Russian officials were near Navalny when they were poisoned, the report says

According to a report, officials of a secret Russian spy unit specializing in poisonous substances, Russian opposition leader Alexei A. Navalni was implicated and exposed a highly toxic nerve agent nearby at the time, from which he died last summer. Bellingcat, a research group that specializes in open-source investigations.

The report, which included an analysis of operator-generated telephone metadata from the spelling unit with flight information obtained by Bellingcat, provides the strongest evidence to date that the Russian government is behind the assassination attempt against its most outspoken and famous critic was.

Reportedly, three officials of the Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, followed in August from Mr Navalny to Siberia, where opposition leaders were meeting with supporters in preparation for local elections. They took him to the Siberian town of Tomsk, where, after midnight on August 20, telephone metadata showed one of them, not far from the Xander Hotel, where Mr. Navalny and his team stayed.

Hours later, soon after flying to Moscow from Tomsk, Mr. Navalny was heard shouting in the bathroom of the airplane before collapsing, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing. By the time he arrived at a hospital in the second Siberian city of Omsk, he was in a coma.

The Bellingcat report, published in association with Russian news outlets, The Insider and CNN and Der Spiegel, The Federal Security Service also uncovered the link between the espionage unit and a comprehensive program to use chemical weapons in the killings known as FSB

A senior German security official with knowledge of the case confirmed the accuracy of the details in the Bellingcat report. “This is everything we knew,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.

The German government, the official said, was known for months exactly what was involved in the poisoning.

According to Western security officials, there was no doubt that the Russian government was behind the poison. Mr. Navalny’s political activism has been ranking the Kremlin for a long time, along with extensive investigations into corruption by the Russian leadership. After initially preventing Mr Navalny’s team from being taken abroad for treatment, Russian authorities eventually allowed him to flee to Berlin. He spent about a month in a coma but survived.

In Germany, with the help of Western espionage agencies, the authorities quickly found out what had happened. German military scientists determined that Mr. Navalny was poisoned with a Russian-made venom from the Novichok family of nerve agents. Those results were confirmed by France and Sweden as well as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog. Two years ago, Russian operatives traveled to England, where they saw Sergei V., a former Russian military intelligence officer. Used a similar substance in an assassination attempt against Skripal, who spied for the British government for years.

Shortly after Mr. Navalny arrived in Berlin, representatives of the Central Intelligence Agency and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service briefed members of the German government about the poison, including the identities of the Federal Security Service officers involved, who directly led the Russian government. Was implicated According to a senior German security officer with knowledge of the case.

The Kremlin did not immediately comment on the report. In the past, the Russian authorities have vigorously denied that the government had any role in poisoning Mr. Navalny and exceeded the limits of many transformative theories, including the German government that was responsible in some way or the other. .

Mr. Navalny, who is based in Germany, released a 52-minute video to correspond with the publication of the report. In this he called President Vladimir V. Accusing Putin of directly using security services to assassinate political opponents while eliminating rampant corruption. But he taunted the Kremlin for killing him for spending huge resources and failing.

“There’s no reason to be surprised here,” he said. “Everything is outrageous after 20 years of Putin’s leadership.”

“If for example the health care system is at the level that people are dying in hospital corridors,” he continued, “then the same thing is happening in the area of ​​covert operations.”

Since at least January 2017, Mr. Navalny has launched a campaign to challenge Mr. Putin in national elections, also known as Operators – 2, from FSB’s research institute Military Unit 34435 has implicated the opposition leader closely, according to Billingscat. Between 2017 and 2020, telephone metadata and travel booking information show that unit members followed them on 37 trips by plane or train across Russia. They usually traveled in groups of two or three, sometimes purchasing tickets under their own names, sometimes under surnames.

Bellingcat obtained the data used in the report from a cache of Russian databases leaking personal information.

As Mr Navalny followed his last failed bid for the presidency in 2017, only once did FSB team members leave him behind, making a trip that did not overlap with his campaign. On April 27, Mr. Navalny planned to travel to the southern Russian city of Astrakhan, but canceled the trip at the last minute because he had to throw someone a green antiseptic liquid due to an eye injury. According to flight records, two members of the espionage unit were caught with a sudden cancellation and flew to Astrakhan without Mr. Navalny.

Telephone data obtained by Bellingcat indicate that the Federal Security Service Unit operates out of a facility located in Moscow’s address, Academica Vergie 2, which appears to be the same location of the secret KGB laboratory that specialized in the development of poisons. In 2004, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin, in an interview with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gajeta, described the facility as “one of the agency’s most secretive sites”. Years later, leaked documents in the Russian government’s news media indicated that the facility could be used to store a radioactive isotopic, polonium-210, which was used in 2006 by former Federal Security Service officer Alexander V. Litvinenko was killed in the murder. Exile in London.

It is not clear when the Russian government decided to try to poison Mr Navalny, although in its investigation Bellingcat uncovered evidence of at least one earlier attempt. Two months before Mr. Navalny was poisoned in Siberia, he and his wife, Yulia, took a vacation in a spa-hotel in the Kaliningrad region, an island in the Russian region between Poland, Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. There, his wife suddenly became ill, similar to the symptoms experienced by Mr. Navalny, but soon recovered. Bellingcat determined that three members of the Federal Security Service Poison Unit traveled with him.

On August 12 of this year, three members of the spy unit purchased one-way tickets for the next morning on flights to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where Mr. Navalny planned to have a meeting with supporters in the upcoming local elections, according to Bellingcat. One of them, Vladimir Panyev, who traveled under his own name, is registered as living in an apartment in the same building as Mr. Navalny, according to Bellingcat. Two others, Alexey Alexandrov and Ivan Osipov, both by medical doctor training, traveled under Elias.

Although the operators made a series of calls to their Moscow headquarters in the hours before departing Siberia, the calls were discontinued after their flights took off. Bellingcat suspects that he switched to different phones for additional protection while the poisoning operation of Mr. Navalny was underway.

But one of the operatives, Drs. Alexandrov, according to Bellingcat, made an operational mistake. On two occasions, he switched on his personal cellphone, prompting Bellingcat researchers to be equipped with telephone metadata to indicate their location. On August 14 for the first time, the area around the hotel in Novosibirsk was shown. Mr. Navalny planned to investigate later that day. The second time, on 19 August, he indicated that he was near the hotel in Tomsk where Mr Navalny was possibly poisoned. His phone exchanged a byte of data with the local cellphone network at 12:58 am

That morning, Mr. Navalny left on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. They started feeling the effects of the poison 30 minutes after takeoff.

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