Of Novichoks and Novichoks

The breaking news is that Alexei Navalny’s German doctors say he was poisoned by an agent of the novichok family. I’m not no toxicologist, but I recall that at the time of the Skripal affair, a point was made of saying that the agent used was military-grade. In other words, ruling out that it had been made in a school lab or someone’s shed – which is possible, if dangerous – but in an advanced, sterile, professional facility.

Of course, they had samples from Mr Skripal’s house and the infamous perfume bottle to work from. I’ll be interested to hear if in Navalny’s case it is at all possible to make the same determination based on the effects on his body.

It is not that proving it is of similar purity and strength necessarily proves the Kremlin was behind the attack – sadly, for the right people whose wealth and power is inversely proportionate to their scruples, almost anything is accessible. But it certainly rules out anyone but the richest and most powerful – no local FSB officer or city mayor would be likely to be able to access such a nerve agent. Instead, someone would presumably need to be able to access the modern successors to the old Soviet ‘Kamera’ poisons lab (the SVR Foreign Intelligence Service is believed to have inherited the KGB’s, but it would not at all surprise me if the FSB had its own counterpart).

Then again, the government’s cover up, the determination to find no crime having taken place, is more than just its usual, wilful refusal to extend the protection of the law to Navalny. It is a strong indication that the attack was either ordered by the Kremlin (still the more unlikely scenario, in my opinion) or else down to someone sufficient close to Putin and deemed either in his ‘crew’ or necessary to the system such that they cannot be held accountable. After all, we’ve seen this before with Boris Nemtsov and, in a different way, Alexei Ulyukaev. Putin might not be happy with what you do, but if he feels he needs you, or you’re one of his closest cronies, you can quite literally get away with (attempted) murder.

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  1. Ray Finch

     /  September 2, 2020

    My gut says that Putin ordered the hit on Navalny, as he had most to lose from this muckraker’s continued investigations into Russia’s rotten political-patronage system. Putin understands that the rules of the game have changed, and today the world largely operates under the law of the jungle. The West (the US in particular) has lost any moral authority, and those in power are free to use any means to extend their reign. Listening to the clever denials and equivocation of Putin, Lavrov, Lukashenko, Trump, etc…, I’m reminded of Yeats’ verse:
    “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”

  2. i am sure the friends of Moscow including the misguided on the Euro Left who continue to support a United Russia Russia on the basis that its really the USSR and the enemy of my enemy ie the West, will be out in force with usual:
    1. Why wait to now to try and do this – missing the very Russian pov that vengeance is a dish best served cold..Trotsky etc
    2. if it was FSB etc he would be dead..the claim re Skripals too which misses that not an exact science and involves human beings on all sides of equation
    3. You cant trust Germans cos of WW2

  3. Either way, as shown by the Skripal incident, Putin does not mind to let people think (or want people think) he is directly involved in these murders. It almost seems that he uses – or let other people use – military-grade nerve agent so that anyone must know these murders have his blessing. Why would you otherwise use such complex poisoning methods, or let the murderers be interviewed on TV just after said murders? But is this message directed to Kremlin critics? to other countries?

  4. Edwin Pace

     /  September 3, 2020

    Doesn’t this indicate that Putin is either 1) no longer in effective control of events, or 2) is so frightened of various unrest in the “empire” that he will cover up any action that calms it down. Even a nominal investigation would be some sort of fig leaf.

    Could Putin actually be a lot more afraid of us, than we are of him?

  5. Ian Hague

     /  September 19, 2020

    Navalnyi’s personal assistant recovered a plastic “Saint Springs” mineral water bottle in the hotel room that the German doctors used to match with his blood. The FSB or the local police were either not bright enough to destroy the evidence, or so arrogant that they don’t care.

  6. Nicely said.
    So Russia didn’t care who found out and I wonder whether there is already a spot for Trump in Moscow with Airforce1 impounded after it lands following defeat?

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  September 20, 2020

      Honestly, I’m not convinced they’d want him. But maybe if they can assemble enough ex-dictators and frauds in suburban Moscow, they can open a zoo…

  7. Edwin Pace

     /  September 20, 2020

    It’s at least plain that Navalny only survived by accident. If the pilots hadn’t landed in Omsk (instead of flying on to Moscow) and if the meds hadn’t given him atropine, the correct treatment, he’s unlikely to have lived through it. Unless the intent was to permanently incapacitate him (which might easily lead to death anyway), this looks like a murder mission.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  September 20, 2020

      Quite – and given that from what people who know much more about toxicology than me say, it’s pretty much impossible to give a dose of nerve agent enough to incapacitate but not kill, I agree that murder was the intent

  8. All I can remember about nerve gas was the stuff we studied back in the 60’s in the event of a Russian combined nuclear, chemical, no telecoms plus invasion – yes, the UK had Flying Mobile Disaster Columns and we were a Disaster with a lifespan of 8 hours in a bunker or minutes outside.
    Atropine had to be administered with 3 minutes to stop the system from screwing up.
    That makes the actions of Russians when the plane touched down as if they already knew what had occurred.

    • Edwin Pace

       /  September 24, 2020

      Interesting take. Might that indicate that Russian medical people in general suspect that Novichok is something the regime (or its minions) might well resort to?

      • Mark Galeotti

         /  September 24, 2020

        In fairness, atropine is the appropriate treatment for poisoning from a range of sources (including organophosphate fertiliser) with similar symptoms, so I wouldn’t read too much into this

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