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Russian Officials, State Media Tight-Lipped On Report FSB Agents Poisoned Navalny

A new joint investigation between Bellingcat and several media outlets has revealed evidence they say shows that the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was carried out by Russia’s Federal Security Service. (file photo)
A new joint investigation between Bellingcat and several media outlets has revealed evidence they say shows that the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was carried out by Russia’s Federal Security Service. (file photo)

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.

The group said that the operatives are part of an FSB-operated boutique poisoning facility, an allegation that, if true, would indicate Russia is in violation of international chemical-weapons agreements.

Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's press spokesman, canceled his daily briefing with the media for December 15 and 16, triggering speculation he was seeking to avoid answering questions about the report.

The Kremlin said he needed to prepare for Putin's traditional year-end marathon press conference, which will be held on December 17.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (right) with his boss, Vladimir Putin. (file photo)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (right) with his boss, Vladimir Putin. (file photo)

Channel One and NTV, two of the nation's leading state-owned TV stations, have been silent so far about the report, while state-owned online media have also largely skipped the topic.

RT, a state-funded news agency targeting a foreign audience, raised questions about the credibility of the group's report, highlighting different versions given by Navalny and his team of how he came into contact with the poison.

RT also sought to discredit Bellingcat, describing it as "a U.S. government-funded" outfit and saying its reported use of GPS data to identify the location of FSB agents "will do little to dispel suggestions that its team is working closely with intelligence agencies."

According to Bellingcat's 2019 annual report, it received nearly all its funding from workshops, nonprofits, and the Dutch Postcode Lottery, with the remainder coming from individual donors.

Others on social media also pushed the notion of the report as a Western intelligence operation, claiming the work required to collect and analyze the data is beyond the capacity of volunteers and investigative journalists.

Possibly in reference to that notion, Yevgeny Popov, host of the popular 60 Minutes talk show on state TV, said on his Telegram channel on December 15 that it's "now official" that Navalny works with the CIA and MI6.

Navalny said the day before that his own team had checked Bellingcat's investigation and confirmed its findings.

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Maksim Mironov, a finance professor in Spain, dismissed criticism of the report as a foreign intelligence job.

In a December 15 blog post, he said that it was not hard to analyze personal data dumps, pointing out that he has written detailed reports for scientific journals about corruption based on his analysis of leaked Russian data.

Perhaps in reaction to the data leaks that Bellingcat reportedly used to identify the FSB agents, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on December 15 reminded Rostelecom, the state-controlled telecom company, to keep people's personal data safe.

In what seems to be the only official Russian comment on the investigation so far, Dmitry Polyansky, the nation's deputy ambassador to the UN, dismissed it as a Western-financed operation.

In a December 15 tweet, Polyansky said the "biggest shock" from the Bellingcat report is that with a "zero level of expertise, creative imagination, and Western money you can 'discover' everything."

Life News, a Kremlin-loyal website, posted an opinion piece by Aleksandr Luchin, who previously worked for an organization of retired elite FSB officers. He suggested without any proof that the poisoning of Navalny was an attempt to embarrass Putin ahead of his address to the UN General Assembly in September. The FSB agents following Navalny were there to protect him, suggested Luchin, who is a member of A Just Russia, which claims to offer an alternative to the ruling party while in fact routinely supporting it.

Bellingcat said the phone metadata of 12 FSB operatives from the clandestine unit specializing in working with poisonous substances showed that they had shadowed Navalny during his trips across Russia over the past three years.

The operatives flew alongside him to more than 30 overlapping flight destinations and appear to have made at least two attempts to poison him prior to the Tomsk operation.

Navalny, who is currently in Germany where he is recovering after being poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent, said his case was now solved despite the absence of an official investigation in Russia.

Nonetheless, two opposition deputies in the St. Petersburg parliament have prepared a collective appeal addressed to Russia's Investigative Committee calling on it to investigate the allegations in the report, Kommersant reported.

The deputies had earlier appealed to the Investigative Committee to look into Navalny's poisoning but were rebuffed, the newspaper said.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.