German MPs have no clue to what happened to the “Berlin patient”

13:01 18.12.2020 • Alexander Ananiev , retired Russian Foreign Ministry adviser

The German government was quick to accuse Moscow of using a poisonous substance ("chemical weapon") against Alexei Navalny, which resulted in additional sanctions being imposed on Russia, and the completion of Nord Stream 2 called into question. However, inconsistencies in Berlin’s version have raised doubts about the credibility of accusations brought against Russia among several deputies of the Bundestag and the parliamentary faction of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is in opposition to the policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government.

The government’s 76 answers to MPs' queries raised even more questions

In their foreword to the government's answers, the deputies provided the following timeline of events: on August 20, 2020, Alexei Navalny fell violently sick while on a plane from Tomsk to Moscow, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny was rushed to a hospital and put in a coma. Subsequent tests confirmed the doctors’ initial diagnosis about the natural causes of the patient’s condition. On August 22, Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment at Berlin’s Charité hospital. During a news conference held at the clinic two days later, on August 24, it was announced that Alexei Navalny had been poisoned.

Additional studies at a German military toxicology lab, and a little later (September 5 and 6) also in France and Sweden, confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned allegedly with a substance from the “Novichok” group of nerve agents.

“We have high expectations of the Russian government to solve this serious crime," Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on September 6, adding that “if the [Russian] government has nothing to do with the attack, then it is in its own interest to back this up with facts." [2]

Moscow has argued, however, that it is unable to conduct a comprehensive investigation and open a criminal case as long as the German government keeps withholding the data necessary for such a probe. Since doctors in Omsk did not find any poisonous substances in Navalny’s body, Russia has no grounds for opening a criminal case, and a pre-investigation check is being completed by the transport department of the Interior Ministry in the Siberian Federal District. [3]

On September 17, 2020 (almost a month later), Navalny's team announced that he had been poisoned in his hotel room in Tomsk after drinking from a bottle of water, which he could have taken to Berlin. However, during the next four weeks it was believed that “Novichok” had most likely been added to the tea that Navalny drank at the airport in Tomsk.

The German MPs also pointed to “confirmed facts that “Novichok” is available not only to the state, but to private individuals as well. It has been proven that already in the mid-1990s, some criminal groups in various countries possessed nerve agents from the “Novichok” group. In January 1997, The Washington Times quoted a US chemical weapons expert as providing detailed information on the various poisons of the “Novichok” family. And in 2018, the US Army admitted to producing different versions “Novichok.”

Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, England, said that the “owner” of the toxin would be hard to find. He added that while in the case of the Skripals’ poisoning his laboratory was able to find traces of “Novichok,” the involvement of government agencies  in the poisoning was "presumptive" and the "owner" could not be established. [4]

The Bundestag deputies believe that not only Germany and Russia, but Europe as a whole would benefit from finding the truth about Navalny’s poisoning, and that there are questions that Germany, just like Russia, has to answer.

The questions asked were intended to clarify:

  1. to what extent the German government is following the terms of the OPCW Convention, under which “states are obliged to give each other legal assistance and to act vigorously to clarify various issues through exchange of information and bilateral consultations,”
  2. how the identified trace amounts of degradation products of a chemical compound resembling a cholinesterase inhibitor got into the body of Navalny in Russia, and not later,
  3. to clarify the biomaterials whose samples were taken for analysis, so that they can be compared with similar ones taken in Russia, and establish a specific formula for the identified inhibitor biomarkers in order to determine the country of origin of the synthesized chemical agent.

The deputies’ concerns are fairly understandable, because answers to the above questions can either prove or disprove the legitimacy of the German government’s accusations against the Russian authorities. The answers were simply shocking:

I. Legal assistance. The German government confirmed that it had received four requests for legal assistance from the Russian Federation in the preliminary investigation of Navalny’s case, which the government sent to the relevant authorities for further processing after the initial verification (response 26). The federal government kept mum about the government’s failure to provide any clear response to these requests for a whole three months;

- despite the significance of Navalny's case, Berlin explained the 8-day delay in accepting the August 27, 2020 request by the Russian Prosecutor General's Office for the provision of legal assistance from the German Ministry of Justice by the need to conduct a standard procedure for verifying compliance with legal norms, thus failing to provide any substantive answer (answer No. 28);

- Russia’s request for legal assistance, dated September 11, 2020, which included a permission for Russian investigators to come to Germany and meet with Alexei Navalny or with German doctors and experts, went equally unanswered (replies 26 and 29);

- all of Moscow’s requests for cooperation between the German and Russian chemical laboratories to compare the results of the obtained analyzes, were also rejected on the grounds that since the Russian authorities have their own biomaterials of Alexei Navalny, they can study them themselves (answers 22, 40 and 67 );

- the German government did not exchange information with the Russian doctors who had provided first aid to Navalny (answer 9).

