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Investigators examine the site in the United Kingdom where a former Russian spy was poisoned with a Novichok agent in 2018. German officials today said a similar agent was used to poison a prominent Russian opposition leader.

ANDREW MATTHEWS/PRESS ASSOCIATION VIA AP IMAGES

Poisoning of Putin opponent renews spotlight on deadly Russian chemical weapon

A notorious nerve poison is back in the news. The German government said today that Alexei Navalny, a prominent opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was poisoned with a chemical similar to Novichok, a deadly nerve agent implicated in other attacks on Russians who have crossed the current regime.

A German military laboratory has found “unequivocal evidence of a chemical nerve agent of the Novichok group” in biological samples taken from Navalny, who was flown to Germany for treatment after being hospitalized in Siberia on 20 August, government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said. Navalny had fallen ill not long after drinking tea, which his family has suggested was poisoned. Novichok agents, which were developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, disrupt the brain’s chemical pathways by binding to the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. Without rapid medical intervention, those exposed to the poisons lose control of muscles that control breathing and blood pressure. Novichok agents came to wide public notice in 2018 after one was used in an assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. The attack made Skripal, his daughter Yulia, and four others seriously ill; Skirpal and his daughter survived but one of the bystanders died. The attack prompted many nations to push for a global ban on Novichok agents, and last year they were added to the list of chemicals regulated under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Russian government officials have suggested that Navalny, an opposition leader known for his investigations of corruption, fell ill from a metabolic disorder or diet-related condition. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly disputed such claims today and demanded an explanation from the Russian government. “The world,” she said, “is expecting answers.”