"What kind of perpetrator would just leave a bottle of nerve agent lying around?"

Sergey Y. Nechayev, Russian ambassador to Germany, in conversation with the Berliner Zeitung on the Navalny poisoning, Germany's Russian community and the state of German-Russian relations.

Sergey Nechayev, Russian ambassador to Germany, at the Russian Embassy in Berlin.
Sergey Nechayev, Russian ambassador to Germany, at the Russian Embassy in Berlin.Berliner Zeitung/Paulus Ponizak

Berliner Zeitung: Mr Ambassador, how does Russia intend to proceed with finding a resolution to the poisoning of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, which has been confirmed by a German army laboratory?

Sergey Y. Nechayev: We are relying on our German partners and on cooperation between law enforcement bodies in our two countries. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has sent two requests for legal assistance to the German Ministry of Justice and asked, among other things, for us to be provided with samples of the biological material that was tested in the army laboratory. Our German colleagues are claiming to have uncovered some poisonous substance. The doctors who treated Mr Navalny in Omsk after his flight’s emergency landing didn’t find one. Since then, Germany has sent samples to laboratories in France, Sweden and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Following that we expect to receive samples as well. This is in accordance with all international agreements. We are amazed that we have come up against so much resistance.

In Germany, people are saying the Russian authorities should really be investigating in Russia, given that’s where this chemical weapon is thought to have been deployed.

We need samples before we can initiate any criminal investigation. Our laws dictate that we can’t open an investigation without proof that a crime has been committed.

Can’t you start investigating anyway? There are certainly suspicions that a crime has been committed.

Our authorities have already begun preliminary investigations. They have examined numerous objects and spoken with staff in Mr Navalny’s hotel, the hospital and the airport. But we can only start to properly investigate once we have concrete grounds to suspect a crime has been committed. That is a principle of the rule of law, which every country is expected to adhere to – that includes us.

Infobox image
Photo: Imago
Sergey Nechayev has been the Russian ambassador to Germany since 2018. He specialised in German studies at Moscow State University and began his career as a diplomat in East Germany in 1977. Since then he has served as a Russian envoy in Bonn, ambassador in Vienna from 2010 to 2015 and held leading roles in the Russian foreign ministry's European department.

New speculations have emerged that Mr Navalny could have been poisoned in his hotel room.

Apparently it was Mr Navalny’s associates who found some empty water bottles in his hotel room and collected them. I find the whole thing a little strange. What kind of bottles were they? Why didn't the supposed culprit or the hotel staff get rid of them? What kind of perpetrator would just leave a bottle of nerve agent lying around? Why wasn’t Mr Navalny’s hotel room cleaned for all those hours after his departure? If we’re dealing with an extremely poisonous material like the infamous novichok, then why has nothing happened to Mr Navalny’s associates, who also would have come into close contact with the substance? How come everyone else in the hotel is in good health and good spirits? How did the supposed poison get out of the country? Was it just taken onto a plane without even being hermetically sealed? If a Russian intelligence agency is really behind this, as people are insisting here, then why did they go about things in such an amateurish and dangerous way?

Does Russia intend to solve the case? It would surely be in the government’s interest to bring the perpetrator to justice.

We are taking the case absolutely seriously. Our investigators and doctors want to see due process and clarity in the Navalny case and are relying on close collaboration with Germany for this reason.

That doesn’t seem like an easy thing to do…

The Russian National Medical Chamber appealed to the German Medical Association with a request to join forces and create a joint approach. That was turned down. Responses to our requests for legal assistance have been delayed. At the moment there is a lack of willingness to cooperate on the German side.

We cannot accept ultimatums and being threatened with sanctions.

Are you in touch with Mr Navalny?

First of all, we wish Mr Navalny good health and a speedy recovery. We have officially requested access to offer consular support to Mr Navalny. As per the Vienna Convention, our consular staff have the right to visit him. He is a Russian citizen and would like to return to Russia. At the moment we have also had no response to this request.

This case has caused a huge international stir.

What we cannot accept is the assertion, which is being made as an ultimatum, that the Russian government has anything to do with this case. We cannot accept ultimatums and being threatened with sanctions. I regret the anti-Russian hysteria that has been artificially stirred-up in connection with this claim. What’s more, sanctions have never been conducive to solving problems. We are relying on meaningful cooperation with our German colleagues.

What do you intend to do about the suspicions Russia is facing?