II. Method and place of the alleged poisoning. It turned out that, according to its own admission, the German government, has no reliable information about the fundamental facts of the use of chemical weapons, namely:

- about the subsequent discovery of similar symptoms in the medical personnel who accompanied Navalny on the plane (Question: Were the accompanying persons examined for possible poisoning, given that there should have been traces of “Novichok” on Navalny's body?) (answers 4, 6);

- about the methods of delivery and the persons who delivered the victim’s personal effects with traces of “Novichok” and the bottle of water,  allegedly poisoned with “Novichok” (answers 5, 15, 16, 38) [5];

- about the initial condition (liquid or powder) of the applied substance (answer 41);

- about the reason why the expert opinion of Navalny's attending physician was not made public during the September 24 news conference at the Charité clinic, where the fact of Navalny's poisoning was announced (answer 21);

- about how the poisonous substance got into Alexei Navalny’s body: via the respiratory tract, skin or orally (answer 36);

- about why the long delay between Navalny's alleged contact with “Novichok” in the hotel and its onset on the plane, while a chemical warfare agent is designed to instantly destroy enemy manpower (answer 67);

III. Biomaterial research. When asked directly about the nature of the biomaterials tested: blood, urine, samples from a bottle of water, or otherwise, the German government describes them as just “biomedical materials” (answers 47 and 48);

- the German government explains its refusal to disclose the composition of the discovered compound "Novichok" by the allegedly "high risk of information leakage" (answer 75), although even Wikipedia provides the structural formula and a method of synthesizing this toxic substance. We believe that the "risk of information leakage" boils down to the fact that disclosure of the composition of the found substance can reveal to specialists its country of origin, since chemical laboratories in different countries are able to determine this.

Failing to get any answers to leading questions, the MPs decided to put their questions "head-on" (questions 55-69), and, as a result, learned the following:

- traces of "Novichok" could only be found on a bottle of water, but not in Navalny's body;

- the poison was on the bottle, not in the water, because otherwise, Alexei Navalny would not have survived;

- Alexei Navalny was in contact with the poisoned bottle while already on the plane flying from Omsk to Berlin. Maria Pevchikh was on the same plane and she carried the bottle onboard. Still, she was never interrogated in Germany;

- no fingerprints were taken from the bottle, which could prove that Navalny had touched it;

- the bottle of water was listed as the (alleged) source of poisoning only four weeks after the (alleged) poisoning.

The German federal government had no answers to these questions either. As a result, the most obvious version was not verified, and charges were immediately brought against the Russian authorities.

LEADS

Here we’ll try to consider different versions of what happened, based on the known facts and the answers provided by the German government.

Let's start with the most implausible one, which is still being actively forced on the ordinary people in the West: "the dictator Putin is challenging the democratic countries by demonstrably using banned weapons of mass destruction against the opposition leader." This immediately brings to mind the defamatory campaigns waged against Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad, accusing the former of being ready to use, and the latter of using chemical weapons. In both cases, the Western media portrayed these two leaders as “merciless” and even “crazy,” capable of acting against their own personal interests and the interests of their countries. In February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell held up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presented “evidence” of Iraq's alleged WMD programs to the UN Security Council, while knowing full well that it was a lie. The same with the shameless staging of “mass chlorine poisoning” in Syria to name just a few...

By using the same defamatory tactic against the Russian leader, the collective West may be looking for “justification” for a possible pushback, including a motion to deprive Russia of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

This version has too many pitfalls, however. Why should Putin want to raise a scandal exactly when the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was all but over? [6]; why allow Navalny’s evacuation to Germany, even though there were enough legal grounds to the contrary amid a pandemic and an ongoing criminal case against Navalny (over insulting a WWII veteran)? And why keep sending requests for cooperation in the investigation of the incident?

Germany's refusal to cooperate and clarify the circumstances, which the lawmakers pointed to in their questions, is apparently an attempt by  the government to present to the public only one handpicked version of what happened. Indeed, this version could be immediately disputed by a) the absence of Navalny's fingerprints on the bottle of water containing a poisonous substance that was allegedly found in Navalny’s hotel room in Tomsk; b) comparison of test results in Russia and Germany; c) disclosure of the formula of the detected poisonous substance. This is obviously why the German government failed to do this.

