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UPDATE 1-Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

Thu, 3rd Sep 2020 15:21

* Kremlin denies any role in Navalny poisoning

* Says there is no evidence, lack of information

* Merkel under growing pressure to get tough with Russia

* Kremlin says no grounds to talk about sanctions
(Adds EU, Lithuania, OPCW, Russian intelligence chief, new
Merkel)

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Russia said on Thursday
the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of
Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to
accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow
intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor
Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style
Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she
would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President
Vladimir Putin and has specialised in high-impact investigations
into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month
after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a
cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin's Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has
said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit
connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of
his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used
against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in
England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed
by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any
suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and
warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without
knowing the full facts.

"There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we
are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,"
Peskov told reporters.

"Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and
other European countries to hurry with their assessments."

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia's SVR foreign
intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western
intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up
trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a
criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign
a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are
continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to
Navalny, but couldn't do so without receiving information from
Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin's conclusions
about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning
of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered
use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new
sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was
responsible for Navalny's poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask
EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would
depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under
pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which
will take gas from Russia to Germany.

"We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only
language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands - that
is gas sales," Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany's parliamentary
foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

"If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be
the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue
this kind of politics," Roettgen, a member of Merkel's
conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing
Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to
Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners,
the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from
early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the
European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine
the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the
bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart
Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project
was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

"We don't understand what the reason for any sanctions could
be," said Peskov.
(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton
Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal
and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John
Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in
Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam
Editing by William Maclean)

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