On August 20, Alexei Navalny, the foremost democratic opposition activist in Russia, became violently ill on a flight to Moscow from Tomsk, where he had been campaigning in advance of the September local and regional elections. After an emergency landing in Omsk, he was hospitalized, put in a medically-induced coma and put on a ventilator. The Omsk doctors, claiming his condition might have been caused by a “metabolic disorder” caused by low blood sugar, rejected pleas for him to be transferred to a hospital where he could be properly diagnosed and treated. But after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow Navalny to be transferred to a hospital that could diagnose the problem and treat him, German doctors were allowed to examine him and, after determining that he could be transported, arrange for him to be flown on August 22 to Berlin, where he could be treated at the Charité research hospital.
On August 24, Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that, “according to the Charité medical team, clinical findings indicate that Alexei Navalny was poisoned.” They called upon Russia’s authorities to “fully investigate this act as a matter of urgency – and to do so in a completely transparent way. Those responsible must be identified and brought to justice.” On September 2, the German government announced that tests conducted by a military lab in Munich found “unequivocal proof of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.” Novichok means “newcomer” in Russian and is the name of a family of chemical weapons developed by the U.S.S.R. and banned by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. A nerve agent from that group was used by a team of two officers of Russia’s GRU (military intelligence) – to poison Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who had been a double agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England in March 2018.
Merkel, amplifying the earlier statement, said, “It is shocking information about the attempted murder by poison of one of Russia’s leading opposition members. This means that Alexei Navalny is a victim of a crime. It was an attempt to silence him. I condemn this in the strongest possible terms on behalf of the entire German government. There are very serious questions now that only the Russian government can answer and must answer….The crime against Alexei Navalny was aimed at the fundamental values and rights for which we stand.” Germany announced it intended to discuss the matter in both the EU and NATO and would notify the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons of the lab findings. The German tests were subsequently confirmed by labs in France and Sweden.
The EU leaders discussed the matter at their European Council Meeting on October 1-2. In their Conclusions, they said, “The European Council condemns the assassination attempt on Alexei Navalny with a military chemical nerve agent from the ‘Novichok’ group. The use of chemical weapons constitutes a serious breach of international law. The European Council calls upon the Russian Federation’s authorities to fully cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to ensure an impartial international investigation and to bring those responsible to justice. The European Council will return to the matter on 15-16 October 2020.”
On Tuesday, the OPCW confirmed the earlier analysis of the German lab that Navalny was poisoned by a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group. The next day, Maas and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, issued a joint statement in which they said they will not leave unpunished the use of a nerve agent in the attempted assassination of a political opponent. “No credible explanation has been provided by Russia so far. In this context, we consider that there is no other plausible explanation for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning than a Russian involvement and responsibility….Drawing the necessary conclusions from these facts, France and Germany will share with European partners proposals for additional sanctions. Proposals will target individuals we consider responsible for this crime and violation of international norms, based on their official function, as well as an entity implicated in the Novichok programme.”
The EU’s Council on Foreign Affairs, consisting of the 27 foreign ministers, will meet on Monday and is expected to endorse the imposition of sanctions, consisting of asset freezes and travel bans, on a number of officials. While the list of targeted individuals hasn’t yet been published, it reportedly includes nine individuals in the Russian presidential administration and security apparatus. Among those who may be included on the list are Nikolai Patrushev, who succeeded Putin as the former director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1999 when Putin became prime minister and has served since 2008 as the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation (SBRF), which Putin chairs; Aleksander Bortnikov, who succeeded Patrushev in 2008 as director of the FSB; and Admiral Igor Kostyukov, who has served since late 2018 as director of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (the GU, still better known by its previous name, the Main Intelligence Directorate, the GRU). The list reportedly also includes the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) in Moscow, which is responsible for the development of chemical warfare agents.
When the European Council convenes next Thursday, the leaders will undoubtedly approve the sanctions and the Council will subsequently publish the list of Russian officials and institutions the EU believes are responsible for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. It probably won’t include Putin. But it should; after all, he is the chair of the Security Council.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.