Russia Denies Blame for Navalny Poisoning, Rebuffs Western Calls for Probe

Kremlin spokesman says suggestions of Moscow’s involvement in the Putin critic’s illness are ‘just empty noise’

MOSCOW—The Kremlin said it had no involvement in the sudden illness of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and questioned the assertion by German doctors that he was poisoned, pushing back against demands from Western leaders for an inquiry into the latest suspected attack against a critic of President Vladimir Putin.

The exact circumstances surrounding the illness of Mr. Navalny, who remains in a coma in a Berlin hospital, are a mystery. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Tuesday that suggestions that Mr. Putin played a role in harming the dissident were baseless, responding to allegations from some of Mr. Navalny’s allies and another opposition leader, Ilya Yashin, that the Kremlin was to blame.

“These accusations, that can in no way be true, are just empty noise,” Mr. Peskov said.

Mr. Navalny, a prominent opposition activist who has amassed a following numbering millions across Russia, fell ill on a flight last week. He was put on a ventilator at a hospital in Siberia before being transferred to Germany, where doctors determined on Monday that he had been poisoned with a nerve agent.

Mr. Peskov rebuffed calls from Western leaders for an immediate investigation into Mr. Navalny’s sickness, citing the need for further proof of foul play.

Putin Opponent Alexei Navalny in Intensive Care After Suspected Poisoning

Putin Opponent Alexei Navalny in Intensive Care After Suspected Poisoning
Footage appears to show the prominent Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny being carried out to an ambulance on a stretcher, seemingly unconscious. His spokesperson said Mr. Navalny, who is in intensive care at a Siberian hospital, was likely poisoned. Photo: Sergei Chirikov/Shutterstock

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Russia to launch an investigation, after French President Emmanuel Macron also called for transparency over the incident.

On Tuesday, the French Foreign Ministry called for a thorough probe into the suspected attack on Mr. Navalny, which it called a “criminal act perpetrated against a major player in Russian political life.”

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan also demanded an investigation into Mr. Navalny’s sickness that “holds the parties behind this act responsible,” embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Ross said.

The disagreements signal a deepening divide between Russia and the West in a case that threatens to become another flashpoint in already-troubled relations.

Mr. Peskov said poisoning was one of several possible explanations for Mr. Navalny’s sickness but pointed to the findings of Russian doctors at the Siberian hospital where he had been treated before he was taken to Germany on Saturday. Those doctors said they found no traces of poison in his blood or urine and that his condition could have been caused by a metabolic imbalance, like a low-blood-sugar attack.

“We don’t understand why our German colleagues are in such a hurry, using the word poisoning,” said Mr. Peskov. “This was among the first causes our doctors looked at, but no substance was found.”

“If a substance is established, if it’s established that it was poisoning, then, of course, it will be grounds for investigation,” he said.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, said he had asked the legislative body’s security committee to analyze whether the circumstances around Mr. Navalny’s illness had been instigated by the West to destabilize Russia.

“We must understand what happened from all angles,” he said.

Several other Russian opposition figures have been attacked in the past. Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza said he was poisoned by agents of the Kremlin in 2015 and 2017, before recovering. In 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former double agent, and his daughter were poisoned in the U.K., where they lived. The U.K. and the U.S. ultimately blamed the Kremlin for the attacks and imposed sanctions on Russia as a result.

In 2006, a former officer at Russia’s Federal Security Service, Alexander Litvinenko, fell ill and later died after a meeting in London with a Russian agent who British intelligence officials said likely poisoned his tea with polonium.

Moscow has denied any involvement in causing harm to political opponents.

After the deadly shooting of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in 2015, Mr. Navalny emerged as Russia’s most popular opposition politician, leading street protests and cultivating a nationwide following through Twitter and YouTube, where he aired videos on alleged corruption among the Kremlin elite.

Those videos earned him a number of enemies among Kremlin-connected politicians and businessmen, who accused Mr. Navalny of using their personal lives as fodder for his regular exposés.

Mr. Navalny fell ill on Aug. 20 while traveling to Moscow from Siberia, where he was researching alleged corruption by local members of the ruling party. His spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said she suspected that a cup of tea he drank 40 minutes before he became pale and sweaty and lost control of his body was laced with poison.

The plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, where he was put on a ventilator for nearly two days while his supporters and local doctors clashed over attempts to transport him to Germany for treatment.

Journalist Details Israel’s ‘Secret History’ Of Targeted Assassinations

Our guest, Israeli investigative reporter Ronen Bergman, says that Israel has developed the most robust streamlined assassination machine in history. His new book, based on a thousand interviews, chronicles decades of shootings, poisonings, bombings and drone strikes. The targets were perceived enemies of the Jewish state, ranging from British colonial officials in the 1940s to leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO to Iranian nuclear scientists. Bergman describes the planning and approval process for targeted killings, which typically involved young military and intelligence operatives making the case for a strike to the country’s prime minister.

Bergman writes that Israeli assassination teams were effective at eliminating their targets but often at a moral and political price their leaders would only come to understand years after their missions. Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, the country’s largest daily newspaper, and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He spoke to FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies about his new book “Rise And Kill First: The Secret History Of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.”

..  one of the most powerful things I have ever seen on a screen was the movie “The Gatekeepers” by Dror Moreh, the Israeli filmmaker. And I’m sure you’re familiar with this. He interviews all of the living heads of Shin Bet, which I guess is the internal intelligence service in Israel.


DAVIES: All of them in their later years felt that the violence and retribution which they had engaged in earlier had to be stopped, and there had to be a negotiated arrangement with the Palestinians. Did you find that in – among the intelligent professionals that you spoke to as they grew older?

