A joint investigation between Bellingcat and The Insider, in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, has discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of the prominent Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny.
Moreover, the August 2020 poisoning in the Siberian city of Tomsk appears to have happened after years of surveillance, which began in 2017 shortly after Navalny first announced his intention to run for president of Russia. Throughout 2017, and again in 2019 and 2020, FSB operatives from a clandestine unit specialized in working with poisonous substances shadowed Navalny during his trips across Russia, traveling alongside him on more than 30 overlapping flights to the same destinations. It is also possible there were earlier attempts to poison Navalny.
The investigation identified three FSB operatives from this clandestine unit who traveled alongside Navalny to Novosibirsk and then followed him to the city of Tomsk where he was ultimately poisoned. These operatives, two of whom traveled under cover identities, are Alexey Alexandrov (39), Ivan Osipov (44) – both medical doctors – and Vladimir Panyaev (40). These three were supported and supervised by at least five more FSB operatives, some of whom also traveled to Omsk, where Navalny had been hospitalized. Members of the unit communicated with one another throughout the trip, with sudden peaks of communication just before the poisoning as well as during the night-time hours (Moscow time) when Navalny left his hotel and headed to the Tomsk airport.
In addition, Bellingcat and its partners also uncovered data pointing to the existence of a clandestine chemical weapons program operated by members of Russia’s domestic intelligence services (FSB). Both phone logs and employment records show that this program is run under the cover of an FSB unit formally tasked with carrying out forensic investigations of terrorist acts and hi-tech crime prevention. However, while the latter has some legitimate investigative activity, one of its key and secretive roles has been to provide cover for a clandestine sub-unit comprising approximately 15 operatives with backgrounds in chemical and biological warfare, medicine, and special operations.
The investigation also unearthed telecoms and travel data that strongly suggests the August poisoning attempt on Navalny’s life was mandated at the highest echelons of the Kremlin.
Navalny had been tailed by a team of operatives from a clandestine FSB unit for years. This team operates under the guise of the FSB Criminalistics Institute.
FSB’s Criminalistics Institute
While the unit’s legitimate purpose is forensic investigations, former Soviet and Russian intelligence officers who defected to the West have described it as also running a secretive poison laboratory which, during the Soviet era manufactured poisons used for assassinations of Western diplomats, Ukranian nationalists and Soviet defectors.
Based on analysis of metadata from hundreds of thousands of phone connections, it appears that this program is supervised by Col. Stanislav Makshakov, a military scientist who previously worked at the State Organic Synthesis institute in the closed military town of Shikhany-1. Makshakov serves a common link between both chemical weapon experts working out of Moscow and the on-the-ground operatives trailing Navalny across Russia.
Col. Makshakov reports to General Kirill Vasilyev, director of the FSB Criminalistics Institute. Kirill Vasilyev is subordinate to major-general Vladimir Bogdanov, currently head of the FSB’s ‘Special Technology Center’. He is also deputy director of FSB’s powerful Scientific-Technical Service. Bogdanov reports to the Director of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, who, in turn, reports to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
An analysis of prior travels of the FSB squad members shows they have been shadowing Navalny since at least 16 January 2017, just a month after he announced his plans to run in the 2018 Russian presidential election. As part of his presidential bid, Navalny made over 20 campaign trips outside Moscow during 2017. Members of the squad tailed him on the majority of these, with the exception of a few day trips which did not require him to stay overnight at a destination. In total, the FSB squad made 37 trips to the same destinations that Navalny travelled to by plane or train between 2017 and 2020.
The squad members traveled usually in groups of two or three – mixing up not only different team members on various flights, but also alternating their real and cover identities. They sometimes travelled under one identity in a certain direction and the other in the opposite direction. Notably, they almost never took the same flight as the one on which the opposition politician was flying but instead flew on parallel flights, preferably from and to other Moscow airports.
The members of the FSB appear to terminate their trips as of late 2017. In December 2017, Russia’s Electoral Committee refused to certify Navalny’s nomination as an official candidate, citing his criminal record in a case involving Kirovles, a state-owned timber company. This alleged embezzlement case was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights as lacking an element of a crime, but resulted in a re-trial in Russia that substantially repeated the original case.
