Diplomacy

Pressure builds on Kremlin over its role in Navalny poisoning

Caravanserai and AFP

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Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a meeting with members of the Russian Security Council via teleconference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow on September 4. [Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP]

Governments around the world are calling on the Kremlin to provide answers about the attempted assassination of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the weapons-grade nerve agent Novichok.

The 44-year-old in August 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 a hospital in Berlin.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations rights chief, on Tuesday (September 8) called on Moscow to conduct or co-operate with a "thorough, transparent, independent and impartial investigation" into the attack, after German specialists said they had "unequivocal proof" of the use of Novichok.

"It is incumbent on the Russian authorities to fully investigate who was responsible for this crime, a very serious crime that was committed on Russian soil," she said in a statement.

"The number of cases of poisoning, or other forms of targeted assassination, of current or former Russian citizens, either within Russia itself or on foreign soil, over the past two decades is profoundly disturbing," Bachelet said.

"And the failure in many cases to hold perpetrators accountable and provide justice for the victims or their families, is also deeply regrettable and hard to explain or justify," she said.

The Russian regime has "a very serious set of questions to answer" about the poisoning, said Britain Sunday (September 6), suggesting some form of state involvement in the high-profile case.

It was "clear" the Kremlin critic was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, which was previously used in an attack against a former Russian double agent in Salisbury, England, in 2018, said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

"It's very difficult, when it comes to the question of attribution, to think of a plausible explanation of being anyone other than some emanation of the Russian state, simply because Novichok is hard to get your hands on, hard to control," Raab told Sky News television.

"And so what is clear right now is that the Russian government has a very serious set of questions to answer," he said.

Fallout for Moscow

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country would not rule out consequences for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project if the Kremlin fails to thoroughly investigate the poisoning, her spokesman said Monday (September 7).

Asked whether Merkel would protect the multi-billion-euro pipeline from Russia to Europe if Germany were to seek sanctions over the Navalny case, spokesman Steffen Seibert said: "The chancellor believes it would be wrong to rule anything out from the start."

Nord Stream 2, a €10 billion ($11 billion) pipeline near completion beneath the Baltic Sea, is set to double Russian natural-gas shipments to Germany, which has Europe's largest economy.

Germany, the current head of the European Union, will also discuss possible sanctions on Moscow over the poisoning of Navalny if the Kremlin does not provide an explanation soon, its foreign minister said September 6.

"If in the coming days Russia does not help clarify what happened, we will be compelled to discuss a response with our allies," Heiko Maas told German daily Bild.

There were "several indications" that the Kremlin was behind the poisoning, said Maas September 6 in the strongest accusations yet from Germany.

"The deadly substance with which Navalny was poisoned has in the past been found in the hands of Russian authorities," he added.

"Only a small number of people have access to Novichok, and this poison was used by Russian secret services in the attack against former agent Sergei Skripal," he said, referring to the 2018 attack in Salisbury.

History of poisonings

The Kremlin has a long history of poisoning opposition figures -- both inside and outside Russia -- and employing hybrid warfare tactics to satisfy domestic and foreign agendas.

In March 2018, Skripal and his adult daughter were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury after being poisoned with the highly toxic nerve agent Novichok.

Pyotr Verzilov, an anti-Kremlin activist, was hospitalised in September 2018 after suffering from apparent poisoning from medical drugs.

In November 2006, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who spoke out against the Kremlin, died after drinking tea laced with highly radioactive polonium-210 at a London hotel.

In addition, Ukrainian politician Viktor Yushchenko, campaigning against a Russian-backed candidate for the presidency, almost died in September 2004 from a massive ingestion of dioxin.

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Putin supporters will be held completely accoutable for Navalny.

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