Another thing that German officials remain silent about is how Navalny learned about the alleged mining of the Omsk airport before the plane landed there, while he was already on his hospital bed at Charité. The Russian Interior Ministry hadn’t released the information about the false alarm that could have prevented the plane’s emergency landing in Omsk and provision of medical assistance to Navalny. According to the Ministry, the anonymous message about the bomb came via an online mail service, whose servers are in Germany. [7] The German authorities still refused to help identify the owner of the email address from where the warning about the bomb allegedly ticking at Omsk airport had come.

According to another version, Navalny’s poisoning was organized by certain elements in Russia’s ruling elite and the oligarchy, unhappy about Putin’s performance and seeking to discredit him in the West. That what had remained of the “Novichok” that was used to kill the banker Ivan Kivelidi in the 1990s, could have now been used to poison the Skripals and Navalny.

However, according to Western sources, NATO countries have also been able to synthesize or had access to “Novichok”’s analogues. In a joint report [8], the German newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, and public broadcasters NDR and WDR said, citing their sources, that the country’s intelligence agency BND had obtained a sample of the “Novichok” nerve agent from a Russian scientist. The sample was analyzed in Sweden, and the chemical formula was then passed on to the German government and the military. The BND declined to comment on the report, which said that the BND informed the US and British intelligence agencies about that and small quantities of the poison were later produced in several NATO countries to test Western defenses, test equipment and antidotes.

During the 1990s, US specialists were working in Uzbekistan to scrap the production facilities of the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GNIIOKhT), where the nerve agent “Novichok” was produced and tested in Soviet times. This means that the Americans also had access to the technology used in the production of this agent, The New York Times wrote in 1999. [9] The same is reported by Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan. [10] Therefore, representatives of the intelligence agencies, trying hard to give Russia a bad name in the world, should by no means be excluded from the list of possible poisoners. To rule this out, the German government should have provided substantive answers to the questions posed by the Bundestag deputies. Otherwise, one gets the impression that what is being kept under wraps is precisely what can shed light on the whole situation, and Berlin’s reluctance to cooperate with Russian law enforcement agencies smacks of a deliberate provocation.

Finally, the most trivial explanation cannot be discarded either: what if Navalny really fell sick on the plane, necessitating an emergency landing and hospitalization? He is put in a coma and medical tests reveal no traces of any poisonous substances. Meanwhile, the Western special services spring into action and decide to use this opportunity to discredit Russia: they arrange for taking Navalny out to Germany in order to find any traces of “Novichok” (exactly the type of poison they need to demonize the Russian regime). To do this, they order Maria Pevchikh, who, most likely (or “highly likely”) is associated with Western intelligence, to take out from Navalny’s hotel room some evidence of poisoning. Unsuspicious of this, (although it should have been after the Skripals’ affair), Russia agrees to the evacuation. During the flight or upon arrival in Germany, they mark a bottle of water, clothes and some biomaterials (which for some reason are hidden) with small amounts of a cholinesterase inhibitor, pointing to the presence of a new analogue of a poisonous substance from the “Novichok” group.

At the same time, as follows from the federal government’s answers to the questions from Bundestag deputies about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, without knowing for sure that the bottle of water was actually used by Navalny and that the biomaterials and their analysis are identical to the samples taken in Russia, the German government continues to blame the Russian leadership for poisoning the opposition activist.

Small wonder that the German government does not respond or gives formal replies to four requests from the Russian Prosecutor's Office, refuses to  cooperate and disclose the formula of the discovered inhibitor under the ridiculous pretext that: “given the high risks of information leakage, the Federal Government did not disclose any details about the substance used” (answer to question 75). While accusing Russia of a deliberate crime, the German government is actually hiding evidence from the alleged “criminal” under the pretext that learning about the “murder weapon” he might want to use it again. If Germany fears that this weapon could be used by other countries and entities, then the transfer of related information can be made extremely confidential. If you really want to get at the truth, you have to exchange information, including of the analyzes of the composition of biomaterials, since, according to Article IX of the OPCW Convention, the participating States “shall consult and cooperate, directly among themselves … on any matter which may be raised relating to the object and purpose, or the implementation of the provisions, of this Convention ... States Parties should, whenever possible, first make every effort to clarify and resolve, through exchange of information and consultations among themselves, any matter which may cause doubt about compliance with this Convention ... A State Party which receives a request from another State Party for clarification of any matter which the requesting State Party believes causes such a doubt or concern shall provide the requesting State Party as soon as possible, but in any case not later than 10 days after the request, with information sufficient to answer the doubt or concern raised along with an explanation of how the information provided resolves the matter.”