Then in February 2019, a member of the FSB team took an overlapping train trip to St. Petersburg alongside Navalny. This seems to have been the only such case that year. However, it is possible that other, yet unidentified members (or unknown cover identities of known members) of the FSB squad have taken more trips with the politician.
In an interview with Bellingcat, Navalny shared previously undisclosed information that during a long-haul flight in 2019 (he could not remember the exact destination) he felt symptoms that he described as very similar in nature – while much less severe – than those that culminated in his near-fatal coma during his flight from Tomsk on 20 August 2020. As the symptoms had gone by the time he arrived, he did not assume he had been purposely poisoned and did not seek medical assistance; and the significance of that prior incident only became relevant to him after he recovered from his coma following the 2020 poisoning.
On 28 July 2019, while he was in detention charged with organizing an unauthorized protest rally, Navalny suffered severe skin rash and eye inflammation which, according to his doctor, might have come from touching an unidentified chemical agent. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with contact dermatitis, and was returned to prison a day later after official government medical experts said they found no traces of poison in his blood samples. His request for law enforcement to investigate the case was not answered.
The Kaliningrad Fiasco
On 3 July, Alexey Navalny and his wife Yuliya flew to Kaliningrad for a five-day getaway, while the FSB specialists, flew from a different airport, likely to avoid detection. Just before their flights, all three FSB operatives had exchanged multiple phone calls with Col. Makshakov. Early on the morning of 6 July the pair Navalny decided to take a long walk along the beach. They returned briefly to their hotel room and then went out to have а late lunch in a nearby beachside cafe. Along the way to the cafe, Yuliya Navalnaya suddenly felt weak. As they reached the cafe and without any warning symptoms, in her words “I felt sicker than I had ever felt in my life”.
Both Alexey and Yuliya Navalny told Bellingcat that they did not feel they should seek medical assistance due to the undefined nature of her illness. Alexey Navalny believes that the mysterious sickness his wife describes is very similar to the “feeling of impending death” that he experienced on board the airplane on 20 August after being poisoned with Novichok. According to a 1992 paper by chemical weapons experts, a non-lethal dose of the agent may lead to only temporary or partial motor or respiratory impairment.
The investigation has revealed a hectic exchange of calls between the FSB and SC Signal during the first half of the day. The communication on 6 July was highly unusual and was the only time Bogdanov called SC Signal’s chief Zhirov in the period from May to November 2020. Therefore, it is logical to assume that chemical-weapons experts from SC Signal were involved either in the planning of this operation, or potentially in a post-mortem, and the planning for a future attempt to poison Navalny.
A Final Attempt
On 12 August 2020, three FSB squad members – Alexandrov, Osipov and Panyaev – booked flights for the next morning to Novosibirsk. What the FSB squad could not have known was exactly what would happen after the trip to Novosibirsk. Navalny and his team had not booked return flights. Following multiple security incidents including the antiseptic dye that damaged his eyesight and the perceived poisoning in detention in 2019, he preferred to keep his and his team’s travel plans obscured from prying eyes, and routinely make last-minute bookings. Navalny would only book a return flight – not from Novosibirsk, but from Tomsk – on 17 August 2020.
That was not known to the FSB team as of 12 August, so they booked one-way tickets to Novosibirsk. They would only book their return flights five days later – minutes after Navalny booked his own return flight on 17 August. Like Navalny, the FSB squad would fly back to Moscow from Tomsk, but a day later than him, on 21 August.
The suspicious communication took place on the night of 19 August – this would appear to coincide with the window of time in which Navalny was poisoned in Tomsk.
At 4:21 pm Moscow time (8:21 pm Tomsk time), Vladimir Panyaev sent a text to Makshakov. This was the third text Panyaev would send his superior on that day, the first two were sent early in the morning. Shortly after this text was sent, Navalny went swimming in a local river in the Tomsk area – a routine that had turned into a ritual during all of his trips with the FBK team. He was away from the hotel – and his room was left unattended – for about 2.5 hours.
