BERLIN (NYTIMES) – Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who is recovering from being poisoned, has spoken to a German prosecutor about the attempt on his life and says he plans to return to Russia as soon as he has recovered, a senior German security official said Monday (Sept 14).
Navalny had been in a medically induced coma at the Charité hospital in Berlin and it was not clear what condition he would be in once he regained consciousness.
But the security official, who was briefed on his condition, said Navalny seemed mentally sharp.
“He’s fully aware of his condition, he’s fully aware of what happened and he’s fully aware of where he is,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the case.
The news came hours after the German government announced that laboratories in France and Sweden had confirmed that the substance used to poison Navalny was a form of the nerve agent Novichok, results that match Berlin’s own findings and provide additional confidence that the Russian state was involved.
“Three laboratories have now independently provided evidence of a substance from the Novichok group as the cause of Navalny’s poisoning,” a German government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement.
“We renew the call for Russia to explain what has happened.”
Navalny remains heavily guarded by German police in the hospital.
In his conversation with the German prosecutor, he refused to cooperate with a Russian request to jointly investigate the case with Germany, the security official said, adding that once he recovers, Navalny plans to return to Russia.
“He’s not planning to go into exile in Germany,” the official said.
“He wants to go home to Russia and he wants to continue his mission.”
Russian officials were not immediately informed of Navalny’s refusal to cooperate, and did not initially respond to news of the French and Swedish tests.
They have insisted that there was no proof Navalny had been poisoned.
They have suggested several alternative theories, including a drug overdose and low blood sugar.
In his statement, Seibert described the use of Novichok – a class of potent nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union and used at least once before in an assassination attempt by Russian intelligence operatives – as a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Russia is a signatory.
But even as patience with President Vladimir Putin is running thin, Berlin is struggling to determine how to respond.
Some have suggested cancelling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a nearly completed, US$11 billion (S$15 billion) project to carry natural gas from Russia to Germany.
So far, however, the German government, its European allies and the United States have not taken any action aside from raising the prospect of additional sanctions on Russia.
The poisoning of Navalny is the latest in a long string of killings or attempted killings of Kremlin opponents in recent years.
On Aug 20, after campaigning in Siberia for anti-government candidates for local offices, he collapsed, was hospitalised and flown to Germany for treatment two days later.
Local elections were held across Russia over the weekend, and Navalny and his allies made modest gains.
In the opposition’s biggest victory, Putin’s United Russia party lost its majority on the City Council in Novosibirsk, a Siberian industrial hub and Russia’s third-largest city.
The attack on Navalny increases the strain on the close, complicated and increasingly contradictory German-Russian relationship.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has been unusually clear in her sharp condemnation of Moscow’s brazen actions and lack of cooperation.
Less than a year ago, a former Chechen rebel leader was assassinated in broad daylight in a Berlin park, a killing that German federal prosecutors say was orchestrated by the Russian state.
Merkel, who normally speaks with Putin by phone at least once a week, has not spoken to him since Navalny’s poisoning, a senior German security official said.
On Monday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, cancelled a meeting scheduled for this week with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas.
In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry did not mention the Navalny poisoning and said the cancellation had to do with a scheduling conflict.
President Emmanuel Macron of France raised the poisoning in a phone call with Putin on Monday, affirming the French laboratory results and asking that “all light be shed, without delay, on the circumstances and responsibilities of this attempted assassination,” according to a readout provided by the French government.
The readout did not include Putin’s response.
Merkel has been one of the tougher leaders in Europe when it comes to Russia, demanding a strong line on maintaining economic sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, even in the face of pushback at home and in other capitals.
But she has also worked hard to keep diplomatic lines to Moscow open.
The two countries have deep economic links, not least in the energy market, and a sizeable faction in German politics believes that Russia should be an important partner.
Merkel appears to be treading carefully once again – at least for now.
German officials did not raise Navalny’s poisoning last week, when Dmitri Kozak, a close confidant of Putin, was allowed to land in Berlin for talks related to the war in Ukraine, despite a travel ban.
Germany has refused to rule out a reevaluation of Nord Stream 2, but Merkel has long defended the project, and experts say it is unlikely to be scrapped.
The German response so far contrasts sharply with Britain’s reaction in 2018, after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in the English city of Salisbury.
Once the British government announced that Russian operatives had used Novichok in that case, it gave the Kremlin 24 hours to respond, after which it imposed sanctions and rallied allies to expel dozens of Russian diplomats.
But German officials insist that the poisoning of Navalny is not a bilateral issue between Germany and Russia.
Unlike Skripal, who held British citizenship and was attacked on British soil, Navalny is a Russian who was in Russia when he was poisoned.
German officials are considering a variety of possible sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes against individuals, and are hoping for a response backed by all European Union member states.
“We want this to be a European sanctions regime to show that this is about our values when a leading opposition politician is poisoned,” said one senior German security official involved in the discussions.
The official said that while it was important to send a message that Russia’s behaviour was out of line, it should not come at the expense of continued negotiations on issues like the wars in Ukraine and Syria, where Russia is a key player.
“This is a terrible thing; we have to sanction it, but it will not lead to a totally new Russia policy,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal deliberations.
“The hard reality is: We need Russia on Ukraine, Libya, Syria. We don’t want everything to collapse.”
Navalny’s recovery could also influence the eventual response, but doctors now expect him to make a full recovery, the senior official said.
Traces of the poison were found in samples taken from Navalny at the hospital in Berlin but also, crucially, on a water bottle that had travelled with him from Russia, German officials said.
They have rejected Moscow’s demand for “proof” that Navalny was poisoned inside Russia, noting that Russian authorities had taken their own samples and confiscated dozens of objects before he was flown to Germany.
“They have their proof,” one official said.
Within Russia, Navalny hoped to capitalise on discontent over Russia’s economic slump and the coronavirus pandemic.
Support for Putin has softened in recent years and dropped even further this year, said Denis Volkov, deputy director of Levada, an independent polling organisation.
Russia’s political system enforces support for Putin on a national level but allows more diversity in local elections – an opening Navalny tried to seize to loosen the grip of the governing United Russia party.
He encouraged the fractious opposition to unite behind a single candidate in each race.
In Novosibirsk, United Russia won 22 or 23 seats of 50 council seats, according to preliminary results, with one race still contested. That is down from 33 seats.
Navalny’s regional representative there, Sergei Boiko, and other opposition figures won council seats despite the poisoning of their leader, a stink bomb attack on Navalny’s office in the city and allegations of ballot stuffing.
Navalny is aware of the results and said he is pleased, the senior German official said.
Navalny’s allies also won a smattering of seats on other councils, including two in Tomsk, the last city he visited on his campaign swing.
But no mass movement in sympathy with Navalny has emerged, and there is no sign that the poisoning has shaken up Russian politics.
United Russia’s failings were already well known, and some losses had been expected, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
“I am surprised by how little impact the poisoning” has had, he said.
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