On December 17, during his annual year-end news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed recent reports that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny with the military-grade chemical weapon Novichok.
That state-sponsored crime was revealed in an investigation jointly conducted by U.K.-based investigative website Bellingcat and Russia’s investigative website The Insider, in cooperation with Germany’s Der Spiegel and CNN.
Commenting on the investigation, Putin claimed Russian security services would have “finished the job.”
“This is not some kind of investigation; this is the legalization of materials from the American special services. That means in this case the patient of the Berlin clinic [Navalny] is supported by US intelligence services,” Putin said.
“If this is correct, then [Russian] special services, of course, should look after him. But this does not mean at all that it is necessary to poison him. Who needs him?”
That is false. The joint investigation uncovered links between the August 2020 poisoning of Navalny and Russia’s security services. Conspiracy theories linking Navalny or the evidence revealed in the investigation to U.S. intelligence are groundless.
Bellingcat presented both the methodology used in the investigation and the evidence showing the Russian security services’ role in the attempted assassination.
That includes telephone metadata and call records linking the would-be assassins to employees of institutes involved in the research and development of Soviet-era nerve-agent programs.
Senior executives of one of those institutes, Moscow-based SC Signal, were found to be in regular communication with the FSB operatives involved in the failed hit. SC Signal also has links to Russian military intelligence (GRU).
On August 20, Navalny fell into a coma on board a passenger plane flying from the Russian city of Tomsk to Moscow, forcing his flight to make an emergency landing in the city of Omsk.
Information gleaned from passenger manifests helped Bellingcat determine that FSB operatives from a clandestine unit specializing in work with poisonous substances traveled alongside Navalny to Tomsk, where the opposition leader was exposed to Novichok on August 19. Mobile phone data bots placed the mobile device of one FSB operative within the range of a tower not far from the hotel where Navalny was staying on the day he was poisoned.
The investigative team determined that members of that same FSB unit had traveled alongside Navalny on over 30 overlapping flights since 2017.
According to Bellingcat, telephone records of the FSB unit members and others involved in the plot, along with geolocation data, passenger manifests and residential data, are available in multi-gigabyte database files on torrent networks. There is a black market on which such data can be bought and sold.
“A few hundred euros could — and does — provide you with months of phone call data for an FSB or GRU officer, allowing investigators to trace the intelligence services’ operations, identify the colleagues of research targets, and follow the physical tracks of spies across Russia and abroad,” Bellingcat said.
Bellingcat is also in possession of a dozens of leaked data bases containing years of tracking information, which allowed it to collate and verify the new information uncovered in the Navalny investigation.
In May 2019, the BBC separately released a report on Russia’s thriving black market in personal data.
“The illegal forums also have sections for accessing data from state organizations,” the BBC said, adding that “Russia stands out for the ease with which an ordinary person can obtain secret data held by state agencies.”
The same day the Navalny investigation went public, Russian legislators introduced a new bill, "On State Protection of Judges, Officials of Law Enforcement and Control Bodies,” aimed at restricting the dissemination of such information.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin met with the head of majority-state owned Rostelecom, Russia’s leading telephone operator, on December 15 to discuss the importance of data security.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called Putin’s comments one of many “smokescreens being launched from Moscow over the past weeks and months in connection with the Navalny case.”
Maxim Mironov, an academic who has authored extensive studies on Russian corruption using information from leaked databases, dismissed claims that Bellingcat and its collaborators would have needed the help of security services to conduct their investigation.
In 2005, Mironov used a leaked Russian Central Bank database to determine which companies, state-owned and otherwise, were “underpaying their taxes and stealing from shareholders.” He said he paid just $1,500 for all of the information.
Mironov’s PhD advisors at the University of Chicago were surprised that a single researcher was apparently able to do something Russia’s own tax authorities and Central Bank could not do.
Mironov said his case demonstrated that one individual with limited resources but “creativity and analytical thinking [skills]” can do detailed investigations.
“From the databases I bought in 2005-2008, I knew about every Muscovite — their date of birth, [housing] registration, driver's license, all the cars they ever owned, all their places of work, monthly salaries, traffic violations, and road accidents they were involved in,” he wrote.
Mironov noted that even more information is available on the market today, adding he is “100 percent sure” that Bellingcat and its partners could have conducted their investigation without the help of intelligence services.
“We long ago entered an era in which human brains play a much more important role than budgets and administrative resources,” he wrote. “Navalny and the FBK [Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation] employees have awesome brains. Bellingcat and The Insider do, too. Russian and foreign intelligence services are doing much worse when it comes to high-quality brains.”
Navalny himself claimed that “Putin admitted everything” in his own way during the press conference.
“I understand that it’s impossible to deny our airtight evidence. That is, yes, the FSB stayed on my heels for 4 years, but they did not hound me. Because ‘if they’d wanted to poison me, it would have worked’,” he said.
One of those FSB agents, identified as Vladimir Panyaev, “coincidentally” lived in the same apartment building as Navalny. He reportedly moved to a different address after the poisoning in Tomsk.
After Navalny was airlifted to Germany for treatment on August 22, his team sent along items collected from the Tomsk hotel room. Traces of Novichok were found on a bottle of water Navalny had drunk from.
On October 6, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned by a nerve agent from the Novichok group, which was developed by the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation.
German, French and Swiss labs likewise confirmed that the substance in question belongs to the Novichok group.
In a separate joint investigation earlier this year, Bellingcat and others revealed that Russia continued its Novichok development program long after its announced closure.
Like Putin, Russian media have relied on ad hominem attacks to undermine the investigation. Several articles have claimed Bellingcat must have obtained its information from Western security services, without refuting the veracity of that information.