He returned to the hotel at 11 pm and met his team – who had just finished their dinner at the hotel’s bar. As they all sat at the bar, at about 11:15 pm, Navalny ordered a Bloody Mary. The bartender surprised him by saying they didn’t have the necessary ingredients, and offered a Negroni cocktail instead. Navalny accepted the suggestion, but told us he couldn’t take more than one sip as “the cocktail tasted like the most disgusting thing I’ve had in my life”.
At about the same time, а communication was going in between Krivoschekov and Tayakin from one side (FSB operatives), with Makshakov from the other side. This communication ended in 12:44 am in Tomsk.
Four minutes later, at 12:48 am, Alexandrov made an operational-security blunder by turning on his regular telephone. The phone was on for a brief second only, but that was long enough for the device to be located near in central Tomsk, just a short drive north of the Xander Hotel.
The next morning, on 20 August 2020, Navalny’s team had gathered in the lobby and was waiting for him to come down from his room to leave for the airport. But Navalny was late – which was out of character for him. However, he did appear.
About 30 minutes into the flight, Navalny felt the onset of severe poisoning and collapsed into a coma after trying to freshen himself up in the airplane restroom. The pilot diverted the plane to the nearest airport – Omsk. Emergency medical staff arrived promptly and administered atropin to Navalny – a measure that German doctors have called life-saving.
The flight of Tayakin (who stayed in Moscow) to Gorno-Altaysk late in the night of 20 August is also suspicious. The investigative team could not establish what Tayakin may have been doing in Gorno-Altaysk – a town of 60,000 people that is a nine hour drive from Tomsk and a 13 hour drive from Omsk. However, a nearby town – Byisk – is the home to a small institute – the Institute of Problems of Chemical Energy.
On 22 August, the Omsk hospital which had initially refused to let Navalny be flown to Germany for treatment, suddenly reversed its decision and permitted his medical evacuation.
Two days later, on 24 August, the three members of the FSB squad who had been in Tomsk at the time of his poisoning – Alexandrov, Osipov and Panyaev – followed suit, taking a flight from Gorno-Altaysk to Moscow.
Tayakin’s pop-in to Gorno-altaysk – nearly 4,000 km away from Moscow – was not the only surprisingly short trip taken by a member of the FSB squad around the time of Navalny’s poisoning. Just a day after the trio of Alexandrov, Osipov and Panyaev arrived back to Moscow, their colleague Kudryavtsev – a trained chemical-weapons specialist – flew from Moscow to Omsk on 25 August 2020. He stayed in the town for less than 10 hours, driving from the airport to a downtown area and leaving back to Moscow later that same night.
At this point in time Navalny had already left Omsk and was beginning his long road to recovery in Berlin. However, his clothes and personal effects that had been with him at the Omsk hospital had remained there. And if any of them contained residues of the toxin Navalny was poisoned with, they would potentially serve to implicate his poisonors. Until the day of the publishing of the article, Navalny and his family have been not able to obtain an answer as to the whereabouts of his clothes.
The large volumes of data and the implausible series of coincidences unearthed by the investigation implicate Russia’s preeminent security agency, the FSB, in tailing Navalny over a long period of time using operatives that have specialized training in chemical weapons, chemistry and medicine – a skillset inconsistent with regular surveillance practices.
These operatives were in the vicinity of the opposition activist in the days and hours of the time-range during which he was poisoned with a military-grade chemical weapon. They were in the vicinity of Navalny on at least one other occasion when a family member felt inexplicable symptoms consistent with a non-lethal, accidental dosage of the same toxin. They had previously tailed the opposition figure on over 37 trips in the last four years.
This independent investigation, which will be expanded upon in future contributions, is particularly important given that no country has offered its jurisdiction to investigate the poisoning of Navalny. Such tacit refusal to investigate amounts to a deferral of the duty to investigate to Russia – a state that is not only implicated in the crime itself, but one which has officially declined to open a formal investigation.