How the US and Britain opposed the inclusion of "Novichok” in the OPCW Convention

During the 1990s and 2000s, the United States and Britain made sure that a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons, and their alleged predecessors, was not put on the list of substances banned by  the OPCW Convention.

In the autumn of 2018, the US and Netherlands proposed to include in the Convention only two families of toxic substances from the “Novichok” group. Russia then proposed to add five such chemicals to the list, but the Western countries rejected the initiative.

In September 2019, Russia came up with a revised proposal where the 5th group of chemicals objected to by the United States and its allies was no longer mentioned.

As a result, the parties reached a compromise and in November 2019, the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention approved the proposals put forward by Russia and the "troika" of Western countries to include four hazardous chemicals of the “Novichok” family on the Convention’s list.  However, the substance used in Navalny's alleged poisoning was notably missing from the amended list.

List 1 of the Convention, which now includes "Novichok,” features chemicals that can be used in the production of chemical weapons or constitute a weapon per se. According to the Convention, a country that produces more than 100 grams of such substances a year must declare it to the OPCW. In addition, a state is allowed to have maximum one ton of such substances. This list includes mustard gas and ricin, among others.

Almost simultaneously with the inclusion in the Convention’s list of chemical compounds of the “Novichok” family, articles by Western scientists about the synthesis and research of this group's substance began to appear in the press. For example, an article by Steven Harvey provides data on obtaining (using independently developed methods) preparations of the “Novichok” group (A230, A232 and A234) of very high purity (over 95%). [11] This means that the West had been actively developing chemical warfare agents before, albeit secretly. This explains why the United States and Britain rejected the idea of adding to the list a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons, before including the five chemicals of the “Novichok” group.

This conclusion is also confirmed by the former Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who was the first to announce the creation of a new chemical warfare agent. In a recent interview with "Echo of Moscow" radio [12], he said that "a team in England and another one in the United States analyzed the hydrolysis of these "Novichoks,” which is thousands of times slower than that of all the known organophosphate toxic substances. This means that its traces remain in the human body for a very long time and do not disappear – that’s my conclusion." In other words, it is possible to subject a person to a deliberately small non-lethal dose of such a substance, being fully confident that even three weeks later biomarkers indicating the use of “Novichok” will be detected, just like in the cases of the Skripals and Navalny. Those who planned both operations did not intend to kill, but only to embed material evidence to discredit Russia.

They will certainly try to deny this and say that Russian experts could have synthesized and reveal such properties in some analogue of “Novichok,” and use it for criminal ends.

Theoretically, such a version can’t be ruled out, but it should be considered on an equal basis with others. To identify the real organizers of these incidents, we need to work together and find answers to the questions asked by the German MPs, compare the results of Navalny’s analyzes taken in Russia and Germany, and reveal the formulas of poisonous substances found in the biomaterials of the Skripals and Navalny. Germany, just like the UK before it, refuses to cooperate in such an investigation, which could mean that they have something to hide. As they say in Russia, “No one shouts ‘thief!’ louder the thief himself.”

Opponents stick to a completely opposite version, however, arguing that the reason why neither case ended in death is because the Russian “spooks” used a minimum amount of the substance to make sure that its residue in the victims’ bodies could not be determined after a while. They also say that because the physical and chemical properties of the chemical substance were not taken into account, they erred with the dose and, as a result, the victims remained alive and the markers were found. This version holds no water, because if they wanted to hide the murder weapon, then why use an untested substance again, instead of some tried-and-true one harking back to the Medici era, or arrange an accident, just like they have occasionally done also in the West? Moreover, why let the patient be urgently taken out to Germany (the flight that would take Navalny to Berlin was delayed by several hours, but not because it was being held up by Moscow, but because the German pilots had to rest)?

Germany's accusations against Russia over the alleged poisoning of Navalny, as well as Britain’s over the Skripals’ poisoning rest on the assumption that “Novichoks” could have allegedly been produced only at certain military facilities to be found only in Russia. However, this is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. In his 1995 article, and later in a book that came out in the US in 2008, Vil Mirzayanov revealed “Novichok”’s chemical formula. In the book, Mirzayanov wrote that “chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version “Novichok-5” are common organophosphorus compounds that can be produced at commercial chemical plants making fertilizers, pesticides, etc.” [13]

Czech President Milos Zeman admitted that in 2017, Czech chemists synthesized compounds of the “Novichok” family of nerve agents [14].

