MOSCOW -- Within four months of falling violently ill on a flight to Moscow from Siberia in August, Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny had duped one of his alleged poisoners into confessing on a phone call and collaborated with investigative journalists on a report identifying the men suspected of using a nerve agent in a botched assassination attempt.
Navalny is now serving a 2 1/2-year prison term outside Moscow, having been arrested the moment he arrived back in Russia in January. And the Russian authorities appear to be going after those who enabled Navalny, and journalists he worked with, to shine light on the murky operation behind the attack.
On March 1, business daily Kommersant reported that a criminal investigation had been launched into a law enforcement officer accused of selling passenger data for the Moscow-bound flight on which Navalny was taken ill on August 20.
Using such data, Navalny worked with the investigative group Bellingcat and Russian news site The Insider to piece together the movements of purported agents who trailed him, including those who he and the U.K.-based organization say poisoned him in the city of Tomsk.
Kommersant said the St. Petersburg-based police officer illegally accessed an aviation database on September 8 and 9, seeking information on flights to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport from Tomsk on August 20 and 21, including the flight on which Navalny was taken ill. He then passed the details to a third party, the paper reported.
On December 14, Bellingcat, The Insider, CNN, and German magazine Der Spiegel published a report naming eight men with suspected ties to a Federal Security Service (FSB) toxins team who they alleged had taken turns trailing Navalny on trips over the three years before the poisoning, which Navalny blames on President Vladimir Putin.
The investigation cited the kinds of telephone and flight records that are obtainable on the Russian black market through "probiv" -- the practice, widely used by Russian journalists investigating state corruption and crime, of acquiring personal data predominantly through the "dark web" marketplace.
"The degree to which leaked, bought, and stolen information has been at the heart of recent exposes of Russian covert operations has clearly been both embarrassing and worrying for the Kremlin," Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs, told RFE/RL.
Kommersant reported that charges against the police officer in St. Petersburg, who has not officially been named but whom local media have identified as Roman Gladyshev, may be connected to the case of journalist Myaile Machyulite, who was detained at the city's Moskovsky railway station on February 27 as she met with a police acquaintance who had promised to pass her "important information," according to the news site Baza, Machyulite's employer.
Machyulite, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment on social media, was questioned for seven hours and released. According to the independent St. Petersburg news site Fontanka, she signed a nondisclosure agreement and was interrogated as part of the authorities' campaign to ascertain who originally ordered the data the accused officers had dug up for the Navalny investigation.
How Willing Are They To Clamp Down?
The cases appear to be part of a broader campaign to punish those who aided Navalny and the journalists he collaborated with in securing data that could be used as evidence against his alleged attackers. Russian media reported that a similar investigation was opened on December 29 targeting Kirill Chuprov, a police lieutenant in Samara accused of using the same database to feed flight records to a third party. Both law enforcement officers could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if tried and convicted of abuse of office leading to "grave consequences."
"The real question is, given that it is police and FSB officers who mainly monetize their access to official databases, how far is it going to be possible to clamp down?" Galeotti said. "It will take more than a few demonstrative arrests."
Navalny's flight to Moscow on August 20 made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk and the opposition figure was rushed to a hospital. Two days later he was transferred for treatment to Berlin, where German researchers found traces of a nerve agent from the Novichok group, similar to the poison used against former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England in March 2018.
Navalny recovered and took part in open-source investigations into his poisoning. But Putin and other senior officials have dismissed his allegations of state involvement, despite the evidence, and have worked hard to discredit those investigations.
Putin and other senior officials have baselessly asserted that both Navalny and Bellingcat -- which has published investigations into the downing of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 and Skripal's poisoning, in both cases alleging the direct or indirect involvement of Russian officials -- are working under orders from Western intelligence services.
De-Belling The Cat
On March 1, Igor Bezler, a former leader of Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine whom Bellingcat accuses of involvement in the MH17 catastrophe, which killed 298 passengers and crew, sued the investigative outfit for defamation.
Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer and online rights advocate, speculated that Bezler had been encouraged by Russian military intelligence as part of a drive to exert pressure on Bellingcat and get its website blocked in Russia -- and presumably make its investigations harder to cite in Russian-language media.
"The whole site is under threat if Bellingcat refuses to remove [material relating to Bezler] and publish a retraction," Darbinyan, who is representing Bellingcat in the case in Russia, told the news site Meduza.