Russia Opens Probe Into Navalny Illness After Western Pressure

Russian authorities announced a preliminary probe into the sudden illness last week of opposition leader Alexey Navalny after Western leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an investigation of the high-profile case.

The Interior Ministry called the probe a “pre-investigation check” and repeated the the Kremlin’s earlier assertion that no poison has been found, according to a statement Thursday from the Siberian Federal District police, where Navalny fell sick. That comes despite conclusions from doctors in Berlin, where he was taken over the weekend for treatment, that the activist was poisoned.

Navalny, 44, fell violently ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow last week. He’s been in an induced coma since then. Doctors at Berlin’s Charite hospital said his condition is serious but stable. They said he had been exposed to a cholinesterase inhibitor, a chemical group that includes some nerve agents, though the exact compound hasn’t yet been identified.

The Kremlin initially brushed off Merkel’s call for a probe, saying there was nothing to investigate until the precise poison was determined, fueling tensions with Berlin. Officials in the U.S., U.K. and France also called for an inquiry.

Read more: Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny: QuickTake

Russian President Vladimir Putin relented Wednesday evening, telling Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that the Kremlin is interested in a “thorough, objective investigation” of Navalny’s hospitalization, according to a Kremlin statement. But he also warned against making “premature and unfounded accusations” in the case.

The Interior Ministry said its officers in Omsk, where Navalny was first hospitalized, began the probe Aug. 20, the day he fell ill, though it wasn’t publicly disclosed at that time, Interfax reported.

“Navalny’s status outside the system also means that he cannot count on getting justice from the state, which views him as something approaching a cancer cell,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center,wrote. “A thorough investigation into his poisoning is not to be expected.”

On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the episode is already hurting Russia’s relations with Europe.

“There are many that think that Russian authorities are behind this poisoning attack. That is disputed by Moscow,” Maas said in an interview with ZDF television. “One should therefore provide evidence that it’s not the case.”

— With assistance by Patrick Donahue

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