Kremlin sees no need to investigate suspected poisoning of Putin critic Alexei Navalny

Russian state media have trotted out familiar lines in the aftermath of the damning conclusion by German doctors that Vladimir Putin's biggest foe was poisoned.

Russian state media, officials dismiss damning conclusion by German doctors

Paramedics load a stretcher into an ambulance that reportedly transported Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to Berlin's Charité​​​​​​​ Mitte hospital complex on Aug. 22, where he is receiving medical treatment. (Christian Mang/Reuters)

With Kremlin-critic and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny fighting for his life in a German hospital, Russia's state media has rushed to provide alternate theories and far-fetched explanations about how a toxic nerve agent may have gotten into his system.

German doctors who have been treating Navalny at the Charité hospital in Berlin said Monday they believe he was deliberately poisoned with some type of cholinesterase inhibitor, which functions as a nerve agent.

He was airlifted to the German capital after collapsing in agony during a flight over Siberia last Friday. In a video posted on social media, he could be heard screaming from the aircraft's washroom.

In the aftermath of the damning conclusion of poisoning, Kremlin-friendly voices are suggesting the diagnosis is either flawed, or faked, or even that someone on board the German air ambulance gave the toxin to Navalny as he was being flown to Berlin.

Assassination target

Navalny's family and supporters have long feared he might be the target of an assassination attempt by members of Russia's security apparatus because of his vociferous opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny speaks to media outlets, including CBC News, in 2017. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Some of the most outrageous claims about the incident have come from a top Russian doctor, Igor Molchanov, who has been spearheading the nation's coronavirus response.

He said the nerve agent could have gotten into Navalny's system after he was flown out of Russia and that as part of his treatment he "received a bunch of drugs that can give similar traces," reported the state TASS news agency. 

In other comments, he suggested Navalny himself was likely to blame for his condition.

"A young politician wanted to improve his working capacity and memory, took a large dose of pills, then didn't eat, drank too much and overdose! Can this be?" he wrote in a social media post.

Victim blaming

Other prominent Kremlin-linked voices have chimed in with similar blame-the-victim themes.

Margarita Simonyan, who heads up RT,  the state-supported international broadcaster, said in a series of tweets that Navalny was likely only suffering from low blood sugar when he was stricken ill.

"I have this when I do not eat for a very long time. Suddenly icy sweat, trembling, wild weakness …" she tweeted, adding that whenever she flies she keeps chocolate with her to avoid such problems.

WATCH | Navalny in stable condition in Berlin hospital:

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny in stable condition at Berlin hospital

3 years ago
Duration 2:07
Featured VideoThe politician and corruption investigator, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics, was flown on Saturday from Siberia to Berlin for treatment by specialists at the German capital's main hospital.

Sergei Markov, a political commentator who appears frequently on Russian state TV talk shows, suggested Navalny's poisoning is a plot by western interests to "demonize" the Kremlin and damage relations between the European Union and Russia.

"A lot of slippery phrases with very smart names of chemicals will be said. Nothing will be possible to understand," he wrote on Facebook.

In the hours after Navalny was stricken, doctors who treated him in the Siberian city of Omsk insisted they found no trace of toxins in his body — only alcohol and caffeine.

Friends and family were quick to note that Navalny is a teetotaller who doesn't drink.

Likely scenario

Canadian pharmacologist Dr. David Juurlink from Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre told CBC News the alternate explanations don't stand up and the poisoning scenario is definitely the most likely.

"This class of drug, if deployed properly, can be very effective," he said. "Nerve agents, the appeal of them is that they are incredibly potent and it doesn't take very much."

A police officer speaks with a supporter of Navalny outside a hospital in Omsk, Russia, on Aug. 21. Navalny was taken ill with suspected poisoning en route from Tomsk, Russia, to Moscow while on a plane, which made an emergency landing in Omsk. (Alexey Malgavko/Reuters)

Nonetheless, Juurlink says several aspects of the case are puzzling, including how the toxin was administered.   

While Navalny's friends and family believe the poison was a slipped into a cup of tea he was drinking before his flight, Juurlink says he would find that surprising.

"I really would have thought that if someone had ingested a nerve agent through tea, that he would have become sick within minutes."

Instead, it appears Navalny's condition only became critical later once he had boarded the aircraft and it took off.

Navalny's wife Yulia Navalnaya arrives at the Charité​​​​​​​ Mitte hospital complex in Berlin on Tuesday. (Michele Tantussi/Reuters)

"It does suggest ingestion — but I am scratching my head about that sequence of events."

Juurlink says while nerve inhibitors are common ingredients in pesticides, a concentrated amount used to poison a human would not be commercially available.

Putin foe

Navalny is easily the most prominent opposition figure in Russia, who has undertaken extensive investigations into corruption at the highest levels of the Russian government.

While state media outlets insist he is only a marginal figure and are loath to even mention his name on broadcasts, his internet broadcasts are regularly watched by millions — if not tens of millions — of Russians. A documentary by Navalny's non-profit organization, set up in 2011 to investigate government corruption, has had nearly 36 million views since it was posted to his YouTube channel in 2017.

He also has a country-wide network of local offices that attract thousands of volunteers, who have organized anti-Kremlin protests and political campaigns.

The Russian denials and misdirection follow a similar pattern to what happened after Yulia and Sergei Skripal were attacked with the nerve agent Novichok at their home in Salisbury, England, in March 2018.

A woman attends a gathering to show support for Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Aug. 20. The placard reads: 'Navalny was poisoned. We know who is to blame. Alexei, live.' (Igor Russak/Reuters)

Two Russian security agents with the GRU military intelligence unit were captured on camera flying into London from Moscow, travelling to the crime scene and leaving. They later gave a preposterous interview to state-funded RT in which they said they were simple tourists who had come to look at the spire on the Salisbury Cathedral.

Many other opponents of Vladimir Putin have also been attacked via poisonous substances, and despite strong proof of state complicity, the Kremlin has denied any involvement.

Poisoning victims

Peter Verzilov, a dual Canadian-Russian citizen, ended up in the same Berlin hospital in 2018 in a coma after a suspected case of poisoning that he blames on Russia's security services.   

Former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko died in London after eating food poisoned by radioactive polonium, not long after being seen with two Russian security agents. 

And Russian pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza claims two attempts were made on his life, involving poison.

So far, Russian police have refused to launch an investigation into Navalny's case and the Kremlin has given no indication it intends to find out who might be responsible.

On Tuesday, the president's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, was asked why so many of Putin's adversaries have ended up being poisoned or otherwise killed.

"I would not say there is some kind of trend for the murder — in various countries — of those who criticize the Russian president. I can't agree it's some kind of trend," Peskov told reporters.

Recovery uncertain

Doctors in Berlin have not released many details about Navalny's condition, but a statement from the Charité hospital suggests long-term nerve damage is a possibility.

Navalny is apparently still in a coma and breathing with the help of a ventilator.

Juurlink says people struck down by such nerve agents often die of respiratory failure because of the disruption to nerves and muscles in the lungs.

He says if that doesn't kill the victim, breathing problems can also starve the brain of oxygen and lead to permanent damage.

"It is conceivable that he will make a full recovery after some time," said Juurlink, "but it will depend on how much damage has been done to his nervous system."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.