As much of the world expressed outrage following confirmation that a deadly military-grade nerve agent was used in the poisoning of prominent Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, the response in Russia has been one of denial to outright conspiratorial.
"According to the version of our doctors, it wasn't a poisoning," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on September 4, two days after the German government said it had conclusive evidence that Navalny had been poisoned, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded that the Russian government explain itself over what she called an attempt “to silence” the opposition politician and activist.
Peskov then continued to flip the script, requesting that Germany present evidence of how German doctors found traces of a nerve agent from the Novichok group, a Soviet-era chemical weapon banned by an international treaty.
"The German specialists managed to establish some kind of poisonous substance,” Peskov said. “We're counting on a dialogue with our German colleagues."
Novichok, banned internationally under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), is the same substance used against former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018.
And the "unequivocal evidence" once again of its use, as the office of German Chancellor Merkel put it on September 2, has left the West scrambling to formulate a response to yet another attempted assassination of a foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the meantime, Moscow appears to be muddying the waters – at least at home -- with its denials and counter theories. That plan of action has worked in the past following previous Western accusations of international crimes, thanks to its tight control over domestic media.
After the Skripals’ poisonings in Salisbury, England, a survey published by the independent pollster Levada said that 28 percent of Russians believed that British intelligence services were behind the attack. Only 3 percent believed that Russian intelligence was responsible.
The attack on the Skripals wasn’t the first time the U.K. had accused Russia of using chemical weapons on its soil to silence a foe.
In 2006, U.K. police named former Russian state security service agent Andrei Lugovoi as a prime suspect in the poisoning of Kremlin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko on British soil. Litvinenko died three weeks after falling seriously ill, and was found to have been poisoned with polonium-210.
Lugovoi, who was accused along with another Russian of placing a lethal dose of the substance in Litvinenko’s tea, was reportedly treated for radiation poisoning in Moscow shortly after returning from London, and British investigators found traces of polonium-210 in hotels, restaurants, and aircraft used by Lugovoi.
In 2007, Lugovoi was elected a member of the Russian State Duma and today represents the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.
He immediately weighed in on the German allegations that Navalny was the victim of “attempted murder.”
"If they found something related to Novichok, then it was most likely administered to him in the [German] clinic," Lugovoi said. "The nurse, the doctor could leave any result if they really wanted to diagnose Navalny in some way with a toxic substance.
“I'm sure that's what happened," said Lugovoi.
Navalny became seriously ill during an August 20 flight to Moscow from the Siberian town of Tomsk, where he had been working on his latest corruption investigation.
The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk so that Navalny could be rushed to a local hospital. His family and colleagues suspected he had been poisoned, considering he had shown no symptoms prior to the flight, and they demanded that he be flown to Germany for treatment.
Lugovoi rejected the idea that Navalny was poisoned in Russia, claiming it somehow defied logic.
"I judge the probability of [his poisoning in Russia] as nonexistent from the point of view of elementary common sense,” he said.
Others say the logic is quite obvious: Derail the most prominent Kremlin critic and send a shiver of fear through the opposition.
Navalny is arguably the most effective opposition activist in Russia. His investigative videos generally receive more than 1 million views with each new posting, and they help to undermine trust in the government and ruling party.
Navalny last year called on his supporters to vote against United Russia candidates in regional elections. His strategy was considered effective as several candidates from the ruling party suffered surprise losses.
Russia will hold national parliamentary elections next year.
Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin on September 2 claimed the poisoning of the activist was planned in order to justify new Western sanctions against Russia with the aim to “weaken” the country.
However, he did not explain how Novichok, developed by Soviet scientists during the Cold War, would have gotten into Germany in the first place. Access to Novichok would have been available to only the most powerful and richest people in Russia, analysts have said.
“The European Union and NATO clearly don’t like that the economy of Russia is getting stronger each year, its influence over world events is growing, that Russia has its own position and is ready to defend it,” said Volodin, who has been a subject of Navalny’s investigations.
Some current and former Western officials have called for imposing additional sanctions against Russia to punish it for using a military-grade nerve agent banned under the CWC as of 2020.
At least one foreign leader, embattled Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has rushed to Russia’s defense in the face of the German government’s accusations.
The Belarusian dictator, who has sought Russian support as he faces the largest challenge to his 26-year rule, told Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin during a meeting on September 3 that his country intercepted a call between German and Polish officials that indicates Navalny’s toxicology results were falsified to “discourage” Moscow from getting involved in Belarusian affairs.
The Belarusian ruler has yet to turn over any evidence to back up his claim, but Russian officials did not dismiss it outright.
“If the president of Belarus said it, then he had a reason,” said Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, adding that a Western provocation “could not be excluded.”
Lukashenka has also recently blamed Western states, including Poland, for being behind the weeks-long mass protests that followed his disputed August 9 presidential election.
Russian state-controlled television, meanwhile, has turned to local experts – including one with a checkered past -- to cast doubt on the conclusion of the German doctors.
Leonid Rink -- a retired chemistry professor who worked on Novichok in a secret laboratory and who has testified to selling nerve agents to criminal elements in the 1990s – has told multiple state outlets that Navalny would have died had he been exposed to Novichok and that symptoms would have been visible while he was still in Russia.
Vladimir Uglev, another Russian scientist who worked on Novichok, rejected Rink’s assertions, telling the independent investigative website The Insider that he believed the conclusion of the German doctors.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international watchdog that monitors compliance with the CWC, called the German allegation “a matter of grave concern” and said it is ready to engage and assist with an investigation.
Any conclusions by the OPCW, though, may have little impact on Russia’s stance.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied involvement in poisonings, killings, and other criminal incidents it has been accused of being involved in in recent years, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, such as the downing of a Boeing passenger jet, MH17, over eastern Ukraine in 2014 that took nearly 300 lives.
Sam Greene, the director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, said if Russia wants “its denials to be taken seriously, it ought not to have lied” about MH17, Litvinenko, Skripal, and other international crimes.
“Whatever else may be going on in the world, Moscow's credibility problem is of its own making,” Greene said in a September 2 tweet.