MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman brushed off allegations Thursday that the Kremlin was involved in poisoning the Russian leader’s most determined critic, accusing Germany of not providing Moscow with any evidence about the condition of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.
Navalny, a politician and corruption investigator, fell ill on a flight to Moscow on Aug. 20 and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk. He has been in an induced coma in a Berlin hospital after being flown from Siberia to Germany for treatment more than a week ago.
German authorities said Wednesday that tests showed “proof without doubt” that he had been poisoned with a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group. British authorities identified the Soviet-era Novichok as the poison used on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted Thursday that Russian authorities still had not received any evidence from Germany to back up their allegation.
“We haven’t received any information so far,” Peskov said. “We hope that it will happen soon and will help figure out what caused the condition the patient is in right now.”
Peskov reiterated that Russian specialists in Omsk tested Navalny for poisonous substances and didn’t find any in his system. He said Russian investigators conducting a preliminary inquiry into Navalny’s illness should know “what our German colleagues found and established.”
Following his stay in Omsk, Navalny was moved two days later to Berlin’s Charite hospital after German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally offered the country’s assistance in treating him. He’s now in stable condition, but doctors expect a long recovery and haven’t ruled out that the 44-year-old Navalny could face long-term effects to his health.
Merkel on Wednesday called Navalny’s poisoning an attempted murder that aimed to silence one of Putin’s fiercest critics and called for a full investigation.
“There are very serious questions now that only the Russian government can answer, and must answer,” Merkel said.
Asked about Peskov’s comments on Thursday, Merkel said, “Naturally I am aware of what is being said now” but refused to comment further.
“I made a comprehensive statement yesterday about what we will do now and in the coming days,” she told reporters at the chancellery after meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. “And of course a lot depends on the respective reactions by the Russian government. But I don’t want to add anything further.”
Germany’s Justice Ministry has confirmed they have received Russia’s request for information, but would not provide details on the response.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s longtime ally and campaign strategist, told the German RTL broadcaster Thursday that an independent investigation in Russia is unlikely and put the blame in the Kremlin.
“An attack of such level and of such coordination couldn’t be not authorized by Mr. Putin,” Volkov said.
Volkov said he did not know what legal consequences should be for what happened to Navalny. “But I know for sure what I want to have as an outcome, and this is the political or a moral, ethical consequence: I really want that no foreign leader ever would shake hands with Mr. Putin,” he said.
Sweden’s Lofven, joining a chorus of other world leaders, called for Russia to investigate and punish those involved.
“We need to respond,” he said. “Something happened on an aircraft within Russia, within Russian jurisdiction, so I think it’s fair to say the ball is in your corner now to investigate.”
In Washington, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said: “Alexei Navalny’s poisoning is completely reprehensible. Russia has used chemical nerve agents in the past and we’re working with our allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable wherever the evidence leads and restrict funds for their malign activities..”
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, described “the situation with Navalny” as an anti-Russian plot.
“It’s a planned action against Russia in order to impose new sanctions and try to impede the development of our country,” Volodin said in a statement.
In addition to receiving blow back from Moscow, the German government has come under growing pressure to use a joint German-Russian pipeline project as leverage in getting Russia to provide answers on Navalny. When asked about the issue Thursday, Merkel declined to comment.
Germany’s opposition Greens party urged her to end to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would deliver Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic when completed, bypassing Ukraine.
“The apparent attempted murder by the mafia-like structures of the Kremlin can no longer just give us cause for concern, it must have real consequences,” Green parliamentary group leader Katrin Goering-Eckardt said.
The Greens have long opposed the pipeline. Merkel has steadily resisted pressure from the United States to end the project, which Washington says will endanger European security by making Germany overly dependent on Russian gas.
Nord Stream 2 is also opposed by Ukraine and Poland, which will be bypassed by the pipeline under the Baltic sea, as well as some other European nations. With the findings about Navalny, even Norbert Roettgen, a leading lawmaker in Merkel’s party, said “diplomatic rituals are no longer enough.”
“After the poisoning … we need a strong European answer, which #Putin understands” Roettgen tweeted. “The EU should jointly decide to stop #NordStream2.”
Peskov dismissed the calls to abandon Nord Stream 2 as “emotional statements… not based on facts.” He called the pipeline “an international commercial project that is in the interests of Russia, Germany and the entire European continent.”
After doctors in Berlin reported last week that Navalny had likely been poisoned, before identifying Novichok as the nerve agent, Merkel rejected the idea of abandoning the project.
Merkel has also previously rejected the idea when it was floated after previous confrontations with Moscow over incidents closer to home — like evidence the chancellor’s parliamentary office had been hacked by Russia and the killing of a Georgian man in Berlin that prosecutors alleged was a hit ordered by the Russian government.
Last month, three Republican U.S. senators threatened sanctions against a German port operator involved in the Nord Stream 2 project, prompting Germany’s foreign minister to bring up the issue with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Switzerland-based Allseas, which operates ships laying sections of the undersea pipeline, suspended its work in December after U.S. President Donald Trump signed legislation threatening sanctions against companies linked to the project.
Some say Navalny’s poisoning and the pipeline should not be linked.
Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy leader of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, warned that Nord Stream 2 is nearing completion and both Russian and German companies are massively invested in the project.
“I’m skeptical that we should question a project of this magnitude at this stage,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio.
And Markus Soeder, a Merkel ally who leads the smallest party in Germany’s governing coalition, said the construction of the pipeline was a private business decision, not the government’s.
“In our view, one has nothing to do with the other,” he said.
Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova reported this story in Moscow and AP writer David Rising reported from Berlin. AP writers Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.