MOSCOW -- Russian state TV says it has exposed Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny as a paid agent of the West. Navalny and his allies in the opposition say they have exposed the program as a sloppy hit-job full of fabricated "evidence."
A 15-minute excerpt of what Rossia-1 television billed as a piece of investigative journalism accused Navalny of being an agent recruited by William Browder, a former investor in Russia who is now a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin, on behalf of British intelligence.
Senior state media executive Dmitry Kiselyov included the preview of the program, which is to be broadcast in full on April 13, in his Sunday night current-affairs program Vesti Nedeli on April 10:
Describing the allegations as "pure fantasy," Navalny said on April 11 that he intends to file a defamation suit -- his first against a media organization. He said the program took a state-media campaign against Putin's opponents to "new heights."
The purported evidence underlying some of the assertions has drawn ridicule online, with activists and observers questioning the authenticity of what are said to be leaked MI6 and CIA documents. Among other things, they cite the suspiciously clumsy English in those texts, incongruous dates, and voices in tapped phone calls that don't sound at all like those they are alleged to be.
The Rossia-1 clip features an all-star cast of Kremlin bugbears.
It begins with the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a onetime Kremlin insider who became one of Putin's most vocal opponents from exile in Britain.
It features Sergei Sokolov, a man the Rossia-1 excerpt says was Berezovsky's former chief security guard, saying that computer servers containing evidence incriminating Navalny -- an anticorruption crusader who is serving two suspended sentences on financial-crimes charges that rights groups and Kremlin critics say were trumped up -- were brought to Russia.
The program claims to chronicle ties between Navalny and Browder, who it asserts is a British agent code-named "Solomon," since 2007. It also says Navalny was given the code name "Freedom" and calls him a player in what it claims was a CIA operation, dubbed "Quake," that was first drafted in 1986 to "change the constitutional and political system in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R."
The clip goes on to say that Britain's MI6 funneled money to Navalny through the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization. Lyudmila Alekseyeva, its widely respected head, has strongly denied that assertion.
State TV reports have in the past set the stage for law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute politically active Russians. In some cases, they have taken a toll on their targets without leading to action by the authorities.
On April 7, opposition activist Natalya Pelevina quit the council of the opposition party Parnas after NTV -- known for aggressive programs aimed at discrediting Kremlin critics and the West -- aired footage that appeared to show her in intimate relations with Mikhail Kasyanov, a married former prime minister and leader of Parnas.
Navalny, a prominent opposition politician who heads an organization that has conducted several high-profile investigations into alleged corruption among Putin and his allies, has been targeted by state TV in the past.
Vladimir Varfolomeyev, a presenter with Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio, wrote on Twitter: "They could have jailed Aleksei @navalny about 20 times, if they made that their aim. So what is this spy fake about, and what is its mission?"
Those Pesky Articles
Navalny supporters zeroed in on apparent inaccuracies in the program. Several observers, for instance, noted that the purported MI6 and CIA correspondence contains strange wording, such as the incorrect use of definite and indefinite articles -- a classic area of difficulty for native Russian speakers learning English.
A document the program suggests was from the CIA includes, for instance, the phrase: "Report on the health status of a Sergei Magnitsky."
Another says that millions of rubles "will be transferred to out trustee from Moscow Helsinki Group until January 26th."
"During our conversation, Mr. Browder was given an undercover name of 'Solomon,'" a third reads.
The Guardian's Moscow correspondent, Shaun Walker, wrote: "haha - those pesky English articles claim another scalp."
Other lines in the same document are in convoluted, sometimes opaque English that would be surprising coming from a native speaker. "All Magnitsky's current government controlled media have taken an active defensive position backed by Russian law enforcement agencies," reads one.
Another contains no verb: "Within held events under the general code name 'THE QUAKE.'"
The Insider investigative website noted in a reference to Russia's sports minister, whose quirky English has been mocked in Russia: "They don't just make mistakes, they speak in the language of Vitaly Mutko, which you can't always understand at first."
"Why would vesti news not find an English editor to proofread their fake intelligence report?" Twitter user Roman Borisovich asks:
The mistakes did not just concern language.
The show includes a purported CIA document from 2009 that features the name Valerie Plame -- a former covert CIA officer who was exposed by the Bush administration after her husband criticized the war in Iraq following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, author of the book All The Kremlin's Men, wrote on Facebook that Plame left the CIA long before 2009.
Plame herself chimed in:
The Insider and Navalny compiled other apparent inaccuracies.
Russian satirical Twitter account @ThanksAbama pointed out that dates were muddled in supposed correspondence between Browder and Navalny, with Navalny replying in 2006 to a message sent in 2008. "I've given Navalny the ability to travel in time so that at least someone can get back to 2007 and sort everything out," this tweet has Obama saying:
Navalny ally Georgy Alburov later tweeted that the mistake was subsequently corrected -- although it remained viewable on YouTube.
Navalny wrote that "Dmitry Kiseylov simply invented the dialogues" between him and Browder.
The Rossia-1 clip also features an alleged Skype conversation between Navalny and Ilya Ponomaryov, a former opposition lawmaker in Russia who now lives abroad -- but the voices on the call don't seem to resemble those men's voices.
And prominent journalist Sergei Dorenko contested the claim that Sokolov was ever head of security for Berezovsky.
As the criticism mounted on Moscow, there were rumors that state journalists themselves were getting cold feet about the veracity of the report.
Aleksei Kovalyov, a former state media journalist who now runs a counterpropaganda site called The Noodle Remover, said he believes that editors at Rossia Segodnya -- the media organization headed by Kiselyov -- have been instructed to ignore the Browder-Navalny story.
Writing on Facebook, without producing evidence, Kovalyov said that the colleagues had been told in a widely distributed e-mail that the report was "probably fake."