France and Sweden Confirm Novichok Poisoning of Navalny, Backing Germany

By Katrin Bennhold and Michael Schwirtz

The evidence that Moscow attempted to murder Russia’s most visible opposition politician hardens. But for now, Germany and its allies are still struggling to respond.

Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, in Moscow in 2019. His condition has improved since he was poisoned last month, though his doctors have not ruled out long-term complications.
Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, in Moscow in 2019. His condition has improved since he was poisoned last month, though his doctors have not ruled out long-term complications.Credit...Maxim Zmeyev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

ImageThe Charité hospital in Berlin, where Mr. Navalny has been recovering, has been heavily guarded since his arrival. 
The Charité hospital in Berlin, where Mr. Navalny has been recovering, has been heavily guarded since his arrival. Credit...Maja Hitij/Getty Images

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.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has not spoken with President Vladimir Putin of Russia since Mr. Navalny’s poisoning. Credit...Michael Kappeler/DPA, via Associated Press

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.

Pipes for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project at the port in Sassnitz, Germany. Credit...Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

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.