WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin said he could not guarantee opposition leader Alexei Navalny would leave prison alive and denied ordering an assassination attempt on the anti-corruption crusader.
Putin’s remarks, made in an interview with NBC News that aired in part on Monday, mark a fresh provocation from the Russian autocrat as he prepares to sit down with U.S. President Joe Biden for a high-stakes summit this week.
The two leaders will meet June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland, amid escalating tensions over the Kremlin’s cyberattacks and election interference in the U.S. and Putin’s efforts to stifle dissent inside Russia.
Navalny, an activist and one of Putin’s fiercest critics, returned to Russia from Germany in January after recovering from poisoning with a nerve agent. He was detained shortly after his arrival in Moscow and sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of his probation while he was treated abroad.
Navalny initially went on a hunger strike, and his allies say he came close to death before ending his strike on the advice of doctors.
Asked if he could guarantee Navanly would leave prison alive, Putin claimed he had no say over the matter.
“Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president,” Putin said.
Pressed on Navalny’s status, Putin said: “He will not be treated any worse than anybody else.”
Navalny’s case is likely to be one of many flashpoints between Biden and Putin during Wednesday’s meeting.
The U.S. intelligence community has determined with “high confidence” that Russia’s Federal Security Service used the nerve agent Novichok to poison Navalny last August. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russia in the wake of that finding.
Putin has denied any involvement in the attack on Navalny, a position he repeated to NBC.
“We don’t have this kind of habit of assassinating anybody,” Putin said when pressed on Navalny’s poisoning.