Tag Archives: poisoning

Navalny’s Underpants

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I poke fun at the latest allegations concerning the poisoning of Alexei Navalny which appeared in this weekend’s copy of The Sunday Times.

I think that I should make it clear, if it isn’t from reading my article, that I am not making fun of Navalny, nor mocking the idea that he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Rather, I’m mocking some particularly bad journalism, and my point is that articles like that in The Sunday Times actually help the Russian government and its supporters deny that anything untoward happened in the Navalny case. Moreover, this is part of a more general phenomenon in which exaggerated and sometime quite bizarre reporting about Russia by the Western press has the effect of persuading people that everything they read is made-up nonsense, and so makes them prone to conspiracy theories.

The problems with the Sunday Times article go far beyond the few things I pointed out in my piece for RT. I consider it a very poor piece of work. And that’s a shame, as there are serious questions which the Russian government needs to answer about the Navalny case. Today, for instance, Bellingcat has published an investigation purporting to show that various agents of the Russian security service, the FSB, have been following Navalny for years, and that some of these agents have medical and chemical warfare training and have been in contact with a scientist with an interest in organophosphate chemicals.

I’m not in a position to verify Bellingcat’s claims, nor the various assumptions which lie behind them. But I don’t think that you can dismiss them out of hand. They are certainly a much more serious attempt to point the finger of blame at the Kremlin than what The Sunday Times produced. The thing is, though, that you can just imagine Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mariia Zakharova, confronted by a question about the Bellingcat report, cracking a joke about Navalny’s underpants and the ever growing number of supposed attempts on his life, saying that the West’s story keeps changing, and using that to undermine any attempts to claim that there is indeed something worth investigating.

In short, bad journalism has consequences. It needs to be called out. At the same time, though, I would urge readers not to imagine that because some of the claims in the press are ridiculous, everything is. Something smells super fishy in the Navalny case, and it’s not just his underpants.

Cups of tea and bottles of water

The Navalny poisoning story keeps getting odder. After the Russian oppositionist fell ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk, his supporters claimed that he was likely poisoned by a cup of tea he consumed at Tomsk airport. Now we’re told that the poison was in a bottle of water he drank in his hotel in the same town. Alexei Navalny’s team have released a video showing them packaging up materials from Navalny’s hotel room including a couple of water bottles. This, we must suppose, is meant to corroborate the bottle poisoning thesis.

Personally, I have no reason to doubt that a German laboratory found, as it claimed, a chemical of the Novichok-type in the bottle in question. The identification of the nerve agent in (or on, it’s not entirely clear which) the bottle then allowed the Germans to confirm the type of ‘cholinesterase inhibitor’ in Navalny’s blood. This may explain why Russian doctors were not able to confirm the presence of poison – they didn’t have a sample to compare the blood with. Beyond that, though, the latest twist in the Navalny story leaves one with a lot of questions.

The cup of tea scenario never made a lot of sense. To poison Navalny that way would have meant a) knowing in advance that he was going to have a cup of tea in the airport; b) knowing at which café his colleague would buy it; c) knowing who that colleague would be and telling the poisoner, so that s/he gave the right cup to the right person; d) somehow obtaining the cooperation of whoever would be serving tea at that time and in that place; and e) somehow getting them to lace Navalny’s tea with Novichok while not contaminating anybody else’s food or drink or poisoning themselves. Clearly, this didn’t make a lot of sense from a practical point of view.

The problem with the bottle of water scenario is that it isn’t more obviously practical. Unless this was an inside job, and the bottle was laced by one of Navalny’s entourage, one has to wonder how a would-be poisoner would know that Navalny would drink from that particular bottle of water in that particular room.

If it was one of those complimentary bottles one finds in hotel rooms, one can see how it could be done – the poisoner sneaks in the room, replaces one of the complimentary bottles with a pre-poisoned one, and sneaks out. But how did s/he know which room Navalny would be staying in? (I understand that his staff never book under his name – so even if you can identify rooms booked by the staff, you wouldn’t know which one was Navalny’s, not another member of the team’s). And how did the poisoner know that Navalny, and not somebody else, would drink from that specific bottle? There may be good answers to these questions, but they’re not immediately obvious.

Then, of course, there are the issues of how the bottle got packed and transported to Germany without infecting anybody else, and why it apparently took hours for the poison to have its effect. Again, there may be good answers, but as yet they aren’t clear.

Planting a poisoned water bottle in a target’s room could indeed work as a method of murder, but it’s fraught with risks of failure – the target just doesn’t drink any water; someone else drinks from the bottle; and so on. If you want to kill somebody, you can imagine a simpler, and far more certain, way of going about it.

But at this point, we don’t even know that the water bottle was one provided by the hotel. What if it was one Navalny and his staff bought elsewhere? If that’s the case, how on earth was the poison delivered into the bottle? I can’t say that I can see how.

In short, it’s not impossible that Navalny was indeed poisoned this way, but it’s difficult to work out the exact dynamics of it, and it’s a scenario which begs a lot of questions.

So, how do we get answers?

First, the German government needs to be a lot more forthcoming with information. At present, it’s refusing to tell the Russians anything. It’s position seems to be that the Russian authorities are guilty of the crime, and therefore can’t be trusted with the evidence and should just confess. Obviously, this isn’t a very good way of getting the Russians to cooperate.

Second, the Russian government needs to show a much greater enthusiasm in investigating (at present, the authorities have just carried out what they call a ‘pre-investigation’, which appears to be less than thorough). The authorities’ attitude seems to be that the whole story is a plot to frame them and so it’s best to pretend that no crime was committed at all. Equally obviously, this isn’t a very good way of convincing outsiders of their innocence.

As I said before, the Russians need to take this rather more seriously. Everyone involved– Navalny’s team, hotel staff, etc. – needs to be interviewed; the bottle’s origin traced; the room and hotel swabbed and analyzed; the exact chemical composition of the poison publicly identified. And so on.

This requires both the Germans and the Russians to stop treating this as a political football and instead work together to find answers. This, of course, is almost certainly not going to happen. As a result, attitudes on both sides of the political divide are likely to harden. In the West, nearly everyone will take it as granted that an attempt was made to murder Navalny using a Novichok-laced water bottle. And in Russia, nearly everybody will point to the problems with the water bottle thesis and conclude that the story is total hokum.

As for me, I don’t know what to make of it. But what’s for sure is that the episode is yet another nail in the coffin of Russian-Western relations. Somehow or other, it all keeps getting worse.