December 18, 2020 | Policy Brief

White House Refusing to Hold Russia Accountable for Navalny Poisoning

December 18, 2020 | Policy Brief

White House Refusing to Hold Russia Accountable for Navalny Poisoning

Investigative reports released on Monday eliminated any doubt regarding Moscow’s responsibility for the attempted assassination in August 2020 of leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny using a banned chemical weapon called Novichok. U.S. law requires the president to issue a determination within 60 days regarding whether a foreign government has used chemical weapons, yet the Trump administration has missed the deadline and the president has not even condemned the Russian government’s actions.

A joint investigation by Bellingcat and several other media outlets has revealed that a clandestine Federal Security Service (FSB) unit specializing in poisonous substances tried multiple times to poison Navalny. American, British, and German intelligence have reportedly corroborated the investigation’s findings.

Part of the Criminalistics Institute (a.k.a. Research Institute-2 or Military Unit 34435) within the Special Technology Center of the FSB’s Scientific-Technical Service, the unit reportedly consists of approximately 15 operatives with backgrounds in medicine, chemical and biological warfare, and special operations. It also received support from multiple state research institutes, including SC Signal, which Bellingcat previously exposed as a main producer of Novichok, as well as Russia’s Institute for Problems of Chemical and Energetic Technologies. The team’s supervisor, Colonel Stanislav Makshakov, previously worked at the military institute that developed Novichok during the 1980s.

The unit reportedly began shadowing Navalny in 2017, shortly after he announced a bid for Russia’s presidency. In August 2020, the FSB team trailed Navalny to a hotel in the Siberian city of Tomsk, where they covertly administered the poison. Navalny fell gravely ill on a flight the next morning, prompting an emergency landing. The FSB followed him to the hospital, where they muzzled his doctors and – per unnamed Western intelligence sources – tried to finish the job with another Novichok dose. Under international pressure, Moscow eventually permitted Navalny’s evacuation to Germany for treatment – but not before stalling for two days, likely in the hope the evidence would clear his system.

Notably, the August 2020 attack apparently was not the first time the FSB unit tried to poison Navalny with Novichok. A likely failed attempt the previous July caused Navalny’s wife to fall seriously ill before ultimately recovering.

Despite the mounting evidence, Putin and his subordinates deny any involvement. The Russian leader has even suggested Navalny poisoned himself.

Moscow’s mendacity is consistent with its well-documented disregard for its obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, under which Russia claimed that it completed the elimination of its chemical weapons stocks in 2017. Yet in 2018, Russia’s military intelligence service, or GRU, used Novichok to poison former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England. Both survived, but the nerve agent killed a British citizen. The GRU allegedly conducted a similar attack against an arms dealer in Bulgaria in 2015. The Russian security services also have a long history of using other poisons for both repression at home and assassinations abroad.

While America’s European allies imposed sanctions in October for the attack, the Trump administration did not join them. In early November, the administration missed a 60-day legal deadline to issue a determination regarding Moscow’s culpability and impose sanctions based on that finding. The administration has yet to fulfill that obligation despite bipartisan and bicameral congressional pressure.

In fact, while multiple U.S. officials have alleged Moscow’s culpability, the president has failed to condemn the Russia government or even assign blame – even after Navalny personally urged him to do so. Navalny has expressed his disappointment in Trump’s continued silence, noting that “President Trump was asked about it and he said, let’s talk about this later.”

But there is no excuse for delay. The president should direct his staff to issue the relevant determination and, in concert with Western allies, designate those involved in the attack and subsequent cover-up. The administration should also join the previous European sanctions. Finally, if the White House does not fulfill its legal obligations, Congress should continue pressuring it to act.

John Hardie is research manager and Russia research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from John, Andrea, CEFP, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Nonproliferation Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance