The Kremlin and Vladimir Putin have their backs to the wall with Angela Merkel’s revelation that Russian opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, was poisoned with a nerve agent from the same Novichok class that had been used in a 2018 attack in Britain on an ex-Soviet spy, Sergei V. Skripal. The German Chancellor has been remarkably bold in demanding answers from Moscow, indeed a diplomatic offensive and one that could lead to the souring of relations between Russia and western Europe. Already, the German government has briefed its allies in the European Union and NATO, and plans to provide information about its findings to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world’s chemical weapons watchdog.

Western governments have swiftly issued condemnations of Russia, with the United States raising the possibility of imposing financial sanctions on those involved. Navalny is currently in a hospital in Berlin. The poison, the German doctors suspected, was something far more dangerous and required the attention of the Army’s chemical weapons specialists.

From Britain to Russia, from an ex-Soviet spy to a present-day opposition leader, there is a hideously sinister pattern in the killings. And President Putin cannot evade responsibility for the extermination of dissenters. Though the Kremlin has readily binned Germany’s claim, Ms Merkel has doubtless taken the lid off a pretty kettle of fish. The degree of the calculated malevolence can be assessed from the fact that when Navalny’s private plane touched down in Berlin, he was said to be in a medically induced coma.

On Wednesday, the German government confirmed the doctors’ fears ~ Navalny (44) had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok “family”, a potent chemical weapon, developed by the Soviet Union, that was used at least once before in recent years in an attack on a Kremlin enemy.

The Novichok revelation, which the German government said was based on “unequivocal evidence,” provided the strongest indication yet that the Kremlin, which has denied involvement, was behind the poisoning. Western intelligence agencies have assessed that only the Russian government was in a position to have access to such a dangerous weapon. Chancellor Merkel, who over the years has taken pains to preserve Germany’s diplomatic relations with the Kremlin, took the unusual step on Wednesday of publicly calling Russia out. “Mr Navalny has been the victim of a crime,” she said. “It raises very serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer.” Russia is unlikely to provide such answers, however.

It is as yet unclear what Western governments can do to curtail such behaviour. Despite years of escalating sanctions, expulsions of diplomats and international isolation, the Kremlin, according to Western intelligence agencies, continues to undermine American and European institutions and violate international norms. The parable of the tragedy must be that extermination of dissenters remains integral to State policy three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.