From a scientific standpoint, no laboratory, be it the Bundeswehr in Germany or Porton Down in the UK, is able to identify chemical compounds as analogues of the “Novichok” family if it has no compound of the same class available. They can determine that it fits Mirzayanov's formula, but since he published the formula 20 years ago, this can by no means serve as proof of its Russian origin - just the opposite. If Porton Down can synthesize this chemical agent, so can many others, and not only in Russia. Moreover, as the same Mirzayanov said in his recent interview with Echo of Moscow: “Not a single substance, including “Novichok,” is 100% pure ... chromatography mass spectrometry can be used to analyze the semi-products from which the final substance is obtained to determine the country and laboratory of origin of this toxic substance."

The refusal by Germany and Britain to provide their samples of “Novichok” and to perform a comparative analysis of biomedical samples taken from the victims is evidence of their fear that this would point a finger at laboratories that could have actually synthesized the said chemical agents.

 

The views of the author are his own and may differ from the position of the Editorial Board.

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[1] Deutscher Bundestag. Drucksache 19/24493. 19. Wahlperiode. 19.11.2020. Antwortder Bundesregierung. URL: https://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/19/244/1924493.pdf. Russian translation is available on Echo of Moscow website. URL: https://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/2750316-echo/

[2] Russia destroyed its chemical weapons stockpiles in 2017, while the US plans to do this only in 2023 due to “financial problems.”

[3] About 500 objects were seized and sent to the expert, including Navalny's food and clothing. Washes were made from the surface of the aircraft cabin, as well as furniture in the airport cafe. The data from video surveillance systems are analyzed. To date, more than 40 examinations have been carried out. See press release of the Investigative Department of the Transport Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia for the Siberian Federal District. https://russische-botschaft.ru/ru/2020/10/09/upravlenie-na-transporte-mvd-rossii-p/

[4] Craig Murray. The Novichok Story Is Indeed Another Iraqi WMD Scam - Craig Murray

[5] M. Pevchikh, who was accompanying Navalny, reported that the oppositionist's associates had left Tomsk by car for Novosibirsk, and from there - by plane to Omsk, from where the bottle was taken to Germany by plane with Navalny. At the same time, the Ministry of  the Interior  reported that during the inspection at the Novosibirsk airport, Navalny's associates did not have a bottle with them. Read more on RBC: https://www.rbc.ru/politics/25/11/2020/5fbe8eff9a79474558c765b6

[6] Just like causing an incident with the Skripals ahead of the World Football Cup in Russiua.

[7] See press release…

[8] Skripal poisoning: Germany got Novichok chemical sample from Russia in 1990s. 17.05.2018. https://www.dw.com/en/skripal-poisoning-germany-got-novichok-chemical-sample-from-russia-in-1990s/a-43818626

[9] Miller Judith. «U.S. and Uzbeks Agree on Chemical Arms Plant Cleanup». The New York Times, May 25, 1999, Section A, Page 3.

[10] The Novichok Story Is Indeed Another Iraqi WMD Scam - Craig Murray

[11] Harvey, Steven P. Hydrolysis and enzymatic degradation of Novichok nerve agents : [англ.] / Steven P. Harvey, Leslie R. McMahon, Frederic J. Berg // Heliyon : journal — 2020. — ISSN 2405-8440. — doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e03153Kloske and Witkiewicz, 2019; M. Kloske, Z. Witkiewicz. Novichoks - the A group of organophosphorus chemical warfare agents: Chemosphere, 221 (2019), pp. 672-682; Franca et al., 2019 T.C.C. Franca, D.A.S. Kitagawa, S.F.A. Cavalcante, J.A.V. daSilva, E. Nepovimova, K. Kuca. Novichoks: the dangerous fourth generation of chemical weapons. Int. J. Mol. Sci., 20 (2019), p. 1222

[12] Vil Mirzayanov. Intertview. 09.09.2020. https://echo.msk.ru/programs/beseda/2706129-echo/

[13] Mirzayanov Vil S. A new class of chemical agents “Novichok“ and binary weapons // State Secrets. An insider's chronicle of the Russian chemical weapons program) — Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2008. — P. 142—151. — ISBN 978-1-4327-2566-2Mirzayanov Vil S. Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An insider’s View // Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Promlems and Prospects / Amy E. Smithson, Vil S. Mirzayanov, Roland Lajoie, Michael Krepon. — Report No. 17. — Washington, D. C.: Henry L. Stimson Center, 1995. — P. 21—33. https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/files/file-attachments/Report17.pdf

[14] Zeman: Czech Republic produced and tested a nerve agent of the “Novichok” family. May 2, 2018. https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/5175483)