France’s Le Monde reported this week that, during a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron on September 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested opposition leader Alexei Navalny might have poisoned himself.
Navalny was only recently discharged from a German hospital after recovering from what international diagnostic teams identified as exposure to Novichok, a Russian nerve agent used in previous political assassination attempts.
According to Le Monde’s sources, Macron expressed his “deep concern” over the “criminal act” of Navalny’s poisoning.
Putin allegedly responded by dismissing “unfounded allegations” of poisoning and suggesting Navalny, an “internet troublemaker who has simulated illnesses in the past,” might have poisoned himself in an effort to undermine and discredit the Russian government.
An alleged French “security official” told Business Insider on Wednesday that Putin’s remarks did not go over well with Macron. The call evidently dealt real damage to Russian-European relations and made Macron more receptive to canceling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.
“There is cynicism from European leaders on Putin when it comes to these events,” the unnamed alleged French official said, meaning that European leaders might be willing to accept a few nerve gas assassinations as the way Russia rolls, but will not tolerate blatant insults to their intelligence.
“Macron has a huge ego and considers himself someone that you cannot bulls**t,” the official claimed to Business Insider. “He expected to be told that it was some internal issue, potentially some illegal operation by an underling that is being investigated, perhaps suggesting the possibility some Chechens [did it] without his knowledge or approval.”
“Macron got on the call expecting this typical behavior, and instead he’s fed total nonsense about Navalny giving himself a deadly agent only found in the most secure Russian military stockpiles,” the source said, describing the French president as “furious” over Putin failing to come up with a more plausible lie.
“Macron’s view is you cannot lie to the president of France as if he is some Russian peasant,” the official concluded.
Le Monde likewise described the Macro-Putin conversation as a “dialogue of the deaf.”
The Moscow Times reported Navalny reacted to the Le Monde report with characteristic sarcasm, confessing on Instagram that Putin sussed out his “cunning plan” to “cook Novichok in the kitchen, sip it quietly on a plane,” and then die in a hospital in Omsk, Siberia, where his cause of death could be written as “he lived enough.”
“But Putin outplayed me!” Navalny snarked. “In the end, I spent 18 days in a coma, like an idiot, and didn’t get what I wanted!”
The Moscow Times also noted that Macron’s address to the U.N. General Assembly in Tuesday included a demand for a “swift and flawless” explanation for Navalny’s poisoning from the Russian government and noted that chemical weapons use is considered a “red line” by the international community.
The Russian government has floated the excuse that it cannot investigate the attack on Navalny because members of his team disturbed evidence at the locations where he might have been poisoned. The BBC on Wednesday described how one of Navalny’s people realized the initial assumption that he was poisoned aboard his flight from Siberia to Moscow could be incorrect and acted quickly to secure a water bottle from his hotel room for German scientists to examine.
The leader of the team from Navalny’s FBK anti-corruption foundation in Siberia, Maria Pevchikh, told the BBC she and several of her people stayed behind at the hotel after Navalny checked out and caught the flight back to Moscow because they were working on a local corruption investigation. When she heard reports that Navalny became deathly ill aboard the plane, she realized he could have been poisoned and convinced hotel staff to help them perform a rubber-glove inspection of his room.
“Alexei was a healthy man, we had been with him for the past several days, first in Novosibirsk and then in Tomsk,” she explained. “Healthy people do not fall into a coma for no reason. We knew something was very wrong. And, of course, this is Russia. To my horror, poisoning here is almost the norm.”
Suspecting that Russian security agents may seize anything they took from Navalny’s room, his team distributed the evidence among their own luggage to make the innocuous items look like their own possessions and rushed to join Navalny in Omsk, where his plane made an emergency landing after he became ill.
“Had we not taken those bottles out of Tomsk, they would have disappeared without trace by now,” Pevchikh said.
The BBC said the evidence gathered by Navalny’s people has been helpful to German investigators, although they still have not definitively established how and when he was poisoned. The Germans have not been given access to the clothes Navalny was wearing when admitted to the hospital in Omsk. The Russian government conversely complains that Germany will not hand over the evidence in its possession.