The Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny places Vladimir Putin at the top of a state structure designed to eliminate political dissent with chemical weapons. “Let’s not be naïve. We understand that governments kill people.”
Ever since the 44-year-old lawyer’s body collapsed on August 20 on a flight between Siberia and Moscow due to Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s, Navalny has blamed the Russian president for the failed poisoning.
A diplomatic storm against Moscow ensued following the case of a man who ended up writhing and screaming on the floor of a plane after being in contact with a mysterious substance. Even though the Kremlin rejects the accusations and describes this vocal critic of Russian elites and corruption as a CIA agent, the European Union imposed sanctions against Putin’s inner circle following the poisoning.
Three months after being discharged from Charité Hospital in Berlin, where he teetered between life and death for over a month, Navalny gave his first interview to a Spanish-language news organization.
Cheerful and expressive, the dissident talked with EL PAÍS via video conference from Germany. The conversation took place in English on Friday morning, three days before the investigative reporting website Bellingcat and this newspaper revealed that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB, the agency that succeeded the Soviet KGB) had been monitoring the opposition figure since 2017. And that three agents from this agency specialized in chemical substances traveled on the day before the poisoning to Tomsk, the Siberian city where Navalny was staying at the time of the poisoning.
Question. How are you feeling?
Answer. I am much better. I still have some minor problems, but I am working hard to recover and go back to Russia. Unfortunately, there are not many cases like mine of people who have survived Novichok. Doctors are quite surprised with the speed of my recovery.
Q. What do you remember about that fateful flight from Siberia on August 20?
A. It’s very difficult to explain as I never experienced such a thing before. It was different from the kind of danger you can imagine in ordinary life, like being shot. When I got on the plane I felt totally fine. But suddenly I felt that something was totally wrong with my body. The feeling is absolutely terrible. Humans haven’t invented words to describe what happened to me. Novichok attacks your nervous system, and then step by step you lose the ability to breathe. I was knocked out. At first I could see and walk and talk, but it was extremely difficult, and 15 minutes later I had the total understanding that I was dying.
Q. After the poisoning, your team said they found traces of Novichok in a water bottle in the room of the Siberian hotel where you were staying. Do you have any more details about how the nerve agent was administered?
A. Because of the Bellingcat investigation, which we participated in, we know many details about these teams of assassins, but the moment of poisoning is still unclear. My team made a smart move and went to the hotel room to take everything. Unfortunately they were unable to take the pillows and other bed items because they were not allowed to do so. During my stay, I grabbed this bottle and drank from it. We don’t know exactly whether in the morning or before I went to sleep. But the fact is that Novichok was found on the surface of this bottle, which I touched after the intoxication. Perhaps I was poisoned through the clothes or the door or something else, it is still unclear.
Q. You have accused Vladimir Putin of being behind the poisoning. What evidence do you have?
A. When I was out of the hospital and I did my first interviews, at that point I had no doubt that it was a direct order from Putin. It was based on a very simple fact: Novichok is the most toxic agent invented by humans. And to make it you need a state lab, you need enormous efforts of the state to produce Novichok. This is a chemical weapon. In 2017 Russia officially declared that all chemicals weapons were destroyed. Officially there is no Novichok in Russia at all, but a secret lab could have produced this Novichok under the direct orders of Putin. In the Salisbury attack [the attempt to poison the former spy Serguei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city] there is also evidence that it was a state operation.
Q. Why do you think Putin is trying to kill you?
A. Putin wants to be the czar of Russia. He doesn’t like anyone who opposes him. He considers our organization dangerous, just like he considers dangerous anyone who denounces corruption. He believes that killing me will destroy our organization. It is difficult for me to understand exactly what is going on in his mind. I am not the first one who was poisoned, and I will definitely not be the last one. Putin has been in power for 20 years. It is too long, 20 years of power would spoil anyone and make them crazy. He thinks he can do whatever he wants.
Q. So you don’t trust a criminal investigation about your case in Russia?
A. [Laughs]. I don’t trust, plus there is no investigation. It’s a fantastic fact, because they didn’t even start an investigation even though it’s a fact that I was in a coma for 18 days. There was a very funny evolution of their versions. First they said I wasn’t poisoned, it’s diabetes – which I’ve never had in my life. Another version that Putin himself defended in public is that I poisoned myself. Really. There was also a version that I was poisoned by my colleagues from my organization. The latest version is that I was poisoned by Western secret services like the Germans or the Americans...I don’t know, maybe the Spanish! [laughs] Who knows... I am laughing, it’s a provocation, I don’t know who it was, but this is the official position of the Russian state: there is no poisoning, no investigation. But this is why Novichok [which is hard to detect in the body] is so good: you can deny everything. If you ask Putin ‘why did you poison this guy?’ the answer is ‘I didn’t poison anybody.’ That is the beauty of Novichok.
Q. Novichok, a nerve agent that could only be produced in a state lab, was used in 2018 to try to eliminate the ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom. What are the similarities with your own case?
