Russia moves Navalny to prison hospital under Western pressure

Moscow, Russia: Russia's penitentiary service on Monday said it was transferring ailing Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to the prison hospital, as the EU warned it would hold Moscow "responsible" for the state of his health.

The United States on Sunday threatened Russia with "consequences" if President Vladimir Putin's major domestic opponent -- who launched a hunger strike three weeks ago -- dies in jail, with Navalny's private doctors warning at the weekend he could pass away at "any minute".

Russia's prison authorities, which have barred Navalny's own medical team from visiting him, said its doctors had decided to move him to a medical facility on the premises of another penal colony outside Moscow.

But the authorities insisted the anti-corruption campaigner's condition was "satisfactory", and said he was taking vitamin supplements as part of medical treatment.

Fears over Navalny's fate have added more fuel to soaring tensions between Moscow and the West over a build-up of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine and a spiraling diplomatic row with EU member state the Czech Republic.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc held the Russian authorities "responsible for the health situation of Mr Navalny" as foreign ministers from its 27 nations held virtual talks.

Borrell called Navalny's condition "very worrisome" and repeated demands that Moscow allows his chosen team of doctors to inspect him.

Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis pushed further, saying the bloc should prepare "a humanitarian mission" to fly him out of Russia for treatment.

"If the international community does not respond, the regime's opposition leader will be sent silently to his death," Landsbergis said.

The Kremlin dismissed the outcry from foreign leaders over Navalny's condition.

"The health of convicts in the Russia Federation cannot and should not be a topic concerning them," said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Navalny, 44, was arrested in Russia in January after returning from treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning he says was carried out by Moscow -- accusations denied by Putin's administration.

Sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for embezzlement, he began a hunger strike on March 31 demanding medical treatment for back pain and numbness to his hands and legs.

The EU in October sanctioned six Russian officials over the Novichok nerve agent attack on Navalny, and in February sanctioned another four individuals over his arrest and sentencing.

France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday that those sanctions could be expanded.

Navalny's supporters have called for a major protest across Russia on Wednesday to demand his release, hours after a state-of-the-nation address by Putin.

Russian police -- who detained thousands during earlier protests over Navalny's jailing -- warned people not to demonstrate, saying officers would take "all necessary measures to maintain law and order".

'Red lines'

The fraught ties with Russia were set to dominate the agenda as EU foreign ministers hold their regular monthly meetings.

The top diplomats held talks with Kiev's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba over the major military build-up by Russia along Ukraine's borders and a surge in clashes with Russian-backed separatists.

Borrell described the situation on Ukraine's frontiers as "very dangerous" and called on Moscow to withdraw its troops.

Kiev has been battling Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and fighting intensified early this year, effectively shredding a ceasefire agreed on last July.

Faced with the largest deployment of Russian troops on Ukraine's borders since 2014, President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested more help from the West.

Kuleba wrote on Twitter that he proposed a "step-by-step plan on how to discourage Moscow from further escalation".

"Key element: preparing a new set of sectoral sanctions. Individual ones are not sufficient anymore," he said.

Lithuania's Landsbergis insisted the EU should show it is willing to impose sanctions if Moscow crosses any more "red lines", but other members insist the bloc should wait to monitor developments.

EU foreign ministers are also set to be briefed on spiraling tensions between the Czech Republic and Russia.

Moscow on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech diplomats, a day after Prague announced it was expelling 18 Russian diplomats identified as secret agents of the SVR and GRU security services.

Czech authorities accused them of involvement in a deadly 2014 explosion on its soil at a military ammunition warehouse that killed two people.

Czech police said they were seeking two Russians in connection with the explosion and that the pair carried passports used by suspects in the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018.

The Kremlin slammed the Czech expulsions as "provocative and unfriendly".

Navalny: what we know about his health

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny announced a hunger strike in prison three weeks ago to demand medical treatment for back pain and numbness in his limbs, months after narrowly surviving a poisoning attack.

Here's what we know about the health of President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critic:

Hunger strike

Navalny, 44, announced he would stop eating on March 31 in a protest to demand medical treatment for a sore back and the loss of feeling in his legs.

Even before he started the hunger strike, allies said he had lost a significant amount of weight in detention.

They said that Navalny weighed 93 kilograms (205 pounds) when he arrived in prison but that that figure had fallen to 85 kilograms by April 1.

Navalny's wife Yulia who visited him in prison last week said he was down to 76 kilograms.

Prison treatment

After complaining of back pain, Navalny said on March 26 that a prison doctor had given him two painkillers but did not provide a diagnosis.

Weeks later, in response to his decision to launch a hunger strike, he said prison authorities threatened him with force feeding.

Russia's prison service said Monday Navalny was being transferred to a hospital for inmates but said his condition was "satisfactory".

The prison service also said Navalny had agreed to take vitamins. He had previously said he was undergoing a "hardcore" hunger strike and would only consume water.

Cardiac arrest fears

Navalny's physicians late last week published results from a blood test that showed high potassium levels and elevated creatinine.

The results, they said, could indicate Navalny was suffering from impaired kidney function and risked cardiac arrest.

"Our patient can die any minute," cardiologist Yaroslav Ashikhmin said on Facebook, adding that Navalny should be moved to intensive care.

Novichok poisoning

Navalny's allies said he was unlikely to have taken the decision to refuse food lightly since he had only recently recovered from exposure to a Soviet-designed nerve agent.

Navalny fell ill on a flight last year in an attack he blamed on the Kremlin and was taken to Germany for treatment. Russian authorities denied any involvement.

Western labs found that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, the same toxin British police said was used in the attack on former spy Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury.

Navalny said he had been in a coma for 18 days and had had to learn to speak and walk again during his recovery.

He was detained on his return to Russia from Germany earlier this year.

Last week, his team said in an Instagram post quoting him that prison doctors had held back from examining him out of fear of "it will turn out that the loss of sensation in my limbs may be associated with this poisoning."

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