Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the latest critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin to be mysteriously poisoned, has announced he plans to return to Russia after his recovery from exposure to a deadly nerve agent.  Navalny is a Russian opposition and anti-corruption activist.  He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations, and running for office, to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s government. 

Navalny, who is recovering in a Berlin hospital, will be taking an enormous personal risk, according to three officials from NATO intelligence services who focus on Russian intelligence operations.

All three are in agreement that Navalny might change his mind (or be convinced by Western intelligence services) that the risk of returning to a country where the president apparently wants to murder him is too high.

Navalny is under the impression that the failure to kill him in Siberia will make it more difficult for Putin to try again. Germany is furious over the incident, and the German government has leverage it can apply to Putin over the multi-billion-euro Nord Stream gas pipeline projects intended to link the two nation’s economies.

Navalny fell ill on August 20, on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow.  He had remained in the Siberian city with several colleagues for an extra day to finish an investigative report on a local official.  Traces of poison were found on a bottle of water from the hotel room in Siberia where Navalny stayed before falling ill, the Russian opposition politician’s team said Thursday.
Georgy Alburov, who works at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said news of Navalny’s condition reached the group while they were having breakfast in the hotel, and that he and his colleagues then managed to get access to the Kremlin critic’s room to collect his personal items before it was cleaned.

“Just knowing the political history of Russia and knowing the state of Alexey’s health, it could not have been anything else but poisoning,” Alburov said.  “So, our first thought was that we must preserve the maximum of what could have something to do with the poisoning, specifically items from his room,” he added.  “We put everything into plastic bags and sealed them, so no one would get hurt in case there was indeed some poison on them and so that nothing else could get inside.”

Alburov told CNN that local police in Tomsk displayed “special interest” in the water bottles and tried to confiscate them.”When the police questioned us, they were especially interested in the water bottles, weirdly, even though we took a lot of other items,” he said.

The bottles were then taken to Germany in the same medevac plane which was used to evacuate Navalny from Omsk, where his plane made an urgent landing, to Berlin’s Charite Hospital on August 22, where he remains.  “Two weeks later, it was on the bottle from Tomsk that the German laboratory found traces of Novichok,” Navalny’s team said on Instagram Thursday.  “And then two more laboratories that took tests from Alexey confirmed that Navalny was poisoned by it [Novichok].

“There’s no other explanation than this was an assassination attempt ordered at the highest levels of the Russian government,” said one counter-intelligence official from a Baltic nation. “There is some disagreement over whether it is possible that Putin did not directly order the attack but rather it was an initiative undertaken by his henchmen. But the presence of Novichok, which is made in a strictly controlled military lab, convinces me that Putin had to authorize it himself.

On Thursday, Navalny’s legal team announced that a German lab had concluded the agent was administered in a free bottle of mineral water provided by his hotel.

The German government has officially issued strongly worded demands for information on the incident even as there is renewed debate on whether the Nord Stream project is appropriate in light of Putin’s apparent history of murdering or attempting to murder his opponents.

Already, Russia has indicated that German talk of strong economic sanctions or even the cancelation of the Nord Stream project has hurt its ability to borrow money on international markets.  But will this pressure be enough to keep Navalny alive if he returns to Russia after he recovers?

“Putin is ruthless and but never stupid or rash. If Navalny returns to Russia he will face massive harassment and possibly arrest.  This is how Putin ties up domestic opponents with a never-ending stream of lawsuits, tax investigations, and arrests on ludicrous charges.  This will keep Navalny busy for years but eventually Putin is likely to decide that as Nord Stream becomes complete that the West, which he sees as greedy and weak, will probably not respond in a manner that really hurts him.  The moment he makes that calculation, and of course he will never indicate he’s made it, we will just know because Navalny is dead, then it will just be about finding a time or opportunity that suits him.”

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