Prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny has said he tricked a secret agent into admitting that Russian spies sought to kill him with poison. The Kremlin critic has been convalescing in Germany since August.
In a story more like something out of a James Bond movie than real life, prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was allegedly able to contact and record an interview with one of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents with knowledge of the attempt on his life.
As revealed by the investigative journalism platform Bellingcat, during the lengthy conversation the operative unwittingly admitted that the FSB was indeed behind poisoning operations against Navalny, something Russian officials have continued to deny.
Navalny, currently convalescing in Germany, posted a video on his YouTube channel Monday titled "I called my killer. He confessed." The video showed him speaking on the phone with one of the alleged operatives.
Journalists with Bellingcat and Russian media outlet The Insider, in cooperation with CNN and German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, have now identified other members of a team of FSB agents who allegedly stalked Navalny over the last several years and were involved in attempts to poison him.
The investigation, endorsed by Navalny, names the agents and poison laboratories allegedly responsible for the attack based on data that includes phone logs and travel records.
Though several calls were initially unsuccessful, Navalny eventually convinced one agent, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who at the time worked with an elite toxins team, to reveal many details about the operation.
Introducing himself as the fictional Maxim Ustinov, an "aide to [Chairman of Russia's Security Council] Nikolai Patrushev," Navalny claimed he was compiling a post-action report on the assassination attempt — a report that in other situations could be read by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
Throughout the nearly hourlong conversation, most of which Navalny recorded, the agent reveals that though he was not directly involved in poisoning Navalny he was deeply involved with efforts to clean up any traces of the lethal Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.
According to transcripts of Navalny's call, Kudryavtsev described the measures used by FSB operatives to cover up residues from the toxins, including how operatives over several days cleaned Navalny's clothes and personal items of any traces. Kudryavtsev also names other FSB operatives allegedly involved in the effort.
The recording appears to prove that the FSB attempted to assassinate, not simply incapacitate or intimidate, Navalny. Moreover, the alleged attempt was not a one-off event but had been part of a long-running campaign to murder him.
During the conversation, Kudryavtsev said that if the flight "had been a little longer, I think the situation could have gone differently."
In a remarkable exchange, Navalny asked if "this person," meaning himself, had only "survived because the plane landed too soon?" Kudryavtsev responded in the affirmative, adding that had the paramedics also not acted so competently, then Navalny would likely have died.
Navalny, feigning confusion, cited time pressure from his superiors while asking bluntly, "was the plan to let him die in the hotel or on the plane?" Kudryavtsev responded: "I don't have any information about that…[but] I think it was supposed to happen shortly thereafter…Or maybe it was calculated that he would fly, because you know, yes, it takes three hours or so to fly, it's a long flight. If we didn't land the plane, maybe there would have been a different effect."
Bellingcat's toxicology experts suggested it would be impossible to properly dose and administer a less-than-lethal amount of a cholinesterase inhibitor nerve agent of the Novichok type.
Though the FSB allegedly made concerted efforts to cleanse Navalny's body, clothes and personal effects of toxin residue, traces were eventually discovered.
Navalny asked Kudryavtsev how the German experts were able to detect the residue. "Well, they got the Bundeswehr involved. They have military chemists working there. Maybe they have some methods of detection."
Labs in Germany, France and Sweden and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that Navalny was exposed to Novichok. Kudryavtsev stated that the highest concentrations of toxic residue could be found on Navalny's clothes, particularly in "the inside of Navalny's underpants" and "the seams in the crotch area."
Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, told DW that it was clear Navalny had spoken with one of the agents involved in his poisoning.
During the call, the agent "makes it clear he knew all the operational details" and identified the names of the "key operatives" involved in the FSB squad that has been accused of poisoning Navalny, he said.
Zhdanov said he and his colleagues are "ready" to provide "another proof of this conversation."
Zhdanov also voiced concern about the detention of one of Navalny's associates who went to the apartment where the FSB agent is believed to live. Lyubov Sobol was detained on Monday night for "illegal entry into a home" after she rang the agent's doorbell, he said.
"[This] morning she was released to the local police chiefs and told the lawyers that a criminal case was being prepared. And now two of our employees remain in the police station pending trial for an administrative offense," he said.
President Vladimir Putin denied any state involvement in Navalny's poisoning in comments made during a nationally televised press conference last week. At the event, Putin said recent reports of Russian state security agents attempting to poison Navalny were part of a US intelligence plot to discredit him.
Suggesting instead that perhaps the poisoning could have taken place in Germany and not in Russia, Putin implied that had the FSB actually intended to kill Navalny, they would have done so.
rs, mb/sms (Reuters, AFP)