Poisoning was used in other recent attacks linked to Russian agents by Western intelligence officials, including the use of the nerve agent Novichok in 2018 in London against a former Russian spy and his daughter.
British authorities opened a full-scale probe of the London attacks, and Russian diplomats were expelled from Britain and elsewhere in retaliation. With Navalny, Russia would be in control of any possible investigation and the Kremlin has already signaled that it rejects assertions that the government had a hand.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there are no grounds to launch a criminal investigation. He called allegations that Putin bears responsibility for Navalny’s fate “empty noise.”
“We don't understand why our German colleagues have jumped to conclusions and are using the word ‘poisoning,’ ” Peskov said. “That was one of the first theories considered by our doctors, but a substance has yet to be identified.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that if Navalny was poisoned, “the United States supports the [European Union’s] call for a comprehensive investigation and stands ready to assist in that effort.”
No criminal probe
Navalny’s associates said they formally petitioned for a criminal investigation to be opened Thursday through Russia’s Investigative Committee and authorities in the Siberian city of Tomsk, where Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, suspected the poisoning occurred before the 44-year-old Navalny boarded a flight bound for Moscow.
Just hours before Berlin’s Charité hospital announced Monday that Navalny had been poisoned, Yarmysh said that neither law enforcement agency had followed through.
“A decision to open a criminal case is made within three days in line with the law,” Yarmysh tweeted Monday. “The deadline ended at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. A criminal inquiry has not yet been launched.”
The medical staff in Omsk, Russia, where Navalny was hospitalized for two days, has repeatedly said that there was no evidence Navalny was poisoned — a diagnosis Russia might use to justify its decision not to investigate the incident further.
The Berlin hospital did not specify the substance that struck Navalny. It said, however, that he was affected by a cholinesterase inhibitor, a chemical that blocks the transmission of impulses through the nervous system. One such cholinesterase inhibitor, the deadly Soviet-era nerve agent known as Novichok, was used in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his adult daughter, Yulia, in Britain two years ago — an attack British authorities linked to Russian military intelligence.
The Omsk medical findings, however, present a starkly different picture.
“When Navalny was admitted for treatment, tests for an extensive range of narcotic and synthetic substances, psychedelics and medicinal substances, including cholinesterase inhibitors, were conducted, and the result was negative,” Alexander Sabayev, the chief of the toxicology department of Omsk Emergency Care Hospital No. 1, told the Interfax news agency Monday.
Navalny did not display “a clinical pattern characteristic of a poisoning by cholinesterase inhibitors,” he added.
Charité said in a statement that it ordered a second round of testing to determine the exact substance that afflicted Navalny, which could provide more forensic evidence as to who might have been behind the poisoning.
Navalny’s poisoning comes at a delicate time for German-Russian relations, with multiple hot-button issues, such as political unrest in Belarus, putting the countries at odds.
But on economic issues, such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, the countries strike a more collaborative tone, often to the consternation of Germany’s Western allies.
“Germany tries to not link different issues,” said Marcel Dirsus, a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Germany’s Kiel University. “But it is impossible to see each in isolation. Everything is part of a bigger picture.”
On matters regarding Russia, it is “unusual for the German government to have a unified position on Russia and make concrete demands,” he noted.
“There are significant domestic German political constraints when it comes to Russia,” Dirsus said. “Some people believe the only way to change Russia is by engaging it.”
The conflicting approach to Russia was on display during German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s one-day visit to Moscow, a little more than a week before Navalny’s poisoning.
In statements there, Maas criticized the threat by Republican U.S. senators to impose sanctions on the German port helping finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which, if completed, could as much as double Russia’s natural gas shipments directly to Germany.
He also, however, denounced another suspected Russia-sponsored attack — against a Georgian man with Chechen ties who was shot to death in public last year in the German capital.
The shooting, “which prosecutors believe was commissioned by a Russian state organ, has seriously weighed on our relationship, so I made clear that we will defend the security of our people, both online and off,” Maas said.
Similar incidents of suspected Russian-linked poisonings have been thoroughly investigated only when they have occurred abroad.
In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy and prominent dissident, died of polonium-210 poisoning in London. The Brits investigated and concluded that Russian agents were behind his death — a hit probably approved by Putin.
The Kremlin denied involvement and later refused Britain’s extradition request for Russian agent Andrey Lugovoy to face criminal charges in Litvinenko’s killing. The incident strained relations between the two countries, but no punitive measures resulted.
Then in 2018, when the Skripals were also poisoned on British soil, another British investigation ensued that deemed Russian military intelligence responsible, followed by another denial from Moscow. But this time, Britain responded by expelling Russian diplomats, a measure other countries then followed.
In two other cases that happened within Russia’s borders — the 2015 and 2017 poisonings of opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza and the 2018 suspected poisoning of Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the Pussy Riot protest group — requests to Russian authorities to open criminal investigations were denied.
After Kara-Murza’s second poisoning, he provided blood, hair and tissue samples to the FBI as part of an effort to lobby for U.S. sanctions on Russia. But the FBI later refused to release the laboratory results.
There is, however, a precedent for Russia facing major international sanctions after the death of a dissident.
Countries including the United States have banned or seized assets of individuals guilty of human rights abuses with sanctions named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after exposing a tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials.
Glucroft reported from Berlin.