BERGMAN: Yeah. The same five that are interviewed in “Gatekeepers” are extensively quoted in “Rise And Kill” as well, as well as many, many others – the chiefs of the intelligence. And you’re absolutely right. They rule. The rare exception is that all the chiefs of Israeli intelligence and military commanders and operation commanders all believe that there’s no other way but a two-state solution and a political discourse with the Palestinians.

The problem is that I think when they were on duty and the political level above them opposed such a path, they usually stayed silent or, you know, in a very quiet voice say, well, maybe there’s another way. But once they were ordered to confront the problem by force, they did that with whatever they could. And they supplied the solutions that just prolonged the problem. They supplied the solution for many, many, many years that kept the Palestinian population in the occupied territories relatively quiet.

And that – and I’m quoting one of the chiefs of the – of Shin Bet. And that enabled the government basically to do whatever it wanted because they were not confronting a lot of riots or demonstration or terrorism. And they could build settlements, and they could enjoy the cheap labor. And they didn’t need to understand and confront the problem of occupying another nation, another country and another people.

.. And what Mossad was able to do instead of just shooting him was to get very close to him and replace one of the things that he uses frequently with the same substance but mixed with poison. They call the poison the potion of gods. That was the nickname. And they poured that into his toothpaste which he used quite frequently. Then he got the ill. Nobody knew what happens to him.

.. Israeli military intelligence who is supposed to deliver information for a targeted killing operation in 2003, said, I’m not going to do so. You want to destroy a building belonging to the Fatah, one of the Palestinian factions in Gaza. You want to destroy it, he told his commanders, because there are people inside but not specific people. You just want to destroy it with people in order to send a message to the Palestinians. I think this is forbidden. This is illegal, manifestly illegal. This is a war crime. And he declared…


.. But at that time, after a horrific suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that took place just hours before, the chief of staff ordered to destroy a building with someone inside. Someone – doesn’t matter who – has to be killed as a – sort of a message sent to the Palestinians. And that junior brave intelligence officer says, this is the line. I’m drawing it here. I’m not going to do so. This is war crime. This is illegal.

DAVIES: You know, military organizations assume that people will follow orders, whatever qualms they might have. What was the fallout of this refusal to carry out this mission?

BERGMAN: The echoes that there’s was a mutiny in Unit 8200 – which is considered to be creme de la creme, prime of Israeli intelligence – immediately reached every corridor of the – thundered through the corridors of the military and reached the prime minister himself. No one could believe that these people, the intelligence officers could ever rebuild. People at the chief of staff said this guy should be court martialed. And someone said, even, he should be shot. But I think the IDF didn’t want this to be brought to trial because they understood that the order, from the beginning, was illegal. So they just dismissed the junior officer. They didn’t want to deal with that.

But they were afraid that it will lead to a wave of other people refusing to take orders, so they preferred to hushen (ph) that.

.. He didn’t – he still, even today, doesn’t want to be identified because he understands that some people in Israeli society would judge him for that. And he doesn’t want to have problems in his civilian life.

.. just before Trump was elected and before the inauguration, they suggested that the Israelis stop giving sensitive material to the White House. They said we are afraid that Trump or someone of his people are under leverage from the Russians. And they might give sensitive information to the Russians who, in their turn, would give that to Iran. They said we have evidence that part of the material that Edward Snowden stole from the CIA and NSA – and was not yet published – found its way to Iran. And we believe, of course, that he gave everything he had to the Russians.

..  you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?

BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature. And that information could jeopardize modus operandi of Israeli intelligence.

..  I had 1,000 people speaking from prime minister and minister of defense, chiefs of staff, chief of the Mossad to the actual operatives and assassins.

.. But the main reason, I think, that led most of these people to speak was that after so many years in the shadows – after so many years in secret, they wanted to tell people how they defend Israel, how they were the guards on the wall. And they thought that I’m writing – not the authorized of course. I’m not working for the administration, but this is the unauthorized, unofficial – but the history of Israeli intelligence. And they wanted to make sure that their footprint is set upright in this book.

Why Is Trump So Afraid of Russia?

The former C.I.A. director John Brennan pulled no punches on Wednesday when he was asked why President Trump had congratulated his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for his victory in a rigged election, even after Mr. Trump’s national security staff warned him not to.

.. Some Trump defenders noted that President Barack Obama also called Mr. Putin when he was elected president in 2012.

But the circumstances are very different. In the intervening years, Mr. Putin has become an increasingly authoritarian leader who has crushed most of his political opposition and engineered a deeply lopsided re-election this week.

.. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, is waging war in other parts of Ukraine and is enabling President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

.. While the administration recently imposed its first significant sanctions on Russia for election interference and other malicious cyberattacks and has faulted Russia for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain, Mr. Trump has refrained from criticizing Mr. Putin or calling him to account. The phone call reinforced that approach.

.. What Mr. Trump didn’t say to Mr. Putin was as significant as what he did say. He did not demand that Mr. Putin stop meddling in American elections or others, he did not even raise Moscow’s role in the poisoning.

.. A senior administration official told The Times that Mr. Trump didn’t want to antagonize Mr. Putin because fostering rapport is the only way to improve relations between the two countries. On Tuesday, the president said he hoped to meet Mr. Putin soon and discuss preventing an arms race — an arms race both leaders have encouraged with loose talk and investment in new weapons.
Engaging Russia and preventing an arms race are undeniably important. But it’s hard to see how praising and appeasing a bully will advance American interests. That’s not the approach Mr. Trump has taken with adversaries like North Korea or Iran, or, for that matter, even with some allies.
..  John McCain, Republican of Arizona, slammed Mr. Trump, saying “an American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.” Even the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who rarely crosses Mr. Trump, said calling Mr. Putin “wouldn’t have been high on my list.”