The strange coincidences began in 2017, a month after Alexei Navalny announced his campaign for the presidency. When the Kremlin critic was traveling around Russia, the staff of a secret chemical weapons squad agreed with his every move.
They used the basics of espionage – they switched real names for aliases, switched phones and airports, and never flew on the exact same flight as the opposition politician. A series of student errors, uncovered using mobile geolocation and other data, allowed a team of investigative researchers to begin their work.
In time, reporters would identify the eight men, their connections with supervisors and chemical weapons experts, and their likely role in poisoning Mr. Navalny with a nerve agent in August 2020.
Published Monday the joint investigation by Bellingcat and Insider in collaboration with CNN and The mirrormakes other new demands. It suggests that the August poisoning was actually the second detectable attempt in Mr Navalny’s life. Seven weeks earlier, the same Federal Security Service (FSB) cadre was in Kaliningrad, western Russia, when Mr Navalny was vacationing there with his wife.
The hotel staff said they saw strange things in the opposition leader’s room while he was away. Ms. Navalny fell ill soon after an operation that researchers called botched.
In total, the report contains 37 times that the FSB’s travel plans between 2017 and 2020 matched those of Mr Navalny. He identifies the agents who do the shadowing as Alexei Alexandrov, Ivan Osipov, Vladimir Panyaev, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, Alexei Krivoshchekov, and Mikhail Shvets. Using metadata from phone recordings, the report suggests that the men replied directly to FSB seniors Oleg Tayakin and Stanislav Makshakov.
Mr. Makshakov is a veteran of the Soviet Union’s undeclared chemical weapons program and worked at the secret state institute that synthesized the Novichok group of nerve agents in the 1970s. According to the European governments and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), these were the substances used against Mr Navalny – and two years earlier against former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.
The researchers said the metadata showed communication spikes around key points in the Navalny poisoning timeline: the weeks before the opposition politician traveled to Novosibirsk and then to Tomsk, Siberia; Around the time the nerve agent was left on Mr Navalny’s laundry, probably on the evening of August 19th; the morning of his probable poisoning; and then, after his return flight was unexpectedly diverted to nearby Omsk, a move by a quick-thinking pilot who likely saved Mr. Navalny’s life.
At least three of the FSB men – Mr Alexandrov, Mr Osipov and Mr Panayev – traveled to Siberia with Mr Navalny. But while the first two activists were hiding behind aliases, Mr. Panayev traveled by his real name. By reviewing his previous travelogues, the researchers obtained what they termed an “information dam”.
The records showed that Mr. Panayev was traveling to Kaliningrad with Alexei Frolov (aka Mr. Alexandrov) in July 2020 – the moment Ms. Navalny became suspiciously ill. They also showed how Mr Panayev traveled from Omsk to Moscow with an Alexei Alexandrov in September 2017. This coincided again with Mr Navalny’s movements. More discoveries followed from there.
Roman Dobrokhotov, one of the main authors of the report, spoke to Russian media on Monday that the FSB activists had been caught for “making stupid mistakes”. For example, it was described that Mr Alexandrov had booked flights under an alias before rushing to the airport with the main phone on. He also switched his phone back on for a brief moment when he arrived at his destination in Tomsk.
“They were undone by their low qualifications,” said the investigative journalist.
The Kremlin has not yet commented on the allegations. Earlier, the President’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov reacted angrily to another story The Sunday Times. This story, with a much weaker evidence base, suggested that there had been a second attempt at poisoning – not in Kaliningrad but in Omsk, before Mr Navalny was evacuated to Germany.
“There is fake news, and there are announcements, which are best characterized by the all-encompassing English word bulls ** t,” Peskov said before closing the conversation.
The Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that it sees no reason to open a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the poisoning of Mr Navalny.