Putin’s poisons: 2020 attack on Aleksey Navalny

Russian opposition activist Aleksey Navalny gestures while speaking to a crowd during a political protest in Moscow July 20, 2019. (© Pavel Golovkin/AP Images)

This article is part of a series describing how the Russian government and Vladimir Putin conceal their or their allies’ involvement in chemical attacks on civilians worldwide.

Russian opposition activist Aleksey Navalny gestures while speaking to a crowd during a political protest in Moscow July 20, 2019. (© Pavel Golovkin/AP Images)

When a leading political activist in Russia dared to challenge President Vladimir Putin, he ended up poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union.

In August 2020 Aleksey Navalny became severely ill during a flight to Moscow from Tomsk, Russia. He was taken to a hospital in Omsk after an emergency landing. Two days later, Navalny was flown to a hospital in Berlin, where he recovered.

In September 2020, German laboratory technicians concluded Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok group. The poison was similar to the one the Russian military intelligence service (GRU) used against Sergei Skripal in a 2018 assassination attempt in the United Kingdom, where Skripal was living as a citizen. That attack landed Skripal, his daughter Yulia and a British officer in the hospital and resulted in the death of another British citizen months later.

Independent national labs in Sweden and Finland and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the German lab’s findings in Navalny’s case. (Learn why nerve agents are so deadly.)

In December 2020, an investigation team of independent journalists implicated Russia’s Federal Security Service in the poisoning. The team consisted of Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group, The Insider, Der Spiegel of Germany and CNN. This finding was later confirmed by the United States and others.

Police patrol August 21, 2020, in front of the Omsk Ambulance Hospital No. 1, intensive care unit where Aleksey Navalny was hospitalized in Omsk, Russia. (© Evgeniy Sofiychuk/AP Images)

When the poisoning was revealed, the Kremlin began an aggressive disinformation campaign to deny the Russian government had a role in the attack, access to Novichok or a motive to poison Navalny.

Distract with falsehoods

Technicians from the Omsk hospital, likely under pressure from Russian security services, said Navalny could have become ill because of alcohol use, fatigue or poor diet. Putin loyalists and state-controlled media widely repeated that false theory.

Russian officials and state-run media spread several false claims after the incident including:

  • Navalny drank “village moonshine” before his flight.
  • The poisoning occurred in Germany, not Russia.
  • Western governments, including Germany and the United States, were attempting to smear Russia by fabricating the account.

Pro-Kremlin media outlets published more than 200 false items about the poisoning between August 2020 and January 2021, according to EUvsDisinfo, an EU project created to monitor and respond to Russia’s disinformation campaigns.

Allowing Navalny to travel to Germany was presented as evidence that Russia’s government was not involved in the poisoning.

“If [the security services] really wanted to poison him, they would have, most likely, carried it through,” Putin said in December 2020.

Navalny arrested

On January 17, 2021, Navalny was arrested as he returned from Germany and later sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for parole violations. In March 2022, he was sentenced to nine years in a maximum security prison on charges of fraud and contempt. The charges and the convictions are considered politically motivated.

While in prison, Navalny has denounced Russia’s war against Ukraine via social media.

The Kremlin’s chemical weapons disinformation campaign continues today in Ukraine, with attempts to blame others while obfuscating its actions.