A. The similarity is Novichok and the participation of government agents. In Skripal’s case, it was intelligence, in my case, it was FSB, which is domestic security. As far as I know from experts, they used a new version of Novichok for me. The Skripal case was investigated by the English police, but in my case, we did not have access to the crime scene or the video footage. In Britain the state investigated the murder attempt, in Russia the state tried to cover up the case.
Q. Do you think you are under surveillance now?
A. Here in Germany? I don’t know. The German police have a lot of security measures. But the Russian state has a lot of opportunities for surveillance. Honestly, I haven’t noticed anything. When I’m abroad, I have people following me all the time.
Q. You are protected by the German police?
Q. Your case has caused friction between the European Union and Russia. Germany and France immediately called on the EU to strengthen sanctions against the Kremlin. Have you felt sufficiently supported?
A. I do feel supported and I appreciate that it was a united position from the European Union. It is very important to have the support of almost all political parties, despite their differences. They are politicians, they are arguing all the time, but in this case, they stand united. Their stance is not about me, it’s about producing, developing and using chemical weapons to murder political opponents, for political purposes. It is totally unacceptable and very dangerous. Because if you start to do this, nothing is stopping you from killing a politician from any place who is criticizing the Kremlin. The opportunity is there. A man just approaches his car, opens the door and two hours later he is dead. And no one knows why. It is a global danger. That’s why I appreciate the support from the European Union. Humanity cannot afford the cost of this risk.
Q. What can you tell us about Russia’s chemical weapons program?
A. After the Bellingcat investigation, we understand there are three organizations in Russia with scientists from the old Soviet institutions responsible for producing chemical weapons. One of these organizations is called SC Signal [Scientific Center Signal]. People from the SC Signal were involved in every stage of the process and communications, in Skripal’s case and in my case. Bellingcat established they are not just producing Novichok and maybe other chemical weapons, they are also focused on their delivery through a method called nanoencapsulation. Depending on how it’s done, if Novichok is in your coffee you could be dead in 20 minutes or in two days. In this latter case, it will be impossible to define the moment when you were poisoned. That is what happened to me, and that is why my case was difficult, as the primary version was that I was poisoned in the airport. They [the scientists] are working really hard on this way of delivering the poison. Why does the Kremlin need these [chemical] weapons? Let’s not be naïve. We understand that governments kill people. A lot of governments…
Q. How many international leaders called you after you were poisoned to ask you about your health?
A. After waking up, I wasn’t in a condition to talk to world leaders … But I really appreciated that Angela Merkel visited me in the hospital. A lot of leaders made public statements. And that was more important to me.
Q. How many people called you from Spain?
A. On a personal level, I know a lot of people in Spain and I received emails and calls of support. I think Spain is a very important country for this case. It has a big Russian community and a lot of dirty money from Russia is invested in Spain. Organized crime from Russia operates in Spain. And there are officials like Sergey Kiriyenko [first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration], who was responsible for destroying chemical weapons between 2000 and 2005, who has a house in Spain through someone else. He was sanctioned by Europe for my case. Unfortunately, these sanctions do not affect his property in Spain.
Q. When do you plan to resume activity as an opposition leader in Russia?
A. I have connected with my organization and I continue to work, but my priority now is to recover as soon as I can and to go back to Russia. Doctors told me I might recover to 90% of my previous level, which would be very good.
Q. What is the first thing you will do when you resume activity?
A. In terms of tactics, the coming [2021 legislative] election is our priority. And we understand that the strategy of Putin and his ruling party United Russia is to not allow our candidates to participate. They just kick them out of the race. That’s why what’s important now is not just winning this election, which will be hard, but rather participating in it. We will use other political forces for just one purpose: the demonopolization of power. Russia United controls state parliament and all the regional parliaments across Russia. We are trying to gather as many people as we can under a very simple slogan: that the poverty we have is the result of Putin being in power for 20 years. He is destroying the country. Russia is a very rich country but 25 million people are below the poverty line. Russia can be a normal, quite rich, European country, with a much higher standard of living.
Q. How will you avoid a new poisoning attempt?
A. It is not possible. This is the danger of chemical weapons. If this were an old-style poisoning, you can just watch what you eat or drink. But with a chemical weapon, this makes no sense. It’s like the Skripal case [who was poisoned by nerve agent on a door], you can be poisoned by just touching something.
Q. How long do you plan to stay in Germany?
A. Until I recover. I don’t have any particular date [to return to Russia].
Q. What do you think about the political situation in Russia?
A. [Laughing]. The fact that I am here in Germany after the poisoning reflects quite well the political situation in Russia, where power is seized by a group of criminals. Literally. There is extreme corruption. Putin created a circle of people, who were his former colleagues and neighbors, and all of them became billionaires. It’s not an exaggeration.
Q. Are you afraid for your life?
A. [Laughing]. No. I am a normal person. I understand that there is a certain level of risk, which is higher than I thought previously, but I prefer not to think about it.