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Bellingcat on Navalny: 'The Kremlin needs to prove us wrong'

Elena Gunkel
December 17, 2020

Journalist Christo Grozev contributed to Bellingcat's investigation into the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. He tells DW about how the group did it, why it wants the Kremlin to comment on its findings.

 A pair of police officials patrol on a bridge outside The Kremlin in Moscow
Bellingcat wants the Kremlin to prove them wrong on Navalny, President Putin says the report is a US smear campaignImage: AFP/Getty Images/M. Antonov

Journalists with Bellingcat, an international investigative research network, have published the names of those suspected of having poisoned Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. All individuals are members of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

Christo Grozev, who contributed to Bellingcat's investigation, explains how the network obtained suspects' personal data and why Navalny — like former Russian spy Sergei Skripal before him — was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent.

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Grozev, your research is based on the analysis of suspects' flight data and mobile phone records. Is it really that easy to obtain personal data from Russian secret service agents?

Christo Grozev: I am not sure it will remain possible now that we have published our findings. But until recently, it certainly was easy, yes. The FSB agents involved in Navalny's poisoning belong to a small, very isolated group. Most likely their FSB colleagues will not have known about them. This secrecy, however, limits their ability to talk to fellow secret services about deleting their data. This is our explanation.

DW: Does this mean FSB agents used normal mobile phones that did not have special security features to conceal contacts and data? Can such agents be identified, just like any regular mobile phone user?

CG: You can hardly say that. Attempting to obtain this data is a delicate matter. The colleagues who help obtain this data put themselves at considerable risk.

FSB agents do not use personalized phone numbers on highly delicate missions, as these can allow you to access information about actual conversations. We did not even attempt to track down the phones connected to these numbers. In part because we think this could have been dangerous for our sources. Instead, we exploited the complacency of these agents, who often made calls from their personal phones while at work.

Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev
Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev: 'The colleagues who help obtain this data put themselves at considerable risk.'Image: picture-alliance/empics/D. Mirzoeff

DW: Alexei Navalny says he and employees of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) aided your investigation. Can you comment on this?

CG: Yes, in the final stage of the investigation. We contacted Mr. Navalny one month ago. We wanted to shed light on certain questions which remained unanswered. And we wanted to find out what this group of FSB agents may have been up to in his vicinity during certain moments.

In the course of our research, we also discovered Russian institutes spared from international sanctions developing illegal chemicals under the guise of some absurd research program — among them, Moscow's Signal research center. On July 6, we detected intense but inexplicable communication between the FSB, the Signal research center and a group of FSB agents we had focused our attention on. At this stage, we already knew this group was specialized in chemical agents and poisonings.

We asked Navalny: "We think we have found the team that poisoned you, but certain issues remain unclear. Can you tell us if anything unusual happened on July 6?" Navalny told us his wife fell severely ill that day.

DW: You have investigated the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev and found parallels to the Navalny case.

CG: That is true. Russia's military intelligence agency (GRU) and the Federal Security Service (FSB) are distinct organizations, yet they use the same institutes to develop and hone the deployment of chemical agents. According to our information, Moscow's Signal research center and GRU coordinate whenever an operation is planned abroad, such as in the Skripal case. The research center coordinates with FSB when operations are planned within Russia. GRU and FSB agents possess secret identities that bear a certain similarity to each other. I think all secret services do that. 

DW: Were different forms of the Novichok nerve agent used in these three different operations?

CG: Findings by independent laboratories confirm this was the case regarding both Skripal and Navalny. In the Emilian Gebrev case [a Bulgarian arms dealer who was reportedly poisoned by Russia's GRU agency in April 2015] the consequences of his poisoning were very similar to a Novichok attack. We have read the reports by Bulgarian and Finnish laboratories on this case. Their findings are not conclusive, however, as researchers did not specifically search for Novichok traces. To find out whether this agent was used on Gebrev, Bulgaria must submit an official request to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Bulgaria has not done this so far.

YouTube Screenshot | Алексей Навальный - Alexei Nawalny
In this YouTube screenshot, Alexei Navalny holds photos of the alleged assassins up to the cameraImage: YouTube/Алексей Навальный

DW: After all the publicity surrounding Skripal's Novichok poisoning, why did Russian secret services use this chemical agent on Navalny?

CG: I don't think anybody was really expecting an investigation into Navalny's poisoning. Apparently, the plan was for him to die in Russia. Then, a falsified laboratory result — which already exists — would have been published claiming no traces of poison were found. We never would have learned about the use of Novichok if the pilot had not made an emergency landing on Omsk, if doctors had not immediately administered Atropine, and if Navalny had not been miraculously flown to Germany for medical treatment.

DW: Are you monitoring how Russian authorities are reacting to your investigation?

CG: We hope there will be a clear response. We hope that they can explain to us: ‘it happened this way, rather than the other way.' That they say that, for example, Russian secret service agents were in close proximity to Navalny to help should something happen to him. So far, we have only seen sarcastic responses, like the tweet from Russia's UN envoy mockingly asking how we shed light on the truth. We are willing to continue our investigation and correct mistakes, provided the Kremlin takes a clear stand. It is up to the Kremlin to prove why the facts we have presented are mere coincidences. The Kremlin needs to prove us wrong. 

The interview was conducted by Elena Gunkel.

Bellingcat is an international, investigative research network that was founded in 2014. It is headed by British online activist Eliot Higgins. Bellingcat specializes in fact-checking and open source intelligence (OSINT), especially with regard to investigating human rights violations, war crimes and financial crime.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the report a US smear campaign designed to make Russia look bad.