This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The Kremlin says it does not want the hospitalization of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny to damage relations between Moscow and the West, but is opposed to saying that Navalny was “poisoned” until medical tests confirm finding a specific toxin in his body.
Germany, the United States, and other Western countries have called on Moscow to open an investigation into why Navalny collapsed on a Russian commercial flight from Siberia last week.
Those calls came after German doctors said their initial medical examination pointed to poisoning.
The renowned Charite hospital in Berlin, where Navalny is being treated, said on August 24 that “clinical findings indicate intoxication by a substance from the group of active substances called cholinesterase inhibitors.”
Cholinesterase inhibitors are a broad range of chemicals that are found in several drugs but also in some pesticides and nerve agents. Charite said the specific substance to which Navalny was exposed isn’t yet known but that a further series of comprehensive tests had been started.
Despite increasing evidence that Navalny was attacked with poison, the Kremlin insists that the German medical examinations have been inconclusive.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on August 26 that “there is no reason” for the disagreement to damage Russia’s relations with the West .
“Of course we don’t want this to happen,” Peskov told reporters.
The 44-year-old anticorruption campaigner is a staunch critic of President Vladimir Putin.
He was being treated at Berlin’s Charite hospital where he remained in an induced coma on August 26.
But on August 26, Peskov asked journalists rhetorically, “How can we talk about poisoning if there is no poison?”
“We are categorically against anyone attempting to do any labeling under the current circumstances, we’re against calling this condition — which has not been definitively confirmed as poisoning — a case of poisoning,” Peskov said.
On August 25, Peskov had claimed that German doctors were “rushing” to use the word “poisoning.”
Navalny’s supporters say they think he was poisoned when he drank tea purchased at the Tomsk airport in Siberia before boarding his flight.
His rapidly deteriorating condition during the flight forced the plane he was traveling on to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where he spent two days in a hospital before being airlifted to Berlin.
According to a Russian newspaper report, Navalny had been under surveillance by Russian federal security agents during his trip to Siberia.
Meanwhile, Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, says a State Duma committee will investigate whether “foreign states” were behind the incident in an attempt “to fuel tensions inside Russia, as well as to formulate fresh accusations against our country.”
Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokeswoman, responded to Volodin’s remarks by saying that Russian officials appear to have a special training manual to “blame foreign interference.”
“It doesn’t matter at all whether it sounds just absurd or completely schizophrenic,” she wrote on Twitter.
U.S. ‘Deeply Concerned’
The United States, NATO, and European countries have called on Russia to conduct a swift investigation into the suspected poisoning.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told journalists on August 26 that he backs calls for a transparent Navalny investigation, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also called on August 26 for an independent probe into the case.
“We need a full, transparent investigation into what happened. The perpetrators must be held accountable and the U.K. will join international efforts to ensure justice is done,” Johnson said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell have issued similar pleas.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on August 25 that the United States was “deeply concerned” about preliminary findings that Navalny was poisoned.
“If the reports prove accurate, the United States supports the EU’s call for a comprehensive investigation and stands ready to assist in that effort,” he said in a statement.
In Moscow, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other diplomats on August 25.
Biegun expressed deep concern about Navalny’s condition, “the impact on Russian civil society of reports of his poisoning, and the importance of transparency and freedom of speech in any democratic society,” U.S. Embassy spokesperson Rebecca Ross said.
The French Foreign Ministry said that those responsible for “this criminal act” must be identified and brought to justice.
Navalny has exposed rampant corruption at the highest levels in Russia. He has suffered physical attacks in the past.
He endured chemical burns to one of his eyes in 2017 after he was assaulted with antiseptic dye.
In July 2019, Navalny was given a 30-day jail term after calling for unauthorized protests against Putin’s government.
During that jail sentence, he was taken to a hospital with severe swelling of the face and a rash. He later alleged that he had been poisoned while in jail.
He has been jailed several times in recent years for organizing unauthorized public demonstrations and on charges that he and his supporters say have often been politically motivated.
As a result of those cases, he has been barred from running for president and had a bid to run for Moscow mayor blocked.
A long line of Kremlin opponents have fallen seriously ill or have died from poisoning in Russia and abroad.