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.

How Vladimir Putin Falls

A dictator meets an opponent he can’t co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow or coerce.

The Russian human-rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko once explained to me how Vladimir Putin’s machinery of repression works.

  • “It isn’t necessary to put all the businessmen in jail,” she said. “It is necessary to jail the richest, the most independent, the most well-connected.
  • It isn’t necessary to kill all the journalists. Just kill the most outstanding, the bravest, and the others will get the message.”

Her conclusion: “Nobody is untouchable.”

That was in 2007, when Putin still cultivated an image as a law-abiding, democratically elected leader. But that fiction vanished long ago.

Boris Nemtsov, the leading opposition figure, was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015. His successor in that role, Alexei Navalny, has been in and out of prison on various trumped-up charges, as well as the victim of repeated attacks by “unknown chemicals.” Others, like the Putin critic and ex-Parliament member Denis Voronenkov, have been gunned down in broad daylight in foreign cities.


So it’s little less than awe-inspiring to read Andrew Higgins’s profile in The Times of opposition activist Lyubov Sobol.

Sobol, 31, is a Moscow lawyer and Navalny associate who has spent years pursuing a graft investigation of Putin intimate Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch indicted by the U.S. last year for sponsoring the troll factory that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Considering that journalists have been killed looking into Prigozhin’s other businesses, Sobol’s doggedness recalls Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone in “The Untouchables” — except, unlike Ness, she has no knife, no gun, no badge, no law, and no federal government to aid her.

Now she is at the forefront of protests that have rocked Russia this summer after the regime disqualified opposition candidates (including her) from running in Sunday’s municipal elections. Her husband has been poisoned. Assailants have smeared her with black goo. Police dragged her from her office. Only a law forbidding the imprisonment of women with young children has kept her out of jail.

“I am always asked whether I am afraid, and I know that I should say, ‘Yes, I am,’” she tells Higgins. But, she says, “I am a fanatical kind of personality and am not afraid. I have always been a fan of the idea of fairness and, since childhood, have hated to see the strong abuse the weak.”

When regimes like Putin’s realize they cannot co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow, or coerce their opponents, what usually comes next is a decision to kill them. The risk that this could happen to Sobol or Navalny is terrifyingly real, not least because Putin has so many underworld friends willing to do his presumptive bidding without asking for explicit orders.

But Putin also needs to beware. Dictatorships fall not only when they have implacable opponents but also exemplary victims: Steve Biko in South Africa, Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. Through their deaths, they awakened the living to the conviction that it was the regime that should die instead.

Today, Nemtsov continues to haunt the Kremlin. So do Sergei Magnitsky, Natalia Estemirova, Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, to name just a few of the regime’s murdered adversaries. At some point, a growing list of victims will start to weigh heavily against Putin’s chances of staying in power. The death of a galvanizing opposition figure could be the tipping point.

Especially when the political-survival formula that has worked for Putin so far is coming unstuck. That formula —

  • enrich your cronies,
  • terrify your foes,
  • placate the urban bourgeoisie with a decent standard of living, and
  • propagandize everyone else with heavy doses of xenophobic nationalism

no longer works so well in an era of

  • Magnitsky sanctions,
  • international ostracism,
  • a persistently stagnant economy,
  • middling oil prices,
  • unpopular pension reforms, and
  • dubious foreign adventures.

It works even less well when your domestic foes aren’t so easily terrified. As in Hong Kong, a striking feature of the Russian protests is the extent to which they are youth-driven — a vote of no-confidence in whatever the regime is supposed to offer. One recent survey found that the number of young Russians who “fully trust” Putin fell to 19 percent this year, from 30 percent last year. That’s not a good trend line for a man who aspires to die on his throne.

None of this guarantees that Putin can’t bounce back, not least if Donald Trump gives him the kinds of breaks, like readmission into the G7, he needs. And Robert Mugabe’s death this week at 95 is a reminder that tyrants can endure longer than anyone expects.

Still, for the first time in 20 years, the elements by which Putin falls are coming into place. Core among them is the courage of people like Sobol — a woman who, as Pericles said more than 2,400 years ago, “knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”

‘I Am Always Asked if I Am Afraid’: Activist Lawyer Takes On Putin’s Russia

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