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Ireland joins condemnation of Navalny poisoning but EU says it's too early to discuss 'punishment'

Alexei Navalny last month became the latest in a long line of Russian defectors to be poisoned in suspicious circumstances.

Alexei Navalny taking part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia, in February 2020.
Alexei Navalny taking part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia, in February 2020.
Image: : Pavel Golovkin/AP/Press Association Images

Updated Sep 3rd 2020, 3:08 PM

WESTERN LEADERS ARE demanding explanations from Moscow after Germany said that Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to “silence” the Russian opposition leader.

The 44-year-old last month became the latest in a long line of Russian defectors and critics of President Vladimir Putin to be poisoned in suspicious circumstances, and is now in hospital in Berlin.

Medical tests from German military’s chemical weapons laboratory had given “unequivocal evidence” that Navalny had been afflicted by military-grade Novichok, a poison first developed by the Soviet Union towards the end of the Cold War.

The findings had prompted “some very serious questions that only Russia can and must answer”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

“It is certain that Alexei Navalny is the victim of a crime,” she added. “He was meant to be silenced and I condemn this in the strongest possible terms.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the poisoning was an “attempted assassination” was  “abhorrent to all those who value the fundamental principles of democracy”. 

“The confirmation by the German authorities of the use of a nerve agent belonging to the Novichok family is deeply troubling. Any use of chemical weapons is a breach of international law and completely unacceptable. We will not be silent in the face of such an incident,” Coveney said. 

I fully support the call by the EU’s High Representative, Josep Borrell for Russia to investigate this case thoroughly, in an open and transparent manner.  It is essential that those responsible are held to account. Ireland will work closely with our EU partners to coordinate our response to this incident.

The news prompted a fresh round of condemnation from European leaders in an affair that has already sent tensions spiralling between Russia and the West.

The EU has begun discussing their response to the poisoning but warned it was too early to impose new sanctions until an investigation identified the culprit.

Russia must carry out a “thorough, transparent” investigation into the poisoning, EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano said.

“We want to see those responsible brought to justice, but for that the investigation needs to be launched and needs to bring results,” Stano told reporters in Brussels when asked whether sanctions could be imposed in retaliation.

We are not there yet so it’s difficult to speak about punishment if you don’t have the (person) responsible.

Moscow has said it was ready to cooperate with Germany, but it has already insisted there is no reason to blame the Russian state.

UK

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Navalny’s poisoning was “outrageous”, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced the attack “shocking and irresponsible”.

European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen criticised a “despicable and cowardly act — once again”.

“The Russian people have a right to express their views peacefully without fear of retribution of any kind, and certainly not with chemical agents,” wrote US National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot.

Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg condemned the “shocking” use of a military-grade nerve agent which, he said, made “a full and transparent” investigation by Russia even more urgent.

Italy’s foreign ministry and Canadian foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne also condemned Navalny’s poisoning.

Improving condition 

The nerve agent, whose name means “newbie” or “newcomer” in Russian, can be deployed in an ultra-fine powder, liquid or vapour.

It was famously used against ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018, an assassination attempt that the West believes was ordered by the Kremlin despite Russia’s denials.

Navalny fell ill after boarding a plane in Siberia last month, with aides saying they suspect he drank a cup of spiked tea at the airport.

He was initially treated in a local Siberian hospital, where doctors said they were unable to find any toxic substances in his blood, before he was flown to Berlin for specialised treatment on 22 August.

The Kremlin, which has previously questioned the credibility of German doctors, said Russia was ready to cooperate fully.

Russia’s embassy in Berlin said in a statement: “We call on our partners to avoid any politicisation of this incident and to rely solely on credible facts, which we hope will be delivered as soon as possible.”

The Charite hospital that has been treating Navalny reported improvements in his condition.

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But the charismatic Yale-educated lawyer, who has been Russia’s leading opposition politician for around a decade, is still in the intensive care unit and remains on a ventilator.

Doctors say that over time the body can clear out the nerve agent, which disrupts communication between the brain, the main organs and muscles.

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

Skripal, Litvinenko poisoning 

Relations between the European Union and Russia are particularly sour at present, the two sides at odds over a host of issues from Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its backing of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, as well as alleged election meddling.

The EU has had sanctions targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy in place since 2014.

Two years ago, the Kremlin was also accused of being behind the attempted murder of ex-double agent Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, southwest England, using a Novichok nerve agent.

The Skripals spent days in a coma before recovering but local resident Dawn Sturgess died after picking up a discarded perfume bottle allegedly used to carry the poison.

The United States, EU members, Nato and other nations expelled over 150 Russian diplomats in a coordinated action against Moscow over the Skripal case, leading to tit-for-tat reactions from Moscow.

Navalny’s poisoning comes after a daylight murder of a former Chechen rebel commander in a Berlin park in August last year, which German prosecutors believe was ordered by Russia.

Merkel had also revealed in May that Russia had targeted her in hacking attacks, saying she had concrete proof of the “outrageous” spying attempts.

© AFP 2020 - with reporting by Rónán Duffy

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