Russian soil when he fell violently ill, and only later was he transported to a Berlin hospital.

German officials are considering a variety of possible sanctions, including individual travel bans and asset freezes, and hoping for a response backed by all European Union member states. “We want this to be a European sanctions regime to show that this is about our values when a leading opposition politician is poisoned,” said one senior German security official involved in discussions of a possible response. “It’s not a bilateral matter.”

The official said that while it was important to send a message that Russia’s behavior was out of line, it should not come at the expense of continued negotiations on issues like the wars in Ukraine and Syria, where Russia is a key player.

“This is a terrible thing, we have to sanction it, but it will not lead to a totally new Russia policy,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal deliberations. “The hard reality is: We need Russia on Ukraine, Libya, Syria. We don’t want everything to collapse.”

Mr. Navalny’s recovery could also influence the eventual response. Though he was brought out of a medically induced coma last week, his doctors have not yet ruled out long-term complications from the poisoning.

Traces of the poison were found in samples taken from Mr. Navalny at the hospital in Berlin but also, crucially, on a water bottle that had traveled with him from Russia, German officials said. German officials have rejected Moscow’s demand for “proof” that Mr. Navalny was poisoned inside Russia, noting that the Russian authorities had taken their own samples and confiscated dozens of objects before he was flown to Germany. “They have their proof,” one official said.

Katrin Bennhold reported from Berlin, and Michael Schwirtz from London. Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.



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