Navalny, Awake and Alert, Plans to Return to Russia, German Official Says

BERLIN — Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who is recovering from being poisoned, has spoken to a German prosecutor about the attempt on his life and says he plans to return to Russia as soon as he has recovered, a senior German security official said on Monday.

Mr. Navalny had been in a medically induced coma at the Charité hospital in Berlin and it was not clear what condition he would be in once he regained consciousness. But the security official, who was briefed on his condition, said Mr. Navalny seemed mentally sharp.

“He’s fully aware of his condition, he’s fully aware of what happened and he’s fully aware of where he is,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the case.

The news came hours after the German government announced that laboratories in France and Sweden had confirmed that the substance used to poison Mr. Navalny was a form of the nerve agent Novichok, results that match Berlin’s own findings and provide additional confidence that the Russian state was involved.

But even as patience with President Vladimir V. Putin is running thin, Berlin is struggling to determine how to respond. Some have suggested canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a nearly completed, $11 billion project to carry natural gas from Russia to Germany. So far, however, the German government, its European allies and the United States have not taken any action aside from raising the prospect of additional sanctions on Russia.

The poisoning of Mr. Navalny is the latest in a long string of killings or attempted killings of Kremlin opponents in recent years. On Aug. 20, after campaigning in Siberia for antigovernment candidates for local offices, he collapsed, was hospitalized and flown to Germany for treatment two days later.

Local elections were held across Russia over the weekend, and Mr. Navalny and his allies made modest gains. In the opposition’s biggest victory, Mr. Putin’s United Russia party lost its majority on the City Council in Novosibirsk, a Siberian industrial hub and Russia’s third-largest city.

The attack on Mr. Navalny increases the strain on the close, complicated and increasingly contradictory German-Russian relationship.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been unusually clear in her sharp condemnation of Moscow’s brazen actions and lack of cooperation. Less than a year ago, a former Chechen rebel leader was assassinated in broad daylight in a Berlin park, a killing that German federal prosecutors say was orchestrated by the Russian state.

Ms. Merkel, who normally speaks with Mr. Putin by phone at least once a week, has not spoken to him since Mr. Navalny’s poisoning, a senior German security official said. On Monday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, canceled a meeting scheduled for this week with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas. In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry did not mention the Navalny poisoning and said the cancellation had to do with a scheduling conflict.

But German officials insist that the poisoning of Mr. Navalny is not a bilateral issue between Germany and Russia. Unlike Mr. Skripal, who held British citizenship and was attacked on British soil, Mr. Navalny is a Russian who was in Russia when he was poisoned.

German officials are considering a variety of possible sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes against individuals, and are hoping for a response backed by all European Union member states.

“We want this to be a European sanctions regime to show that this is about our values when a leading opposition politician is poisoned,” said one senior German security official involved in the discussions.

The official said that while it was important to send a message that Russia’s behavior was out of line, it should not come at the expense of continued negotiations on issues like the wars in Ukraine and Syria, where Russia is a key player.

“This is a terrible thing, we have to sanction it, but it will not lead to a totally new Russia policy,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal deliberations. “The hard reality is: We need Russia on Ukraine, Libya, Syria. We don’t want everything to collapse.”

Mr. Navalny’s recovery could also influence the eventual response, but doctors now expect him to make a full recovery, the senior official said.

Traces of the poison were found in samples taken from Mr. Navalny at the hospital in Berlin but also, crucially, on a water bottle that had traveled with him from Russia, German officials said. They have rejected Moscow’s demand for “proof” that Mr. Navalny was poisoned inside Russia, noting that the Russian authorities had taken their own samples and confiscated dozens of objects before he was flown to Germany.

“They have their proof,” one official said.

Within Russia, Mr. Navalny hoped to capitalize on discontent over Russia’s economic slump and the coronavirus pandemic. Support for Mr. Putin has softened in recent years and dropped even further this year, said Denis Volkov, deputy director of Levada, an independent polling organization.

Russia’s political system enforces support for Mr. Putin on a national level but allows more diversity in local elections — an opening Mr. Navalny tried to seize to loosen the grip of the governing United Russia party. He encouraged the fractious opposition to unite behind a single candidate in each race.

In Novosibirsk, United Russia won 22 or 23 seats of 50 council seats, according to preliminary results, with one race still contested. That is down from 33 seats. Mr. Navalny’s regional representative there, Sergei Boiko, and other opposition figures won council seats despite the poisoning of their leader, a stink bomb attack on Mr. Navalny’s office in the city and allegations of ballot stuffing.

Mr. Navalny is aware of the results and said he is pleased, the senior German official said.

Mr. Navalny’s allies also won a smattering of seats on other councils, including two in Tomsk, the last city he visited on his campaign swing.

But no mass movement in sympathy with Mr. Navalny has emerged, and there is no sign that the poisoning has shaken up Russian politics. United Russia’s failings were already well known and some losses had been expected, said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“I am surprised by how little impact the poisoning” has had, he said.

Katrin Bennhold reported from Berlin, and Michael Schwirtz from London. Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow and Aurelien Breeden from Paris.

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