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.
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.
—Noemie Bisserbe in Paris contributed to this article.