Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has confirmed reports of his improved health following a near fatal poisoning in Siberia last month — posting to social media from his hospital room in Germany while his team insisted he plans to return home to Russia once fully recovered.
“Hi, this is Navalny. I miss you all,” he wrote in a comment accompanying an Instagram photograph of him surrounded by his wife and two children.
“I can still hardly do anything, but yesterday I could breathe all day on my own. Actually on my own,” said Navalny — his first words after three weeks in a coma.
“A surprising process underestimated by many,” he quipped. “I recommend it.”
The post had over a million likes and counting within several hours — and it fueled inquiries about Navalny’s possible return to Russian politics. Within hours, his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, dismissed journalists’ suggestions Navalny intended to remain in exile out of his concerns for his safety.
“I’ll confirm again to everyone: no other options were ever considered,” Yarmysh tweeted.
Все утро мне пишут журналисты и спрашивают, правда ли, что Алексей планирует вернуться в Россию. Я понимаю причину вопроса, но тем не менее мне странно, что кто-то мог думать иначе.— Кира Ярмыш (@Kira_Yarmysh) September 15, 2020
Ещё раз подтверждаю всем: никаких других вариантов никогда не рассматривалось https://t.co/sSq5Bb4ufr
When asked for reaction on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov demurred.
“Any citizen of the Russian Federation is free to leave Russia and return to Russia,” said Peskov.
“If a citizen of the Russian Federation recovers his health, then of course everyone will be happy about that.”
A sudden sickness
A leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Navalny fell violently ill while flying home during a campaign trip from Siberia to Moscow on August 20.
An emergency landing and subsequent treatment by Russian doctors in the city of Omsk offered few clues as to what had happened.
The Omsk doctors insisted they could find no traces of poison.
They also delayed requests by Navalny’s family to evacuate for him treatment elsewhere — a move supporters interpreted as an attempt to hide any lingering evidence of what had felled the politician.
Upon his subsequent evacuation to a clinic in Berlin, German toxicologists said they discovered Novichok — a Soviet-era military grade toxin suspected in previous Russian-linked attacks in the United Kingdom — in Navalny’s blood and urine.
Navalny has long been a problematic figure for the Kremlin — detailing government corruption and excess on his popular YouTube channel.
The channel’s mix of investigative journalism and caustic humor has resonated with younger Russians in particular.
It has also landed Navalny with a long list of powerful enemies in government and business circles.
Navalny has also made no secret of his political ambitions. He tried to run a campaign for president in 2018 that ultimately was undone by a lingering criminal conviction. His supporters — and the European Court of Human Rights — agreed that the charges were levied to keep him out of the race.
Navalny’s associates argue the nature of Novichok -- a banned military grade substance -- means the attack could only have been carried out on Putin’s orders.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western leaders have demanded answers from the Kremlin and warned of "an appropriate, joint reaction" should answers not be forthcoming.
But the Russian government has dismissed the German demands, arguing Berlin had yet to provide proof or share evidence of its findings.
Indeed, Kremlin officials have openly floated conspiracy theories that Germany may have staged the attack in a false-flag operation to initiate another round of Western sanctions or undermine key Russian-German trade deals.
On Tuesday, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia's foreign intelligence service, insisted Navalny left Russia with no poison in his system — and that the country had long ago destroyed its Novichok reserves under existing international chemical weapons agreements.
"Therefore, we have many questions for the German side," added Naryshkin.
Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Germany to stop "politicizing" the Navalny case during a phone conversation with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday.
The Kremlin has yet to approve an investigation into what felled the opposition leader — arguing it thus far sees no evidence of criminality behind whatever ailed “the Berlin patient.”
Government officials rarely pronounce Navalny’s name in public.
The Russian argument was undercut by separate toxicology reports issued by Sweden and French laboratories on Monday.
Both findings separately supported the German conclusions about the use of Novochik.