On December 21, the open-source intelligence investigative group Bellingcat released a video recording of a phone call that the group said confirmed the Russian Federal Security Service’s involvement in the poisoning of Alexey Navalny. Bellingcat said the revelations from the call verified the findings of its own investigation published a week earlier.
In the video, Navalny, posing as “Maxim Ustinov,” a fictional aide to the head of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, called to a mobile phone listed as belonging to the FSB operative Konstantin Kudryavtsev. Bellingcat’s investigation named Kudryavtsev among the FSB squad – seven operatives tasked with poisoning Navalny and cleaning up the evidence.
In the introductory video Navalny explained that he made the call using publicly available software, which allowed to disguise his number as any other chosen phone number. He used the number that Bellingcat’s investigation revealed had been used by the FSB squad for internal communications.
The man on the receiving end confirmed to Navalny that he was Konstantin Kudryavtsev. The two men spoke in Russian. Despite apparent hesitation to discuss the secret operation on an open line, Kudryavtsev answered Navalny’s questions, demonstrating inside knowledge of the operation. Apart from confirming the key details of Bellincat’s investigation, his account of the operation also revealed important new information. Most notably, Kudryavtsev said that the chemical agent Novichok used in the operation had been applied to a pair of Navalny's underwear. Kudryavtsev said that his task was to clean the traces of the poisonous substance from Navalny’s belongings.
Over 21 million viewers watched the video in less than a week after its publication on Navalny’s YouTube channel. It has been widely shared on social media, where it spawned viral memes mocking the Kremlin and the FSB.
The FSB initially referred to Navalny’s phone call as a “provocation,” and then later released an official statement.
"The so-called ‘investigation’ posted on the Internet by A. Navalny about the alleged actions taken against him is a planned provocation aimed at discrediting the FSB of Russia and its employees, the implementation of which would not have been possible without the organizational and technical support of foreign special services," the statement read.
The FSB said the phone call was a forgery.
The claim that Navalny needed help from intelligence services to conduct the phone call is misleading.
There was nothing about the phone call that would have required the help of special services. While Navalny used more advanced software, similar or identical versions have been used by pranksters around the world, and apps for prank calls are among the most popular mobile applications.
According to Bellingcat, Navalny was using an internet-based phone program that allowed him to alter how the number would show up on another phone’s caller ID.
The FSB's attempted damage control mirrors similar claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin made regarding the Bellingcat investigation during his annual press conference on December 17. Putin claimed the investigation was a “legalization of materials from the American special services," and that Bellingcat and its partner investigative media only did what they had been ordered by the U.S. State Department and U.S. intelligence services. If the FSB had wanted Navalny dead, they would have "finished the job," Putin said.
During the phone call Navalny asked Kudryavtsev to explain why the operation had failed. Kudryavtsev answered that the operation had failed because of the “professionalism” of the pilots and the emergency responders. The crew landed the plane “too quickly” when Navalny suddenly fell ill on the flight to Moscow, and the medics instantly injected Navalny with an antidote for suspected poisoning victims, he said.
Over the years Bellingcat and its investigative partners have made transparency about the methods they use a key part of their work. Taking advantage of Russia's darknet and public online data played a major role in identifying the FSB operatives in the Navalny investigation, the journalists said.
In 2018 Bellingcat and Russian reporters with the independent website The Insider used similar methods to uncover the operatives behind the Salisbury poisoning in the U.K.
Polygraph.info reached out to Christo Grozev, the Bellingcat investigator who played a lead role in uncovering Navalny's alleged assailants. Grozev was in the room with Navalny during his phone call to Kudryavtsev.
“We published the full, unedited audio of the call,” Grozev said.
“The exact time of the call can be seen from the video, which shows both the phone's time and the wall clock's time. We have the call log from the SIP service provider (the internet telephony service) showing the 49:06-minute call starting at 06:28 Moscow time to a number that is visible in the YT (Youtube) video (+79165307823). This number is identified as belonging to Kudryavtsev in a number of free open-source different reverse-search services.”
Grozev also pointed out the contradiction in the FSB's claim.
“On one hand they claim the call is a fabrication, and on the other hand, assert that the caller-id-spoofing could not have been done without intel support,” Grozev wrote.
“The latter is false (as there are hundreds of providers of caller-id-spoofing services including in the Russian market), but also there would be no logic in spoofing a caller ID if the call would be a fabrication in the first place.”
Grozev also explained his methodology in an interview with the independent Russian outlet Meduza.
On December 23, two days after the publication of Navalny's call, Russia's State Duma passed new legislation criminalizing the publication of data involving the police and security service personnel. The legislation had been submitted two weeks prior —too early to have been linked specifically to the publishing of the Bellingcat investigation into the Navalny poisoning. However, the investigation into the Salisbury poisonings used many of the same methods, including online data.
On August 20, Alexey Navalny suddenly fell ill during a return flight to Moscow from Siberia. The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, where doctors initially suspected that Navalny, then in a medically-induced coma, may have ingested a toxic substance. Later, Navalny was transported to Berlin for treatment, where doctors concluded that he had been poisoned with the chemical agent known as Novichok.
Laboratories in Sweden and France, as well as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tested Navalny’s samples and confirmed the presence of Novichok.
As was the case after the Salisbury poisonings in 2018, in which four people were hospitalized and one killed, the Russian officials and state media have been promoting multiple, sometimes contradictory claims about what happened to Navalny.
On December 28, Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) demanded that Navalny, who is still in Germany recovering, returned to Russia for a parole hearing set for December 29. In its complaint, the FSIN threatened to overturn the suspended sentence Navalny received in a previous case. Navalny, his family and team members have been subjected to several administrative and criminal investigations in Russia on charges that rights groups said were fabricated.
On December 29, the Russian Investigative Committee announced that it was opening a major fraud case against Navalny, alleging that he misused donations from supporters.