Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who barely survived an attempt on his life in August, claimed Monday that he tricked an agent of Russia’s FSB security service into admitting his underwear was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok on orders from the government of President Vladimir Putin.
Navalny carried out his sting operation after a joint investigation by CNN and Bellingcat, an Internet investigative journalism operation, identified several members of an FSB unit that was detailed to follow Navalny during his trip to Siberia in August. Some of the agents were said to be experts in using toxins and nerve agents.
As CNN told the tale Monday, while its reporters were busy badgering members of the FSB team for interviews and getting doors slammed in their faces, Navalny decided to start calling them on the phone from his secret convalescent facility in Germany. He did not get far by telling the state security operatives he was Alexei Navalny and he wanted to ask a few questions about why they poisoned him.
CNN’s partners at Bellingcat said that is literally how Navalny began the conversation with the first few FSB team members and associated chemical weapons specialists he called. All of them immediately hung up on Navalny except for scientist Oleg Demidov, who said he could not talk because he had contracted the Chinese coronavirus.
When Navalny got around to calling agent Konstantin Kudryavtsev, he took a different approach. He told Kudryavtsv he was a senior FSB official named Maxim Ustinov who wanted to get “a brief understanding from team members” about “what went wrong” during the operation to kill Navalny in Tomsk, Siberia. He took the extra precaution of spoofing his phone numbers so Kudryavtsev would think he was phoning from FSB headquarters in Moscow instead of Germany.
Navalny’s gambit allegedly paid off, because he presented CNN and Bellingcat with a 45-minute recording of Kudryavtsev discussing the Tomsk operation in detail, with only occasional flashes of apprehension about discussing state-sanctioned political murder over an open phone line.
Among other details, Kudryavtsev allegedly said the Novichok was administered to Navalny by lacing “the insides, the crotch” of his underwear with grains of the nerve toxin in solid form. He said major care was taken to ensure there would be no traces of the poison would be left behind, although CNN noted that Russian officials have repeatedly and inexplicably refused to return Navalny’s clothing to him from Siberia, thwarting forensic investigation.
The FSB man allegedly said the plan was only thwarted because Navalny’s flight from Siberia to Moscow made an emergency landing after he became seriously ill:
“The flight is about three hours, this is a long flight,” Kudryavtsev said. “If you don’t land the plane the effect would’ve been different and the result would’ve been different. So I think the plane played the decisive part.”
“[We] didn’t expect all this would happen. I’m sure that everything went wrong,” Kudryavtsev added — suggesting that the FSB’s intent was to kill Navalny, as many toxicologists familiar with Novichok have said.
When pushed as to whether the wrong dose of poison could have been administered, Kudryavtsev countered: “As I understand it, we added [a] bit extra.”
CNN said its investigation established that Kudryavtsev, whose “background suggests he is a specialist in chemical and biological weapons,” was in Siberia as part of the FSB team shadowing Navalny, although the investigators could not confirm if he was in the same city as Navalny on the day of the poisoning.
Kudryavtsev says on the alleged recording that the team was instructed to poison Navalny’s underwear by its leading official, chemical weapons scientist Stanislav Makshakov. He named several other members of the team, matching CNN and Bellingcat’s list of agents detailed to follow Navalny and ultimately poison him. He also knew the exact color of the underwear allegedly poisoned.
The FSB issued a statement Monday claiming Navalny’s conversation with Kudryavtsev was faked, denouncing it as a “planned provocation aimed at discrediting the FSB of Russia and employees of the federal security service, which would not have been possible without the organizational and technical support of foreign special services.”
“The video with the phone call is a fake. The phone number spoofing is a well-known tool of foreign intelligence services, repeatedly utilized in anti-Russian actions, which rules out the possibility to determine the real sides of the conversation,” the FSB said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov questioned Navalny’s sanity at a press conference Tuesday.
“I think I’ll let myself speak out of turn and express my personal opinion, which I usually don’t do, because it is not within my rights. You can say that this patient has a severe case of delusions of persecution, and we can also detect clear symptoms of delusions of grandeur. Some say he even compares himself to Jesus. As for the rest, they are Freudian-like symptoms, this relentless fixation over his own codpiece and so on,” he said.
Peskov agreed with the FSB’s allegations that Navalny was seeking to discredit the agency.
“Under the Constitution, the Federal Security Service plays a very important role, protecting us all from terrorism, extremism and other deadly threats, and it has definitely been very effective in that role,” he said.
In his year-end press conference last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed off Navalny’s allegations of poisoning by essentially claiming that if he wanted Navalny dead, he would be dead. Bellingcat noted Putin’s remarks confirmed the FSB was keeping Navalny under surveillance with a large team of agents, and Putin did not explain why so many of them had backgrounds in chemical warfare, or why the team was in communication with “leading Russian experts in nerve toxins.”
Bellingcat vouched for the authenticity of the Navalny-Kudryavtsev call, stating its representatives were in the room while Navalny was talking to the FSB agent, and said it has “since been able to confirm key allegations confirming the overall plausibility of the confession.”
Bellingcat reporters also witnessed Navalny trying the same stunt unsuccessfully with one other FSB man, Mikhail Shvets. Shvets evidently recognized Navalny’s voice, grunted “I know exactly who you are,” and hung up.