Person of the Week: Aleksei Navalny

Week-ending 18 December 2020

This week Bellingcat and The Insider, in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, published the outcome of a joint investigation that apparently implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny.


Bellingcat, Monday, 14 December 2020: A joint investigation between Bellingcat and The Insider, in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, has discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of the prominent Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Moreover, the August 2020 poisoning in the Siberian city of Tomsk appears to have happened after years of surveillance, which began in 2017 shortly after Navalny first announced his intention to run for president of Russia. Throughout 2017, and again in 2019 and 2020, FSB operatives from a clandestine unit specialized in working with poisonous substances shadowed Navalny during his trips across Russia, traveling alongside him on more than 30 overlapping flights to the same destinations. It is also possible there were earlier attempts to poison Navalny, including one in the Western Russian city of Kaliningrad only a month before the near-fatal Novichok poisoning in Siberia.

The Guardian Monday, 14 December 2020: An undercover hit squad working for Russia’s FSB spy agency poisoned the opposition activist Alexei Navalny in August, after shadowing him on multiple previous trips, the investigative website Bellingcat has claimed. Citing “voluminous” telecoms and travel data, Bellingcat reported that the squad had secretly tracked Navalny since 2017. The operation apparently began after he announced plans to stand against Vladimir Putin in presidential elections. The FSB surveillance team followed him to more than 30 destinations on overlapping flights, Bellingcat said. It may have first tried to poison him in July this year, when Navalny travelled to Kaliningrad for a romantic break with his wife, Yulia, it suggested.

The Guardian, Monday, 14 December 2020: An investigation by Bellingcat identifies at least eight FSB operatives who were allegedly behind the poisoning in August of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The team shadowed Navalny on more than 30 trips, Bellingcat reported, citing phone and travel data. Three FSB officers followed Navalny to Novosibirsk. They then trailed him to the city of Tomsk, where, according to German doctors, he was poisoned with novichok. The officers are members of what is described as a clandestine FSB poisoning unit.

RFE/RL Tuesday, 15 December 2020: Russian state media have been slow to react to a detailed investigation reportedly showing that Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny was poisoned by members of the Federal Security Service (FSB), raising questions about whether authorities have been caught off guard. Bellingcat said in its December 14 report that it had used “voluminous evidence in the form of telecoms and travel data” to conclude that Navalny was poisoned by operatives from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, during his trip to the Siberian city of Tomsk in August. The British-based open-source research group, with the help of several media outlets, including The Insider, a Russian investigative website, Der Spiegel, and CNN, published the names and photos of the FSB operatives taking part in the poisoning operation as well as a timeline of events.

Meduza Wednesday, 16 December 2020: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed a recent investigative report connecting the August 2020 poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Lavrov commented on the investigation during a press conference in Zagreb on Wednesday, December 16, which was reported on by Interfax.

Meduza Wednesday, 16 December 2020: Three deputies from St. Petersburg’s legislative assembly have sent an appeal to Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov, demanding that his office look into the information outlined in a recent journalistic investigation about the August 2020 poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny.

The Guardian, Wednesday, 16 December 2020: In early 2019, the journalist Andrei Zakharov managed to buy his own phone and banking records in a groundbreaking investigation into Russia’s thriving markets in stolen personal data, in which law enforcement and telecoms employees can be contracted anonymously to dip into their systems and pull out sensitive details on anyone. A year and a half later, investigators from Bellingcat and the Insider used some of the same tools and clever analysis to out a secret FSB team that had been tasked with killing Alexei Navalny using a novichok nerve agent. The recent investigations into Russia’s security services have shown that beyond being a boon for scammers and private detectives, the trade in data is an urgent issue of national security for the Kremlin.

The Guardian, Thursday, 17 December 2020: Vladimir Putin has denied Russia was behind the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, calling a recent investigation by Bellingcat a “falsification”. “Who needs to poison him,” he said during a nationally televised press conference, denying that Russia’s FSB spy agency was involved. “If they’d wanted to [poison him] then they probably would have finished the job.” The Russian president said he had been told of Bellingcat’s report that accused the FSB of dispatching a hit squad to poison Navalny with a nerve agent similar to the one used in Salisbury in 2018. Navalny, who nearly died in the attack, was evacuated to the Charité clinic in Berlin for treatment. In the Kremlin’s first public reaction to the accusations, Putin accused US intelligence agencies of leaking information in the case. “It means that this Berlin patient has the support of the American intelligence services,” he said. He also called Bellingcat, the online investigative collective founded by Eliot Higgins, a front for foreign intelligence agencies. “It’s not an investigation, it’s the legalisation of the materials of American intelligence agencies,” he said from his residence at Novo-Ogaryovo. The Bellingcat investigation used mobile phone and travel data to identify and track eight FSB agents who shadowed Navalny up until the attack and who had ties to a chemical weapons agency. The recent investigations into Russia’s security services have shown that data security has become an urgent issue of national security for the Kremlin. […] Putin’s remarks appeared to confirm one of Bellingcat’s key findings: that agents were indeed following Navalny. “Yes, he was being followed, it was the FSB, but they didn’t poison him and they didn’t try to kill him,” Navalny paraphrased Putin’s remarks in an online post. Christo Grozev, the lead Russia investigator for Bellingcat, said: “Of all the possible defence narratives, Putin appeared to choose the worst of all. Essentially validated 100% of our findings.”

The Moscow Times Friday, 18 December 2020: Leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny said German prosecutors interrogated him and his wife at Moscow’s request Thursday despite Russian authorities refusing to launch a criminal investigation into his poisoning. Navalny is undergoing rehabilitation in Berlin after recovering from what European scientists established was poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent in Siberia this summer. Russia has insisted that Germany provide hard evidence of the poisoning, which it denies, before it opens a criminal probe.

RFE/RL Friday, 18 December 2020: Seven local lawmakers of the Siberian city of Tomsk have called on Russia’s Investigative Committee to launch a probe into the nerve-agent poisoning in August of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. The city legislators said in an official letter to the Investigative Committee that they are concerned about the possible use of “a chemical poison in our city…with the state’s participation.” The letter was made public on December 17 in a Twitter post by Tomsk City Duma member Ksenia Fadeyeva. The letter says data collected by independent investigative journalists, as well as the conclusions of experts at European laboratories who tested medical samples from Navalny, provide enough evidence to launch an investigation.

In other news:

RFE/RL, Tuesday, 15 December 2020: U.S. authorities investigated a Russian opposition activist’s two near-fatal illnesses as “intentional” poisonings, according to newly obtained government records that also show U.S. doctors and scientists mulled the possibility that he was targeted with a biotoxin or a radioactive substance. The U.S. Justice Department documents, reviewed exclusively by RFE/RL, provide more glimpses into several years of deliberations by the FBI as it sought to determine why Vladimir Kara-Murza fell suddenly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow over the course of two years. The records are among several tranches of documents the Justice Department has handed over to Kara-Murza in response to his legal quest to find out exactly what the U.S. government knows about the cause of his severe illnesses in 2015 and 2017.

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