BERLIN (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is recovering in Germany after being poisoned in Russia by a nerve agent, said in comments published Thursday that only Russian President Vladimir Putin could have been behind the attack against him.
Navalny’s supporters have frequently maintained that the poisoning could have only been ordered at the top level, although the Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed the notion.
Navalny, a politician and corruption investigator who is Putin’s fiercest critic, was flown to Germany two days after falling ill on Aug. 20 on a domestic flight in Russia. He spent 32 days in the hospital, 24 of them in intensive care, before doctors deemed his condition had improved sufficiently for him to be discharged.
He has posted frequent comments online as his recovery has progressed, but in his first interview since the incident, he told Germany’s Der Spiegel that: “I assert Putin was behind the crime,” according to an English-language copy of his comments published online by the magazine.
“I have no other explanation for what happened,” he said.
The 44-year-old was poisoned with a nerve agent in the Novichok family, a Soviet-era substance whose use, Navlny said, could only be ordered by the heads of Russia’s military, domestic, or foreign intelligence agencies, who “cannot make a decision like that without being instructed by Putin — they report to him.”
The Kremlin on Thursday said that “such accusations against the Russian president are absolutely groundless and unacceptable.”
“Some of these statements in the mentioned publication we consider offensive,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Peskov charged that there was information that “specialists” from the CIA were working with Navalny “these days” and giving him instructions.
“There is information that these instructors are working with him these days,” Peskov said. “Instructions the patient is receiving are obvious. We have seen such lines of behavior more than once.”
Earlier Thursday, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house, called Navalny “shameless” and “dishonorable” and accused the politician of working with “security services of Western countries.”
“Putin saved his life,” Volodin said in a statement released by the Duma. “Everyone, from pilots and doctors to the president, were genuinely saving him. Only a dishonorable person can make statements like this.”
Navalny spent two days in a coma in a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk, where Russian doctors said they found no trace of any poisoning, before being transported to Berlin for treatment. German chemical weapons experts determined that he was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok — findings corroborated by labs in France and Sweden.
When stricken on the plane, Navalny said he was sure he was dying as he collapsed to the floor.
“Then I hear voices growing ever quieter, and a woman calling: “Don’t leave us! Don’t leave us!” Then it’s over. I know I’m dead,” he told Spiegel. “Only later would it turn out that I was wrong.”
The nerve agent used in the attack was the same class of poison that Britain said was used on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the poisoning an attempted murder and she and other world leaders have demanded that Russia fully investigate the case.
Merkel had personally offered Germany’s assistance in treating Navalny, and the politician said even though he had no real previous contacts with the country, “Germany has become a special country for me.” He said he had rented an apartment in Berlin to use as he recovers.
Merkel visited him in the hospital before he was released, which Navalny said was “totally unexpected,” but a pleasant surprise.
“We didn’t discuss anything secret or sensational, the visit was a gesture,” he said. “I was impressed by how precisely she knows Russia and my case,” adding that “she knows some of the details better than I do.”
“She really has a deep understanding of what is going on in Russia,” he said. “And when you talk to her, you understand why she has been at the top in Germany for so long. I thanked her for her efforts and she said: ‘I only did my duty.’”
Russia has bristled at demands for an investigation, saying that Germany needs to share medical data in the case or compare notes with Russian doctors. Germany has noted that Russian doctors have their own samples from Navalny since he was in their care for 48 hours.
The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has collected independent samples from Navalny for testing, but results haven’t yet been announced.
Navalny scoffed at the Russian demands for tests and blood samples, saying there should “still be plenty of my blood in Omsk.”
“They’re naturally not interested in dealing with the matter as such. All they care about is painting the German government in the worst possible light,” he told Spiegel. “The next thing they’ll do surely is accuse Angela Merkel of having personally poisoned me with Novichok.
German doctors have said Navalny could make a full recovery, though haven’t ruled out the possibility of long-term damage from the nerve agent.
Spiegel said Navalny was joking and alert in the interview, although his hands shook so much it was difficult for him to drink from a bottle of water. He also reiterated what his team has previously said — that he planned on returning to Russia when he was able to do so.
“Not going back would mean that Putin has won and achieved his goal, and my job now is to remain the guy who isn’t afraid,” he said. “And I’m not afraid! When my hands shake, it’s not from fear – it’s from this stuff. I would not give Putin the gift of not returning to Russia.”