The Poison Trail That Led Straight to Putin
The Russian president was forced to admit that FSB agents had been trailing Alexei Navalny before his poisoning by the deadly nerve agent Novichok.
Never underestimate Russian President Vladimir Putin. Instead of avoiding a thorny question about the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny that came up during his annual press conference Thursday, Putin answered it head-on. But, in claiming that new, highly damning evidence of the involvement of his FSB in the poisoning came from American special services, Putin seems to have entered a rabbit hole, because he was forced to admit that the FSB was following Navalny. As Navalny said in a tweet: “Putin admitted everything…It is impossible to deny our solid, concrete evidence.”
The identities of FSB officers who were allegedly directly involved with the assassination attempt on Navalny, along with the names of their FSB bosses, were revealed on Monday with the publication of a detailed report by the research group Bellingcat and the Russian media outlet The Insider, with contributions from Der Spiegel, CNN and El Pais. Using airline flight manifests and metadata from cell-phone records, researchers were able to trace the movements of the three officers—Aleksei Aleksandrov, Ivan Osipov and Vladimir Panayev—who followed Navalny as he traveled around Siberia with members of his staff to support the campaigns of independent candidates in local elections. (The three were supported on the ground by at least five other FSB operatives, as the Bellingcat story outlines.)
When Navalny was flying back to Moscow from the city of Tomsk on August 20, he fell deathly ill, and the pilot made an emergency landing near Omsk, where he was hospitalized in a coma. Two days later he was transferred by air to Berlin for medical treatment, and chemical scientists later established that he had been poisoned by a deadly nerve agent from the Novichok group, which is only produced by the Russian state. Though close to being recovered, Navalny is continuing rehabilitation in Germany.
It is common practice for the FSB to exercise surveillance on democratic oppositionists, and Navalny has long been aware that the FSB trailed him in his travels around Russia. But the Bellingcat investigation revealed that two of the men on the FSB team were medical doctors, and the team operates under the guise of an FSB forensic research institute, Military Unit 34435, which carries out chemical weapons research. The program is supervised by a scientist named Col. Stanislav Makshakov, who previously worked at a military institute in the town of Shikhany, which developed chemical weapons, including Novichok. The phone metadata analyzed by Bellingcat researchers led them to conclude that Makshakov “serves [as] a common link between both chemical weapon experts working out of Moscow and the on-the-ground operatives trailing Navalny across Russia.”
Makshakov's immediate superior is subordinate to Major-General Vladimir Bogdanov, deputy director of FSB’s powerful Scientific-Technical Service. Bogdanov reports to the director of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, who, in turn, reports to the President Putin. As the Bellingcat analysis concludes: “Our investigation also unearthed telecoms and travel data that strongly suggests the August poisoning attempt on Navalny’s life was mandated at the highest echelons of the Kremlin.”
In an interview Tuesday with the Radio Station Ekho Moskvy, Navalny gave a detailed account of Bellingcat's meticulous investigation: “Grozev [Christo Grozev, the Bellingcat researcher for the study] was just sitting with his laptop next to me and I saw how it is done with my own eyes. And it's just an amazing, painstaking analysis of a huge amount of data. There are hundreds of thousands of records and they all need to be analyzed and compared.” (Russia has a booming illegal market for personal data, so it is easy to buy telephone bills with records of calls for any telephone number.) The researchers also studied the passenger manifests of flights to the places where Navalny traveled around the same time frame. Sometimes members of the FSB used their real passports, but other times they used fake passports, so this made the task of identifying them difficult.
Interestingly, as Navalny pointed out, his attackers communicated with Oleg Tayakin, the FSB coordinator of the operation, by texting on instant messenger, rather than using WhatsApp or Telegram, which they apparently thought was more likely to be intercepted. And, although they used burner phones while on assignment, one of the men, Aleksandrov, got careless and made calls on his regular phone a couple of times. This enabled researchers to pinpoint his location in Novosibirsk and Tomsk at the same time Navalny was there.
In his press conference, Putin downplayed the report: “Peskov [his press secretary Dmitry] just told me yesterday about the latest fabrications regarding the data about our special services and so on…This is not some kind of investigation, this is an [attempted] legitimization of materials from the American special services.” He went on to say, incredibly, that FSB employees knew that they being tracked: “They use their telephones where they consider it necessary and don't hide where they are located.” But, Putin noted, “this means that this patient of the Berlin clinic [Navalny] enjoys the support of the U.S. special services.”
Kremlin efforts to smear Navalny by alleging that he works with the C.I.A. are not new. But Putin’s claims about the Bellingcat report may have been inspired by a piece that appeared in The New York Times last Monday. The piece cited a senior German security official as not only verifying the Bellingcat report, but claiming that the CIA and Britain’s MI6 gave the German government the very same information, including the identities of the FSB operatives, shortly after Navalny arrived in Berlin for medical treatment. Given that neither the Americans nor the British had advanced knowledge of the poisoning, this is highly doubtful, unless one of their services has a high-level source in the FSB. More likely is that Western intelligence agencies do not like being upstaged by non-governmental research groups like Bellingcat, which earlier uncovered the identities of the Russian GRU (military intelligence) operatives who in March 2018 poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain with Novichok.
