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analysis

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny addresses a crowd in Moscow on July 20, 2019.Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press

The only predictable part of the drama surrounding the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny – an attack that German scientists say was carried out using the nerve agent Novichok – has been the Kremlin’s denial that it had anything to do with it.

The Russian government’s protestations of innocence would have been worthy of consideration if the past 20 years had never happened. But the Kremlin long ago burned up the credibility it would need for the world to take it seriously this time.

President Vladimir Putin’s regime, after all, has denied that its soldiers were in Crimea before Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory in 2014. It denied that its forces shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, even after the anti-aircraft system involved in the attack was detected leaving Russia then returning short one missile. It has claimed no knowledge of a string of assassinations and assassination attempts, the victims of which all happened to be – like Mr. Navalny – loud critics of Mr. Putin.

It also denied any role in the 2018 attack on former KGB agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. The attempted murder of Mr. Skripal – which went awry and ended with the death of an innocent bystander – was the only previous known use of Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent created in the laboratories of the Soviet Union.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state,” Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters in Moscow Thursday. Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, speculated that the whole affair might be a “Western provocation” meant to escalate pressure on his country.

And on it went. The official RIA Novosti newswire quoted chemical-weapon experts who said that had Novichok been used, Mr. Navalny would already be dead. It’s a line Russian state media have used before, after Mr. Skripal and his daughter survived the 2018 attack, but one they dropped after 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess died after coming into contact with an unused vial of Novichok in a Salisbury park three months later.

From the moment Mr. Navalny fell suddenly and horribly ill aboard an Aug. 20 flight – screaming in pain, then falling into a coma from which he has yet to awaken – the Russian state has obfuscated rather than investigated. His transfer to Berlin’s specialist Charité hospital was delayed for 24 crucial hours while Russian officials floated wildly different versions of what might have happened to him. There were hints that Mr. Navalny, whom friends describe as a near-teetotaler, had had too much to drink or had taken hallucinogenic drugs. The head of the state-run RT television network posited on social media that the 44-year-old’s violent illness might have been caused by low blood sugar.

The Kremlin’s latest denials should and will fall flat with Western governments. It was already clear that Mr. Putin’s inner circle had ample reasons to wish Mr. Navalny harm. (The Kremlin’s feelings about the anti-corruption campaigner have long been obvious. Mr. Putin has repeatedly refused to use Mr. Navalny’s name, even when asked direct questions about him. On Thursday, Mr. Peskov continued that practice, referring only to “the Berlin patient.”)

The German finding of “proof without doubt” that Novichok was used makes it plain that only someone connected to Russia’s security services could have had access to the weapon of choice.

There are two remaining scenarios: Either Mr. Putin ordered the attack or he presides over a regime where access to nerve agents is uncontrolled – and no one fears punishment for using them. It’s difficult to say which version is more troubling or what they might mean at the moment, when tensions are escalating over the crisis in neighbouring Belarus, where Russia has been providing support to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko as it cracks down on pro-democracy protests.

The most difficult question is what Western governments can do about a Kremlin that has repeatedly shown it doesn’t care about the rules – whether they be other countries’ borders or the international agreement banning the use of chemical weapons such as Novichok. Canada, the United States and the European Union responded to the annexation of Crimea by expelling Russia from the Group of 8 (now the Group of 7) and applying economic sanctions targeting its military and its banking and energy sectors. The attack in Salisbury resulted in the largest tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats since the end of the Cold War.

Germany is one country that does have the capability to push back against the Kremlin. There were calls Thursday for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to suspend or cancel work on the massive Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline, which is due to start delivering Russian natural gas to Central and Western Europe in early 2021. But Nord Stream 2 is as important to Germany’s economy as it is to Russia’s.

None of the measures adopted so far has altered the Kremlin’s course, and the West now finds itself searching for new ways to deal with Moscow. The European Commission acknowledged as much on Thursday when it said it couldn’t consider new sanctions until an investigation had taken place.

But Russia under Mr. Putin has never seemed interested in investigating the violence directed against his opponents. The two men identified as suspects in the Salisbury attack remain in Russia, where they have given television interviews. The main suspect in the 2006 assassination of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko – who was killed in London with radioactive polonium – is now a member of Russia’s parliament.

For crimes committed inside Russia, such as the attack on Mr. Navalny, arrests are sometimes made – as in the 2006 assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the 2015 murder of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov – and the people who pulled the trigger are occasionally convicted. But there’s never any examination of who ordered the mayhem.

And, with the West struggling each time for a response, no reason for it not to continue.

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