Russian dissident Alexei Navalny could have had poison sprinkled in his underwear, according to the scientist who invented the nerve agent Novichok.
Navalny remains in a coma in a Berlin hospital nearly two weeks after collapsing on a plane in Siberia in what German medics suspect was a poisoning.
Friends of the Putin critic have suggested his tea was spiked in an airport cafe, but former Soviet scientist Vladimir Uglev said assassins could have sprinkled a deadly toxin on his socks or underwear.
Uglev, 73, said Russian secret service operatives could have broken into Navalny’s hotel in Tomsk to leave a minuscule drop of poison in his luggage.
The Kremlin has dismissed suggestions that it was behind the poisoning and has tried to cast doubt on the findings by German doctors.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny – pictured, centre, shortly before he fell ill on August 20 – is in a coma at a German hospital after allegedly being poisoned
Navalny being taken to an ambulance in Omsk (left) after falling ill on a plane following a trip to an airport cafe (right) where his friends suspect he could have been poisoned
Uglev said a dose of toxin less than one-thirtieth the size of a drop of water might have been enough to poison Navalny.
But the West will never identify which out of ‘scores’ of possible poisons was used, he predicted.
‘They put this substance on his underwear, his underpants, socks, or his undershirt, and that was it,’ said the retired scientist.
‘In the morning Alexei woke up, showered, got dressed and went to the airport.
‘And since the substance acts slower via the skin than say through the digestive system, time passed [before it had an impact].’
Uglev has previously spoken of his role in creating Novichok, the nerve agent believed to have been used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
Russia also denies involvement in the Skripal plot, but the suspects in the 2018 assassination attempt have been linked to the GRU intelligence service.
Uglev ‘categorically’ denied that Novichok was used to hit Navalny, saying that more people would have suffered poisoning if it had been.
Navalny fell ill on August 20 just moments after posing for a picture with admirers on a scheduled flight from Tomsk to Moscow.
The aircraft made an emergency landing in Omsk and was initially taken to hospital in the Siberian city.
The following weekend he was transferred to Berlin, where doctors are treating him with the antidote atropine.
Berlin’s Charite hospital said last week that clinical tests ‘indicate poisoning with a substance from the group of cholinesterase inhibitors’, which are used in medicines and insecticides but also in nerve agents.
‘The specific substance involved remains unknown, and a further series of comprehensive testing has been initiated,’ the hospital said.
Navalny arrives at Berlin’s Tegel Airport last Saturday after he was airlifted from Russia. He remains in a medically induced coma at the German hospital
Alexei Navalny, pictured with his wife Yulia, has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for years
German medics have asked for assistance from authorities in the UK and Bulgaria, both with experience of previous poisonings.
But Uglev believes the poison will never be identified, and that the Russians will have destroyed the clothes he was wearing.
‘Speaking about the quantity of the poison that was needed – it’s one to two milligrams, or approximately a 1/30 of a water drop,’ he told Ekho Moscow radio.
‘This is enough to poison a healthy man to death.
‘I think that specialists working in the Charite clinic would have been unable to detect how the substance got into his system even two days after it happened.
‘If it was applied on his underwear and therefore the substance was going through his skin…he was definitely washed, and the clothes he was wearing, we will never see them again.
‘No-one will ever say where these clothes are, most likely they were burned long ago.’
Uglev said: ‘He must have been washed and disinfected. Moreover remember there were claims that he posed danger to people around him.
‘This is what was said at a hospital where he was brought…. it didn’t need to be novichok to pose a threat to people around him.
‘Any poisonous substance once on the skin or clothes might pose a threat to others.
‘There are scores of such substances… so the possibility that they will detect the substance and the way it got into him has gone a long time ago.’
Emergency vehicles outside the Charite hospital in Berlin where Alexei Navalny is being treated and remains in a coma
Navalny’s allies have pointed the finger at Russian president Vladimir Putin (pictured) after the opposition leader fell ill, but the Kremlin has dismissed the claims
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday rejected claims that Russia was failing to investigate how Navalny fell into a coma.
‘We are being accused of not investigating this situation. This is not true,’ he said.
‘Starting the very day this happened, our Interior Ministry initiated pre-investigative inspections.’
A full probe would begin once it is determined what happened, he said, while adding that German medics were also uncertain how Navalny became sick.
Meanwhile, Russian prosecutors have asked Germany to provide Navalny’s biomaterial for investigations.
Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for more than a decade, exposing what he says is high-level corruption and mobilising protests.
He has been repeatedly detained for organising public meetings, sued over corruption investigations and barred from running in the 2018 presidential election.
The 44-year-old has also served several stints in jail in recent years for organising anti-Kremlin protests.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Russia’s arrests and detention of Navalny in 2012 and 2014 were politically motivated.