The most important thing for us is resolving this case. We need Germany’s support for that to happen, because without concrete proof – of which there has been much talk but little actual evidence – there isn’t much we can do. We also can’t work with the allegations that the Russian government supposedly poisoned Mr Navalny, then saved his life and ultimately made it possible for him to be taken to Berlin.

Many aspects of the present situation are reminiscent of the Skripal case... The British have a notorious fondness for crime novels.

Could German criminal investigators get involved?

But this is the kind of collaborative work we are suggesting. Novichok is a highly dangerous chemical weapon and we need to have complete clarity here when it comes to the concrete facts and evidence. Many aspects of the present situation are reminiscent of the Skripal case. Back then, the British “evidence” was never shown to anyone. There was nothing but assurances and assumptions. The British have a notorious fondness for crime novels – Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and so on. In Germany that sensibility is more subdued. Therefore we are still hopeful for direct conversations and a positive collaboration with Germany’s national and regional authorities.

Could you obtain samples from the OPCW, or from Sweden or France?

The OPCW is certainly a possibility. I would not rule out the option of us asking Paris and Stockholm for samples. But Berlin would be the direct path.

Why are there such tensions between Germany and Russia at the moment?

Good relations with Germany have always been a priority for Russia. A lot has already been achieved in the post-war period. Remember – 27 million people from the Soviet Union gave their lives for victory over national socialism. But nevertheless, there has been reconciliation between both our peoples after the Second World War. That wasn’t easy, because so many people in Russia had died, a lot of cities and villages had been destroyed. But we took the important step of rapprochement. The history of our bilateral relations range from the Moscow Treaties to the Helsinki Accords in 1975. We are now on the cusp of celebrating German unity and remember the negotiations for the Two Plus Four Agreement on reunification. The Soviet Union was prepared to accept German unity and made significant contributions to this. The political, economic and cultural connections between Germany and Russia are still strong today and we should do everything so as not to erode these.

But then why are there these tensions?

Could it be that a good Russian-German relationship might upset someone?

We often hear from critics of Russia in Germany and in the USA that this rapprochement isn’t viewed so well in eastern Europe. There are some real economic interests at play here: Poland wants to become Europe’s energy centre and so it’s against Nord Stream 2.

I would rather not get into discussing Russian-Polish relations here. But of course we regret the anti-Russian policy that the government in Warsaw is currently pursuing. Unfortunately the Polish elite has a deeply entrenched anti-Russian reflex. As far as Nord Stream 2 is concerned, this is an international economic project. It is in line with European standards and has received all the necessary permissions. It’s also in line with Germany’s interests and will help make the country’s production more competitive on an international level and cover its energy requirements – especially in light of the withdrawal from nuclear and coal power. It’s impossible to completely fulfil the needs of any industrial location using renewable energy. Of course, Germany and the EU are entitled to determine their own energy security themselves. It is unacceptable for US senators to send threatening letters to European companies and authorities. The German government has so far stood firmly by this project and we hope it will stay that way.

In international relations, one should never tolerate any attempts at blackmail.

Sergey Nechayev

Sanctions are effective though, because all companies that do business using the dollar could become targets of US authorities.

In international relations, one should never tolerate any attempts at blackmail. We are considering conducting business using our national currency, as are other countries such as the BRICS states [Brazil, India, China and South Africa]. I know this is being considered in Europe too.

Has anti-Russian sentiment had any repercussions for Germany’s Russian-speaking population?

As of yet we are not aware of any serious incidents. If any do come to our attention, we will investigate them. We are pleased that people who have migrated from the former Soviet states have integrated so well – practically all of them are bilingual. They love German culture whilst also keeping their Russian traditions alive. This community is of great importance for mutual understanding between Germany and Russia. The fact that people are living so well alongside each other shows that German-Russian reconciliation is of strategic importance not just for Germany, but for the whole of Europe.

It’s now 30 years since the Soviet army withdrew from the territory of the former East Germany. That transition passed without incident. In Austria, people are grateful to the Russians to this day for the peaceful and voluntary withdrawal of troops. This seems to have been forgotten somewhat in Germany.

There were more than 500,000 Soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany. The army was the largest deployment anywhere on the border of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. I was at the withdrawal ceremony at the Gendarmenmarkt on 1 September 1994. I do wonder though whether our partners made the right decision in moving NATO troops closer and closer to the Russian border only a short while later.

This interview was adapted from the original German for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.