A Russian agent involved in the cleanup of the near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning of Alexei Navalny in August has revealed in an inadvertent confession how the Russian activist’s underpants were smeared with the toxin Novichok by an intelligence unit from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).
His disclosure was made in a remarkable and lengthy phone conversation with Navalny himself, who posed as a high-ranking Russian official wanting to know why the assassination bid failed. Investigative news outlet Bellingcat collaborated with Navalny and listened in on the conversation.
Konstantin Kudryavtsev, a member of a suspected FSB intelligence squad, revealed in the 49-minute conversation how the assassination plan was organized and overseen. He disclosed details of the subsequent cleanup operation to erase any evidence of the murder attempt, which took place on August 20 in Siberia’s Tomsk.
Navalny almost died from the poisoning and was transferred to a German hospital after an international outcry. Tests in Berlin indicated the presence of the nerve agent Novichok in his body.
Last week, Bellingcat, along with a handful of media partners, unmasked the members of the unit behind the assassination operation. They mined open-source data and obtained cellphone logs on the black market for their expose.
On Friday, Russian leader Vladimir Putin neither confirmed nor denied FSB involvement in the assassination attempt but joked that if they had wanted him dead, “they would've probably finished it.”
The phone call involving the Russian agent took place on December 14, several hours before Bellingcat and its partners published their initial finding into Navalny’s poisoning. They reported that an elite Russian intelligence chemical weapons unit trailed Navalny for the past three years, right up until his near-fatal poisoning in August.
According to Bellingcat, the FSB squad started shadowing the Russian activist, who has long been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin, in 2017, shortly after he announced he would run against Putin in the presidential elections.
Six to 10 agents of the unit specializing in toxins and nerve agents followed Navalny on more than 30 trips, according to phone records, flight manifests and other documents unearthed by Bellingcat in a joint investigation with CNN, Russia’s The Insider news site and Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine.
In his conversations with Navalny, Kudryavtsev added significant new details to the operation, explaining how he was sent to clean up things. Navalny, who is recuperating at a secret location in Germany, posed as an important aide to a senior official on Russia's National Security Council, saying he was tasked with carrying out an analysis of the poisoning and to identify what went wrong.
The phone number he used was disguised as coming from FSB headquarters, according to Bellingcat, which helped arrange the masking of the real number from Kudryavtsev. A Bellingcat researcher sat in on the call and recorded it.
At first, Kudryavtsev appeared reluctant to discuss the details over the phone. But Navalny, using the typical brusque manner of Russian officials, told him it was urgent and that he had to complete a report to be “discussed at the Security Council on the highest level.”
“What item of clothing was the emphasis on?” Navalny asked.
“Underpants,” Kudryavtsev replied.
Navalny then asked exactly where the Novichok was applied.
“The insides, the crotch,” Kudryavtsev responded.
Novichok can be absorbed through the skin.
Navalny fell ill on a flight home from Tomsk to Moscow. The pilot diverted the plane to Omsk so Navalny could receive lifesaving treatment from medics. Kudryavtsev noted in the call that if the flight had not been diverted, “the result would've been different.
“So, I think the plane played the decisive part.”
He added, “[We] didn't expect all this would happen. I'm sure that everything went wrong.”
Kudryavtsev was also asked what dosage was used and whether a sufficient quantity had been administered. Kudryavtsev said that had not been the problem.
“As I understand it, we added [a] bit extra,” he said.
Kudryavtsev is a specialist in chemical and biological weapons, having graduated from the Russian Academy of Chemical Defense. Bellingcat has established that he later worked at the 42nd center of the Ministry of Defense — a biological security research center.
Western governments say Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the same substance British officials identified as used in an attack in Britain in 2018 in a bid to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. The European Union has sanctioned FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov and senior Kremlin officials over the Navalny assassination bid.
Subsequent tests by French and Swedish laboratories of Navalny’s fluids confirmed the German result. In an interview with a German magazine in October, Navalny accused the Kremlin of being behind his poisoning.
“I don’t have any other versions of how the crime was committed,” he said.
In its initial expose, Bellingcat said the FSB unit shadowing Navalny was comprised of six to 10 agents, including medical doctors and toxicologists in their late 30s and 40s. The operation was commanded by military scientist Col. Stanislav Makshakov, who communicated with senior figures at the FSB before and after Navalny’s trips, cellphone logs suggest. Makshakov, deputy director of the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute, is thought to have previously worked at a chemicals institute in the closed town of Shikhany-1.
Kudryavtsev traveled to Omsk twice in the aftermath of the poisoning — on August 25 and October 2, according to flight data. Phone logs bought by Bellingcat showed that before and during the suspected time frame of the poisoning, he was in regular contact with Makshakov.
In his call with Navalny, Kudryavtsev indicated that Makshakov was the squad’s commander, and that FSB operatives Alexey Alexandrov and Ivan Osipov, both medical doctors, were the key men applying the poison in Tomsk. Initially during the phone interview, Kudryavtsev told Navalny that questions about the operation would be best directed to Makshakov.
Russian officials have accused Bellingcat of being an arm of Western intelligence services. But Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins dismissed the claim in an interview with VOA, saying the Kremlin should come up with evidence.
“They are just trying to excuse their own incompetence,” he said.
Higgins said the Kremlin tries to suggest it “has an amazing intelligence service, but (the) story just proves the case it hasn’t.”
Bellingcat first grabbed international attention in 2018 with its unmasking of the Russian intelligence operatives behind the assassination attempt on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain. The men identified by Bellingcat were subsequently named by the British government.
Higgins said after the investigation into the Skripal poisoning, Bellingcat noticed that Russian intelligence services tried to tighten up their operations to protect the identities of operatives. It also tried to lay traps for Bellingcat.
“They did make some attempts to make it more difficult for us to do what we do. The problem is, the entire system is completely rotten to the core,” Higgins told VOA.
“Because of corruption, you have a lot of databases that are usually only accessible to insurance companies, government departments and the like. So, stuff that's fairly innocuous like property records, car registrations and flight records, and stuff like that, is out there,” he said.
Higgins said it is also not difficult to find people willing to sell data like phone records.
“So, by using all this different information from different sources, you can combine it to reconstruct what’s happening,” he explained.
“You can use phone records, which include the position of mobile phones, to figure out where people are and when they are making calls and to whom,” he said.
Higgins added that while Bellingcat does not have the details of the actual conversations between identified FSB operatives and officials alleged to be involved in the poisoning of Navalny, it stretches the imagination that their presence near him — and their trailing of him — is not connected to the plot.
He said buying phone logs from black marketeers, and Navalny’s call “under the guise of a fictitious, high-ranking aide,” does “raise ethical questions about this method of obtaining data. However, following an internal debate, we concluded that this action clearly falls within the realm of the overriding public interest, in light of the extraordinary circumstances around the Skripal and Navalny poisonings.”
Higgins acknowledged that the simple ruse of persuading an FSB operative to talk about the operation has added details he and his team could not secure via their database wizardry.
In the case of Navalny, Higgins said “no one else is investigating. The Germans have said they could only investigate it if Navalny had died. And the only possible way, really, to find out what happened is by taking these steps, even though they are extreme.”