Kremlin Says No Basis Yet for Investigation of Alexey Navalny Illness

Russia brushed off a call by German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a full investigation into the suspected poisoning of Alexey Navalny, saying it’s still not clear yet that the opposition leader was exposed to a toxic substance.

“If the substance is identified and it’s shown to be a poisoning, that would be basis for an investigation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call Tuesday. For the moment, he said, it’s up to doctors in the clinic in Germany where Navalny was taken over the weekend after falling ill on a flight in Siberia to determine what the Kremlin critic was exposed to.

A medical team at Berlin’s Charite hospital said on Monday that they had found traces of a toxin, though the specific substance wasn’t yet known. That prompted Merkel to call on Russia to “fully investigate this act.” Navalny remains in a medically induced coma there.

Kremlin Says No Basis Yet for Investigation of Alexey Navalny Illness

“We don’t understand on what basis our German colleagues are in such a rush to use the word ‘poisoning,’” Peskov said.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo joined Merkel’s call for an inquiry, saying in a statement on Monday that the country was “deeply concerned” by the preliminary results of a poisoning. “Mr. Navalny’s family and the Russian people deserve to see a full and transparent investigation carried out.”

The developments mark a sharp escalation in tensions between the West, led in this case by Merkel’s government, and the Kremlin. German officials have already expressed outrage over an August 2019 murder in Berlin in broad daylight that investigators say was likely Russian sponsored as well as a 2015 cyberattack on Germany’s Bundestag, the lower house.

“A question inevitably arises -- who benefits from this? Clearly not the Russian leadership,” The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after a meeting between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in Moscow.

The U.S. side stressed it will take tougher measures against Russia than it did after election interference if the poisoning is confirmed, the Russian statement said.

Growing Tensions

“Of course this is very bad for Russia’s relations with Germany and Europe,” Andrey Kortunov, director of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council, said in an interview. “There’s no desire to damp” the ever-mounting tensions, he said.

Citing unrest directed at the Kremlin in Russia’s Far East and a popular uprising against Belarus’s Putin-backed leader, Alexander Lukashenko, Kortunov said the spiraling chaos could prompt the West to see the poisoning of a prominent opposition figure “as a sign that Putin is losing control of the situation.”

Should the friction reach a peak, projects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, which Merkel’s government has defended in the face of forceful criticism from the U.S. and EU member states, could be at risk, Kortunov said.

“This could tilt the balance within the EU, and the Germans might be forced to make concessions,” he said.

More Testing

In the German capital, Charite doctors found a substance related to cholinesterase inhibitors. Further testing will be required to identify what it is, the clinic said, adding that Navalny is being treated with the antidote atropine and his prognosis remains unclear.

Peskov said the German announcement merely confirmed the findings of Russian doctors. “We didn’t learn anything new from the Charite statement,” he said.

When the Kremlin spoke to the physicians Monday, they confirmed they found depressed cholinesterase levels and treated Navalny with atropine, Peskov said. Publicly, the Russian doctors who handled Navalny’s treatment have said they ruled out poisoning as a cause of his illness, which they blamed on an unspecified metabolic disorder.

Navalny’s allies have blamed Russia’s security services for poisoning him. Peskov rejected those allegations as “empty noise we don’t intend to take seriously.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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