Russian security agents -- including one allegedly linked to the poisoning of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny -- tailed another Kremlin critic in the days and weeks before his two near-fatal poisoning illnesses, the investigative group Bellingcat said in a new report.
The Bellingcat investigation, published on February 11, focuses on two incidents in Moscow in which Vladimir Kara-Murza, a veteran opposition activist who has lobbied Western governments for sanctions against Russian officials, nearly died after suffering what his doctors described as toxicity from an “unidentified substance.”
Previous reporting by RFE/RL documented how Kara-Murza’s mysterious illnesses have been discussed at the top levels of the White House, the State Department, and the U.S. intelligence community, including involvement on the part of FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Citing Russian travel records it obtained, Bellingcat found that in the run-up to both the May 2015 and February 2017 incidents, Kara-Murza had been tailed by agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
One of the FSB officers whose travel overlaps with Kara-Murza’s, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, was previously linked by Bellingcat and partners to the near-fatal poisoning of Navalny in August 2020 in Siberia.
German doctors later concluded that Navalny had been targeted with a substance related to Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent that had been used against former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March 2018.
"It is curious that all these people who are now standing up to [Russian] authorities and represent a political danger are going through a sudden spate of illnesses,” Kara-Murza told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “It has to be said that this method [of intimidation] no longer works because no one believes any more that the current authorities are unconnected with these poisonings.”
In December 2020, Navalny published a recording of what he and Bellingcat said was a phone conversation with Kudryavtsev. The man speaking with Navalny in the 49-minute phone call, in which Navalny posed as an FSB official, described details of the operation to poison the opposition politician.
The new Bellingcat investigation states that Kudryavtsev’s travel overlapped with Kara-Murza’s on the activist's trip to Russia’s Kaliningrad region two months before Kara-Murza’s first illness, in 2015, and on a visit to the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod in late 2016, around two months before Kara-Murza again fell ill with poisoning symptoms.
The Bellingcat report could heighten pressure on the U.S. government to release additional information on what it knows about the alleged poisonings of Kara-Murza, who believes he was targeted for his support for the U.S. Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law targeting alleged Russian human-rights abusers with sanctions.
Kara-Murza, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., has built strong alliances with senior U.S. lawmakers, including the late Republican Senator John McCain, at whose funeral in 2018 Kara-Murza served as a pall bearer.
As RFE/RL previously reported, Kara-Murza sued the Justice Department to obtain records on his case held by the FBI, which launched a criminal investigation into his matter as a case of “intentional poisoning.”
In response to the lawsuit, the Justice Department has provided Kara-Murza with hundreds of pages of FBI records related to his poisoning and testing that was done on biological samples he provided.
But the testing reflected in those records does not include screenings for potentially exotic poisonings, but rather standard toxicological tests for narcotics and other substances, a toxicologist who reviewed the records previously told RFE/RL.
FBI correspondence and lab reports seen by RFE/RL show that officials also sought the expertise of the national laboratories under the auspices of the U.S. Energy Department, which conduct nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons research, among other things.
The records released so far indicate that U.S. labs tested for radioactive substances, but do not include the results of such testing.
"It's possible that the national-security rationale for withholding them is embarrassment over an inability to determine what agent was used to poison Vladimir," Stephen Rademaker, who is representing Kara-Murza in his lawsuit, told RFE/RL in December 2020. "But given the enormous technical capabilities of the U.S. government, we think it's more likely that they did reach some conclusions about the agent used to poison him.”
The new findings should add pressure on Western governments to impose sanctions on Russian officials, Kara-Murza said, something that is under active discussion in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.
"The story of my poisonings has shown how much the incumbent Kremlin regime is afraid of these personal sanctions, that this is their Achilles heel, because the entire modus operandi of the Putin regime comes down to embezzling funds in Russia only to stash or spend the stolen riches abroad, in the West,” he said.