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Germany Reports Russian Opposition Figure Alexei Navalny's Condition Is Improving

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russia's leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, is awake. This is according to officials at a German hospital where Navalny was taken after falling violently ill on a flight in Russia. German doctors say Navalny was poisoned and that the toxin in his system is a type of novichok, which is a family of nerve agents developed by the former Soviet Union. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Berlin, following this story. And he joins us now with the latest.

Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what did the German doctors who are treating Navalny say today about his condition?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. First, let me just explain that Navalny's family did not want him treated in Russia. They asked for him to be flown to Germany, and Germany agreed. And today the doctors at Charite Hospital here in Berlin said they've brought Navalny out of a medically induced coma. He's been weaned off of a mechanical ventilator. And they said he's responding to verbal stimuli, so that's a positive sign that he's able to hear his doctors and respond as well.

CHANG: Yeah.

SCHMITZ: You know, it was a big question how this nerve agent would impact his brain and overall nervous system. The hospital also said it's too early to gauge the potential long-term effects of his poisoning.

CHANG: Well, when do you expect the next update?

SCHMITZ: The hospital didn't say, but since he's out of a coma and he's responding to doctors, I'd imagine we'll hear more about his progress through this week.

CHANG: All right. Well, let's talk about novichok. I mean, novichok is the same toxin that almost killed Sergei Skripal and his daughter...

SCHMITZ: Right.

CHANG: ...In 2018. Skripal was a former Soviet spy who had defected to the U.K. What have German officials said about the possible involvement of the Russian government in all of this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. What was interesting about this is that German doctors say Navalny was poisoned by this nerve agent named novichok, and that was originally developed by the Soviet military more than a few decades ago and remains under control by Russia's government. And that's why toxicologists say it's extremely unlikely that a non-state actor was behind this. It was pretty clear that German Chancellor Angela Merkel felt the same way. Right after she found out there was novichok in his system, she went in front of the press to say that Navalny is a victim of a crime that was intended to silence him and that his poisoning is a violation of Europe's basic laws and values. She then said that serious questions remain and that only the Russian government can and must answer them.

CHANG: So what do we know about a German response? - because I remember the U.K. had expelled a lot of Russian diplomats, including some suspected intelligence agents, after the Skripal poisoning.

SCHMITZ: Right. And Germany is weighing the same diplomatic sanctions. But Merkel is under a bit of political pressure from those in her own government to respond to Navalny's poisoning by putting a stop to the Nord Stream 2 project. Now, this is a 760-mile gas pipeline that's in the final stages of construction. And once it's finished, it'll carry billions of cubic meters of gas from Russia to Germany. And halting this project would certainly send a strong message to Putin, and many German politicians are calling on Merkel to do just that.

But this project has been in the works for years, and stopping it now would be a colossal waste of time and money for Germany, so it's unlikely that'll happen. And the political pressure on Merkel at the moment appears to be a bit of posturing from politicians who are looking at next year's election. Merkel has hinted that she'd prefer a more European-wide reaction to Navalny's poisoning.

CHANG: Well, what could a European-wide reaction look like?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. It could be anything from diplomatic sanctions to economic sanctions on Russia. What's clear from Merkel's messaging is that we will likely see some sort of retaliation either from Germany or the wider European Union.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin.

Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.