Is the truth novichok’s ultimate victim?

Yesterday a rather healthy Navalny was discarged from the Berlin hospital where he has been receiving treatment for what is largely accepted as a very severe poisoning. As we addressed in an earlier story there are several questions that make this episode somewhat hard to fathom. In fact as time progresses more questions have come to the fore. These require us to ask what precisely is the role of the Russian state in all of this. For those who doubt Russian guilt, the crux of their argument remains the strange decision to allow Navalny to be transported out of the country to the Charite hospital in Berlin, especially if they knew a chemical weapon would be discovered in his blood stream.

Further, if they were intent on killing him, why did they not finish him off in the intensive care unit of the hospital? It is certain that Navalny had never been more vulnerable. In fact they would have had numerous opportunity to do away with him whilst in hospital. Nature could have been allowed to take its course, that is, they could have refrained from providing medical intervention. Conversely they could have simply overdosed him. The obvious solution would have been for the Russians to block his flight into Europe. Of course the West would have anyway labelled Russia as guilty anyway, yet there would have been greater room for plausible deniability than handing them quite literally a whole body of evidence.

So what else has come to light recently? There is the shift in focus away from the infamous cup of tea to a bottle of mineral water that the activist left at the hotel. The water bottle was collected by Navalny’s team who returned to the hotel the moment they discovered Navalny was “more than a bit ill”. Nonetheless this too seems odd. Then Navalny’s flight was early morning and by the time they discovered Navalny’s condition it was around midday. It begs the question: why did the GRU or FSB not dispose of it the moment Navalny left the hotel? We have been informed that Navalny was under constant supervision, yet nobody was present to clean up his room the moment he left the hotel. So the room was left with the evidence for hours. If the Russian state poisoned him, they are certainly very unprofessional in what they do and leave a lot to chance.

Of course the origin of the poisoned water bottle now comes to the fore. It’s unlikely he obtained this in the local supermarket. So should we assume that this was given to him by staff in the hotel? And if so, why then give the key back to Navalny’s team to enter a room, that you know has not been cleaned and still contains the evidence.

Initially this development with the mineral water bottle came as a big surprise then for almost a month we had been told it was the tea Navalny had been seen to drink at the airport that had been laced with the Novichok. His team had attempted to convince us that the whole restaurant at the airport had been taken over by secret service. Additionally we were told that he had nothing else to eat or drink that day other than the tea. It seems his team were not so convinced by their own story. Does this therefore not constitute a brazen lie?

The timely image of Navalny drinking a cup of tea therefore appears to have been used merely for propaganda purposes. It was a means by which to frame the incident, to create and revive both a psychological and emotional link to a previous case. By appealing to emotion the West were certainly able to take control of the discursive element of this whole affair. This is consistent with the hybrid deployment of propaganda techniques. It helps cement the relative message in the minds of its audience and as such proves a fundamental basis for winning the hearts and minds of the wider public. It matters little that this picture of Navalny drinking tea has since in factual terms been made redundant by a shift in the narrative, then the results the image has achieved in the minds has been well and truly entrenched with the full force of emotion, with the full force of horror. This can no longer be undone, hence another question is brought to the fore namely: was the photo specifically staged in order to create a narrative?

Novichok revised?

It’s also incredible that nobody else was affected by this poison given Novichok’s incredibly poisonous properties. Should we not expect those members of Navalny’s team that went back to the hotel to be contaminated with the toxin? It has been reported after all that even minuscule quantities were capable of killing large numbers of people. When we compare how Novichok is presented in the press with information presented to us by the mainstream media during the 2018 Skripal case, we may clearly identify further inconsistencies. For example Vil Mirzayanov who worked in Shikhany, a chemical weapons laboratory where work was conducted on the Soviet Novichok programme, has often been quoted in conjunction with the claim that several Novichok varieties are more deadly than VX, while on the sciencemag web portal the bombastic claim has been made that the Novichok agents were so “fearsome that US government scientists were forbidden from publicly uttering their name. Strange therefore that Navalny has recovered so well. In the case of Skripal his survival was put down to the fact that the poisonous substance had degraded due to the weather, the poison having been applied overnight in a gel to the Skripal’s front door handle. Contrary to Skripal who had only external contact with the nerve agent, Navalny on the other hand internalised it. This brings us once more to the rather repetitive question of why nobody else became ill. According to a report in the Guardian by the well kown Kremlin critic Christopehr Steele, Navalny was being encouraged to drink water whilst unwell on the Moscow flight and that he could be heared wretching, yet if he had indeed vomited then those aiding him in those horrific moments too are likely to have succumbed to the poison. This indicates the substance used is not as toxic as western media reports have indicated in the past. A fact corroborated by Navalny’s release from the Charite.

In addition claims were made that Russia alone was the sole producer of this form of nerve agent and that this was a weapons grade chemical nerve agent. Of course the Russians have long claimed that the very ability of the West to identify the agent is in itself proof that they are more than capable of developing it. Moreover since Navalny novichok has been reclassified as a group of poisons that can be easily produced in the field using commonly available household or industrial precursors. An aspect that makes this group of toxins ideal for overseas operations (clearly not ideal in terms of killing!); strange then that the Russian state therefore in their own backyard refused to use a more sophisticated weapon. This new categorisation means that the poison has gone from being presented as a military grade chemical weapon to a toxic form of home made punch. Literally the chemical equivalent of samogon.

I certainly don’t claim to know who poisoned Navalny. In international affairs the details are often blurry, interests nonetheless remain paramount and in order to satisfy them it’s a case of balancing these interests against one another. Actions are in general well thought out taking into consideration the pro and contra of everything.

When looking into some of these strange circumstances and the inconsistencies, it would appear very unusual intuitively Russia to poison Navalny and yet perhaps there is a component of plausible deniability. However, what has been revealed during this whole episode is the discrepancies in reporting the facts. Not to mention with almost certainty the way our media can easily be manipulated for the purpose of state propaganda. An accusation that of course is applicable not just to Western media, but also to its Russian counterpart as well. But this does not mean we are justified in jumping to rushed conclusions.

Richard Sattler

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