Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is one of the Kremlin’s biggest dissidents — a thorn in President Vladimir Putin’s side for more than a decade.
The pro-democracy campaigner is currently in a German hospital recovering from an attempted poisoning Berlin officials say was “without doubt” carried out using Novichok, a highly toxic Soviet-era nerve agent.
If the name sounds familiar, it could be because it made headlines back in 2018 when former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal were attacked in the English city of Salisbury.
The Skripals were found unconscious on a park bench but eventually recovered. Russia denied any involvement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has fiercely denied Berlin’s accusation Russia is involved in the Navalny poisoning, citing a lack of evidence.
He says German authorities have stonewalled Russian requests for information.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said.
“Our Western partners allow themselves to make arrogant demands in such a tone that suggests that they have nothing but pathos to put on the table.”
A ‘grand conspiracy’
Mr Navalny, a Kremlin critic and corruption investigator, fell ill on a flight to Moscow on August 20 and was taken to hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk.
He was flown to Germany for treatment days after and he remains in an induced coma at a Berlin hospital.
Mark Edele, a Soviet Union and Russian historian from the University of Melbourne said, the poison used was indeed Novichok, it would point the finger at a “state actor”.
Kirill Nourzhanov, a post-Soviet expert from the Australian National University, told the ABC the Kremlin was pushing the narrative that the poisoning of Mr Navalny was a “grand conspiracy” that had been inflated by Western media.
Dr Nourzhanov said one of Moscow’s arguments was that Novichok was an obviously identifiable poison, and its use was therefore chosen “deliberately” in order to blame Russia.
“Moscow is in the process of stealth denial, basically,” Dr Nourzhanov said.
A ‘terrifying poison’ to send a ‘clear message’
Like all nerve agents, Novichok is manmade.
Its development began in the Soviet Union sometime between 1970 and 1990.
Depending on the purity, Novichok can appear to be colourless and odourless. It can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested through poisoned food or drink.
It poisons the nervous system and disrupts bodily functions, with high doses known to cause death by asphyxiation.
He said there were two possible reasons why Russia would use it.
“It could be institutional inertia; they have the stuff and they trained to use it, so they use it,” he said.
“Or it’s a more deliberate tactic and then you’ll just deny everything and you’ll find enough people from the tin-hat brigade outside Russia who will buy the denial … so you can have it both ways: Send a clear message and deny that you sent it.”
He said whoever made the decision to poison Mr Navalny had “endless” other options if they wanted him killed.
In the past, opponents of the Kremlin have allegedly been beaten up, had acid thrown in their face and been involved in suspicious car accidents.
Navalny ‘the most effective opposition politician in Russia’
Mr Navalny is an anti-corruption campaigner who has famously said Mr Putin’s ruling party is full of “crooks and thieves”.
He has led nationwide protests that seem to resonate with young Russians, but he is unable to run for the nation’s top job due to an embezzlement conviction which he refutes.
Robert Horvath, a Russian politics specialist at La Trobe University, told the ABC Mr Navalny was “unquestionably the most effective opposition politician in Russia”.
“In light of Navalny’s importance in Russian public life, it is unlikely that security officials would risk killing him without approval at the highest levels, but we don’t know.”
However, he said, killing a figure of Mr Navalny’s stature could have unintended consequences — it could reaffirm the opposition leader’s accusations of corruption within the Kremlin.
“He has proved quite invulnerable to the regime’s attempts to compromise or discredit him,” Dr Horvath said.
“Indeed, much of the vilification directed at him has only boosted his reputation.”