Discrete Chemical Warfare: Putin’s response to the opposition

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Angela Merkel confirmed, with ‘unequivocal proof’, that on September 2, Alexei Navalny – Putin’s main rival – had been poisoned by a nerve agent in the Novichok group. This is not the first time in recent years that Novichok has been used by the Russian nation. Most recently, with the Salisbury poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2016, and prior to this the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, Russia has consistently schemed to take out its rivals through chemical warfare.

Alexei Navalny is Putin’s main political rival, standing as the leader of political party, Russia of the Future. He has advocated for reforms against corruption in Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s government, thus causing him to be named ‘the man Vladimir Putin fears most’. Navalny collapsed while flying from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow on 20 August and has been in a coma since. When he was treated in Russia, medical officials declared there were no traces of poison in his body. Yet, when he was transferred to a hospital in Berlin, a full investigation found exactly that. 

He [Navalny] has advocated for reforms against corruption in Russia.

At the time of the Salisbury poisoning, which occurred on British soil in 2018, the British press was inundated with references to the Cold War and calls for Russia to take responsibility for their actions. Although Sergei Skripal was born in Russia, he, like Litvinenko, was a British citizen seeking protection due to defection. However, now Putin has poisoned a well-recognised Russian citizen, with no crime against the state, the realities of Russian chemical warfare have been revealed.

The international significance of such poisonings has increased with that of Navalny. Putin is no longer seeking revenge and dominance over defected spies, but over any sort of opposition to his authoritarian leadership – which Navalny is the very face of. In 2017, Russian authorities claimed they had destroyed the entirety of their chemical weapon stockpile. With recent events, either Russia has lost control of chemical weapon production on its own soil, or, the more likely alternative, Russian authorities have misled the international communities, not only producing chemical weapons, but using them to eliminate rivals.

Putin is seeking revenge over any sort of oppositon to his authoritarian leadership.

In light of this, Amnesty International have recently stated in their press release, ‘the world must know the truth about this brazen attempt on the life of a Russian opposition leader’. This has been echoed by UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, saying that the Russian government had to answer for the events surrounding Navalny’s poisoning. He continued to state, Britain would work closely with Germany, and other allies, to show there were consequences for using chemical weapons.

In 2016, Western governments’ reacted forcefully against the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. Twenty countries expelled hundreds of Russia diplomats, damaging Russian intelligence gathering in the West. This was the anthesis of British response to the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko ten years prior. Perhaps it was the lack of response in 2006, that allowed for those in the Kremlin to sanction the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and now Alexei Navalny.

Surely the British and international reaction to the Salisbury poisonings should set a precedent for staunch action now? With increasing uncertainty about the warfare of Russia, increasing culmination of nerve-agent poisoning, and increasing misinformation being produced by Russia, the need for international action is greater than ever. How we respond will impact Russia’s next steps.

Image: Michal Siergiejevicz via Flickr

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