The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s no wonder Putin thinks he can get away with poisoning his adversaries

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Feb. 29. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

WHEN RUSSIAN opposition leader Alexei Navalny suddenly fell ill two weeks ago, Russian authorities dismissed his supporters’ charges of poisoning and resisted allowing his transfer to a German hospital for treatment. Eventually, they relented — and now the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is reporting “unequivocal evidence” that Mr. Navalny was attacked with a chemical nerve agent. Once again, the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been caught attempting to murder a leading opponent using a weapon banned by international treaty.

A statement from Ms. Merkel’s government Wednesday said a German military laboratory has carried out tests that identified the toxin in Mr. Navalny’s body as belonging to the Novichok class, a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union. A similar substance was used to poison exiled Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018; they survived, but a woman who accidentally encountered the poison was killed. A statement by Berlin’s Charité hospital, where Mr. Navalny is being treated, said he remains on a ventilator and his condition is “still grave.” While his life is not now in danger, the statement said, “a more prolonged course of the disease should be expected” and “long-term consequences of severe poisoning are not excluded.”

That, no doubt, will please Mr. Putin, who had pressing reasons to sideline his longtime nemesis. With his poll ratings sagging, Mr. Putin faces persistent demonstrations in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk, as well as local elections later this month in which Mr. Navalny had been working to defeat ruling-party candidates. A popular uprising in neighboring Belarus is setting an example for Russians weary of Mr. Putin’s autocratic rule.

No doubt a part of the Kremlin’s calculations was the small price paid for previous attacks. The near-murder of Mr. Skripal in the British city of Salisbury led to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Western capitals, but no more.

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So far, at least, Ms. Merkel is at least signaling a tougher line. She delivered her own statement saying the attack was “a crime against . . . basic rights we stand for” and “raises severe questions that only the Russian government can answer, and will have to answer.” She said Germany would discuss a “joint action” with other European Union and NATO governments, and that it would report to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the treaty prohibiting weapons such as Novichok, to which Russia is a signatory.

Whether there are more concerted consequences will depend in part on whether President Trump is willing to work with Germany and other allies. Following the Skripal poisoning, Mr. Trump only reluctantly agreed to join diplomatic expulsions by Britain and the E.U. He still has not confronted Mr. Putin about intelligence reports that Russia paid bounties to the Afghan Taliban for killing U.S. soldiers. Nor has he objected to ongoing Russian efforts to help his reelection campaign by smearing Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

How do conspiracy theories and racism move from the fringe to a political platform? The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has found the way. (Video: Parjanya Christian Holtz/The Washington Post, Photo: Markus Schreiber / AP/The Washington Post)

It’s little wonder Mr. Putin thinks he can get away with another chemical weapons attack. To all appearances, he has the president of the United States in his pocket.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Alexei Navalny can’t just become another name on the roll call of Putin’s victims

Michael McFaul: A Russian dissident is fighting for his life. Where is the U.S.?

Vladimir Kara-Murza: The world must pay attention to the suspected poisoning of Alexei Navalny. My own case shows why.

Letter to the Editor: The U.S. must not ignore the apparent poisoning of another Russian dissident

The Post’s View: Another Putin foe is felled. The West must respond.