INVESTIGATION

Russian security services followed dissident Navalny on the day he was poisoned

Since 2017, an elite group specializing in chemical substances has been monitoring an anti-Putin activist who was attacked with the Novichok nerve agent in August

Russian dissident Alexei Navalny with his family in Charité Clinic in Berlin, where he was admitted after being poisoned with Novichok nerve agent.
Russian dissident Alexei Navalny with his family in Charité Clinic in Berlin, where he was admitted after being poisoned with Novichok nerve agent.HANDOUT / AFP

In August, an elite unit specializing in chemical substances that answers to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet Union’s KGB) traveled to the Siberian city of Tomsk, where Alexey Navalny, considered a leading anti-Kremlin campaigner, was poisoned that month, according to an investigation by the website Bellingcat in collaboration with EL PAÍS, CNN, Der Spiegel and The Insider.

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At least three FSB agents flew to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk a week before the dissident’s poisoning. The officials in this group reached Tomsk, where the activist was staying, on August 19, the day before the poisoning. They remained in the Siberian city for three days, as evidenced by their travel records and cellphone location data.

A telephone connection also confirms that an FSB agent was near the Xander Hotel in Tomsk, where the anti-corruption activist was staying. The latter’s aides said they found a water bottle in his room with traces of Novichok, a poison that attacks the nervous system developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s. The same nerve agent was used in 2018 to try to kill the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury.

I spent 18 days in a coma and still, the official position of Russian authorities is, ‘Nobody poisoned him. Why was he in a coma? We don’t know’
Alexei Navalny, leading anti-Kremlin campaigner

“It’s all true. There was an FSB group that included doctors and chemists who followed me from Moscow to Novosibirsk, and from there to Tomsk, where they poisoned me. The agents stayed in Tomsk after administering the substance. I don’t have the slightest doubt that this is the way it was. It is still unclear how exactly the poisoning was performed,” said Navalny on Friday in a video conference with EL PAÍS from Germany, where he was hospitalized in August following diplomatic pressure to get him out of the Siberian city of Omsk, where he was initially treated.

Navalny was not the only person to come near the FSB agents. On August 13, a member of this security service was at the Moscow Domodedovo International Airport at the same time as Maria Pevchikh, an anti-corruption investigator who works with the dissident and who was taking a flight to Novosibirsk.

Traced phone activity shows that the monitoring operation against Navalny in Tomsk involved at least eight agents working for the Criminalistics Institute, also known as NII or Military Unit 34435. Officially, this group’s mission is to fight organized crime and terrorism, and its origins go back to 1977, to the days of the former KGB.

“I could see that I was under surveillance all the time. But now I know that it wasn’t a part of surveillance, it was a killing team. Back in early 2017, they had an order to prepare this operation and then they waited for the order to kill me. That is why they were following me. They always came into the city a day before me,” he told this newspaper.

The following of Navalny dates back to early 2017. The anti-Putin activist has been monitored by the FSB on over 30 flights in trips outside of Moscow. Operatives even traveled on the same planes as the dissident, according to hundreds of telephone records and positioning data.

“They were following me for three and a half years. It’s totally clear that this operation was organized by the chief of FSB, Alexánder Bórtnikov, under direct orders from Putin,” said the anti-corruption activist, who explained how the lethal toxic substance works: “The amount of Novichok used is crucial. If the amount is not enough, you may feel shortly ill then the feeling will be gone, but if the amount is enough you will be dead, and if the amount is too much, you will be immediately dead.”

The anti-Putin activist has been monitored by the FSB on over 30 flights in trips outside of Moscow. Operatives even traveled on the same planes as the dissident

According to the investigative reporting website Bellingcat, the FSB has a secret unit of around a dozen agents who are trained in medicine and toxicology. The group specializes in chemical and biological weapons. Headquartered in a lab in the Russian city of Korolev, the group’s missions are supervised by Colonel S. Makshakov, an official who participated in a chemical weapons program in the Russian city of Shikhany, where – according to CNN reports citing British public officials – Novichok was created and later used in the failed attempt to kill Skripal and his daughter in 2018.

According to Bellingcat, the colonel reports to General K. Vaisiyev, director of the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute and a chemical engineer by training.

Phone calls between members of the secretive unit, as analyzed by Bellingcat, show that on August 12 three FSB agents called the colonel after booking flights to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, from which location they later traveled to Tomsk. Records show that one of the individuals in charge of monitoring the opposition leader later contacted the head of Unit 34435.

“If Russian authorities want to investigate this case, it’s quite easy. Just video footage from the hotel, that’s it. But the next day all video footage was confiscated, and my clothes were confiscated, and there is still no criminal investigation. I spent 18 days in a coma and still, the official position of Russian authorities is, ‘Nobody poisoned him. Why was he in a coma? We don’t know’,” said the dissident.

Navalny, 44, collapsed on a flight between Siberia and Moscow on August 20. As he screamed in agony, the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, where he was hospitalized. Following intense diplomatic pressure, the lawyer was taken to Charité Clinic in Berlin, where he remained for 32 days. A German military laboratory and independent analyses in France and Sweden later confirmed poisoning with a substance from the Novichok class of nerve agents. This theory has also been supported by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

English version by Susana Urra.

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