Allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny reacted with scorn on Wednesday to comments by Russia that it would have made no sense for Moscow to poison an opponent whose popularity rating was so low.
The 44-year-old opposition politician fell violently ill and collapsed last month while travelling from Siberia to Moscow and was airlifted to a Berlin hospital, where doctors found he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.
Germany says laboratories in three countries have established the presence of Novichok, and demanded an explanation from Moscow. Russia says it has yet to see evidence.
In a statement on its website, Russia’s permanent mission to the European Union said there would be no reason for Russia to poison Navalny with a military-grade nerve agent and then allow him to travel to Germany where the substance could be detected.
Quoting a July opinion poll, it continued: “What would be the reason for the Russian authorities to poison Alexei Navalny, taking into account that his actual popularity level hardly reaches 2%?”
Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov responded on his Telegram social media channel: “It’s as if they’re saying ‘If his rating was 20%, then we would have poisoned him.”
Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said results of regional elections at the weekend, in which candidates backed by Navalny gained seats in two Siberian cities, showed his support among Russians was much higher.
The Kremlin, facing calls from some western politicians to tighten sanctions on Moscow, has said it does not think poisoning Navalny would benefit anyone.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was wrong to link the affair to the near-complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced calls to halt.
“It should stop being mentioned in the context of any politicization,” Peskov said, referring to Nord Stream 2. “This is a commercial project that is absolutely in line with the interests of both Russia and European Union countries, and primarily Germany.”
Navalny, who spent several weeks in a coma, on Tuesday shared a photograph showing him sitting up in his Berlin hospital bed, surrounded by his family. He said he could now breathe independently.
Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov told us he knew from Navalny’s team that his recovery would be lengthy.
“Great news that he will be back,” Gudkov said. “And Navalny will return to the country as a different Navalny, a world famous politician, and this will help all of us fight this regime.”