Whatever Putin’s attempts to discredit Bellingcat’s research, the Kremlin will be hard put to explain the communications between Navalny's FSB pursuers and their bosses in Moscow who are involved in chemical weapons research. Or the fact that these bosses report to FSB chief—and Putin’s longtime ally—Bortnikov. This was a formal operation involving dozens of people, including FSB generals, that went on for four years, Navalny told Ekho Moskvy: “Bortnikov would never have done this on his own, because it was an actual terrorist act, no exaggeration—it is described in the Criminal Code.”
Putin told reporters that if his special services had wanted to kill Navalny, then they would have finished him off. And, Putin added, “his wife appealed to me and I immediately gave the command to release him for treatment in Germany.” But Putin’s order came after Navalny had been hospitalized for two days, when Putin was apparently assured, wrongly, that traces of the poison would not be detected by German doctors. Navalny himself is adamant that the FSB’s orders were to kill him, not just to scare him into possibly leaving the country: “The fact that I survived was just pure chance. The plane made an [unscheduled] landing. It was supposed to fly another two and a half hours to Moscow, and I would have died in the next 45 minutes.” As chemical weapons experts have pointed out, administering Novichok is complicated because it is not possible to determine the exact dosage that will kill someone within a certain time frame. If too much of the nerve agent is used the victim will die on the spot and those nearby could be contaminated.
As for Putin’s alleged motivations, British specialist Mark Galeotti suggested in the Moscow Times that “maybe there was a belief that Navalny was being groomed or supported Western intelligence agencies, which may have made him a ‘traitor.’” Or, he said, “it could simply be that the red lines of permissible opposition had changed” and Navalny “was suddenly fair game.” But, as the new investigation makes clear, Putin’s FSB had been following Navalny ever since he declared his intention to run for the presidency in 2016, and had carried out at least two earlier physical attacks on him.(It should be noted that Navalny told Ekho Moskvy that he knew nothing about a supposed second attempt to poison him while he was hospitalized in Omsk, which was reported recently by the Sunday Times.)
The Bellingcat report presents serious challenges for the Kremlin, which has thus far refused investigate Navalny’s poisoning. In Monday’s video, Navalny urged viewers to report anything they knew about the FSB officers whose identities had been revealed, as he showed their photographs. And CNN filmed a reporter knocking on the door of the Moscow home of FSB officer Tayakin and asking him about the Navalny poisoning. (Tayakin slammed the door shut and remained silent.) As political commentator Anton Orekh observed this week: “This investigation is important because there will be no illusions about what kind of government Russia has and what kind of people have come to power in our country…We see how a special operation was prepared for months, and even years, how millions of rubles were spent, whole institutions and secret departments mobilized. And the result—failure!” Orekh concluded that “this investigation is not only a story about state terrorism, but also about a complete state collapse.”
This may explain why the Kremlin was silent about the Bellingcat revelations in the days leading up to Putin’s press conference. (The one exception was Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who, speaking to the press on Wednesday in Zagreb, scoffed at the Bellingcat report: “All this news is funny to read.”) Putin's press secretary Peskov even cancelled his regular media briefings on December 15 and 16, citing the need to prepare for Putin's annual press conference on Friday. As a deputy from the St. Petersburg legislature, Maxim Reznik, tweeted: “The authorities are silent about the investigation of the attempt on Aleksei Navalny’s life—everyone is waiting for what the tsar will say tomorrow.”
Putin’s remarks will be carefully scrutinized by European leaders, who have publicly condemned the poisoning and sanctioned six Russian officials, including the first deputy chief of Putin’s administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, but have not pointed the finger at Putin directly. Not surprisingly, President Trump has been silent. But, as Putin knows, the Biden administration will be more confrontational. In a September campaign statement Biden condemned the Navalny poisoning and promised: “As president, I will do what Donald Trump refuses to do: work with our allies and partners to hold the Putin regime accountable for its crime.”
Hopefully, once Trump is gone, the Department of Justice will release documents in the case of Russian political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who resides outside Washington D.C. and was the victim of two near-fatal poisonings in Moscow in 2015 and 2017. After the 2017 incident, Kara-Murza’s family brought his blood and tissue samples to the U.S. for testing by the FBI at a government weapons-research laboratory. But, according to a report by Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, the FBI has provided no records or summaries of the test results. Kara-Murza, whose poisoning symptoms were similar to those of his friend Navalny, told RFE/RL: “All I can say is, look at the result of this, I can’t think of a starker contrast between the German government in the Navalny case and the American government in my case.”
With the genie out of the Kremlin’s bottle, Navalny has more reason than ever to continue his struggle against the Putin regime. In an interview with CNN earlier this week, he affirmed his determination to go back to Russia: “I belong to this, the country…and especially now, when this whole [poisoning] operation is cracked open and revealed, I would never give Putin such a gift [of not returning].”
But he has no illusions about what awaits him in his country. As he said on navalny.com: “A criminal case will be opened against me for the fact that they failed to kill me…Putin will stomp his feet more than anyone else because this was his personal plan and his personal failure. His resentment against me and my anti-corruption foundation (FBK) will be very strong.”