A former senior Federal Security Service officer has concurred with an international media investigation that Russia’s Federal Security Service may have made multiple attempts to poison Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny Navalny.
“My understanding is that experiments with poisoning the opposition have been going on for a long time,” commented Gennady Gudkov, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel and ex-member of an advisory council for the agency’s director.
A December 14 investigation by cyber-sleuths Bellingcat and the Russian investigative-news outlet The Insider, together with CNN and Der Spiegel, alleged that eight officers from a FSB institute that works with toxins had trailed Navalny since at least January 2017, when the activist expressed an interest in running for president.
They found that these officers’ flights corresponded with 37 flights taken by Navalny during this period.
The journalists base their conclusions on data from flights and cell-phone communications. They did not disclose the data’s sources.
Cell-phone records indicate that at least one of these FSB officers – 40-year-old Aleksei Aleksandrov -- was present in the Siberian city of Tomsk, just north of Navalny’s hotel, on the evening before Navalny collapsed on an August 20, 2020 flight from Tomsk to Moscow, Bellingcat reported.
The investigative journalists provided no evidence about who exactly had transported to Tomsk the poison – believed to be the military chemical weapon Novichok -- used on Navalny.
None of their reporting came as a surprise to Gudkov.
He cited several past cases of suspected poisonings of Kremlin critics within Russia, including Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2004, opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Muza in 2015 and 2017, and Russian-Canadian activist Pyotr Verzilov in 2018.
The FSB contains an “enormous sub-division,” with more than 200 employees in Moscow alone, that focuses entirely on all of Russia’s opposition, said Gudkov, who now is a member of that opposition himself.
The FSB likely has been following Navalny, a lawyer by profession, for the last 13-15 years, as he began to gain prominence for public crusades, he conjectured.
Gudkov claimed that his assistants and he have detected FSB operatives at Navalny rallies.
Navalny himself has alleged that an earlier attempt also was made to poison him in July 2020 in a hotel in the western Russian city of Kaliningrad. He believes his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was poisoned instead of him. She reported feeling badly during their trip, but recovered shortly.
Phone data showed that FSB officers trailing Navalny had been present at the couple’s Kaliningrad hotel at the time, according to The Insider Editor-in-Chief Roman Dobrokhotov.
“It’s impossible to explain simply as a coincidence that employees of this ‘poisoning’ department of the FSB headed to Kaliningrad at the same time as the Navalnys, and phoned Novichok specialists on that very day,” Dobrokhotov said.
“And we saw a sharp uptick in this FSB group’s calls precisely on those days when Yulia Navalnaya started feeling badly,” he added.
Dobrokhotov did not elaborate about how the investigative team acquired this phone data, which was provided by Bellingcat.
He also did not explain how the team learned that the FSB officers had demanded that Navalny’s Kaliningrad hotel provide them access to the rooms.
The journalists had learned about this alleged Kaliningrad poisoning when it contacted Navalny to see if his flights coincided with the dates of those for the FSB employees in question, Dobrokhotov said.
Characterizing the overall investigation as “entertaining to read,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on December 16 rejected these findings.
Whether alleged hacker attacks or attempts to poison Navalny, the West routinely accuses Russia of wrongdoing, Interfax reported Lavrov as saying at a press-conference in Zagreb, Croatia. If Moscow does not respond, he added, “that means it’s guilty.”
The FSB has not commented officially about the investigation.
Questioned by CNN in his apartment building outside of Moscow, one member of the alleged Navalny surveillants, Oleg Tayakin, shut his apartment door when asked if his group had participated in poisoning the activist.
The December 14 investigation, however, highlighted that the FSB unit, the Criminalistics Institute, that employs Tayakin and others implicated in the Navalny probe, allegedly oversees a chemical-weapons facility in Moscow. The Criminalistics Institute dates from the late 1970s, when it fell under the KGB’s auspices.
The individual who supposedly runs this chemical-weapons program, Colonel Stanislav Makshakov, is a scientist who formerly worked at the institute in the Russian town of Shikhany that developed Novichok, the journalists learned.
The investigative group alleged that one lengthy potential line of communication appears to stretch from Mashakov to President Vladimir Putin.
Makshakov reports to the Criminalistics Institute’s head, another chemical-weapons expert, General Kirill Vasilyev.
Vasilyev, in turn, reports to the head of the FSB’s Special Technology Center, Major-General Vladimir Bogdanov, who reports to the FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, who answers to President Vladimir Putin.
President Putin, a former KGB officer, however, has posited that if the Russian government intended to poison Navalny, Moscow would not have allowed his evacuation to Germany’s Charite Hospital for treatment.
Gudkov dismissed that reasoning.
Charging that Russia is involved in “state terrorism,” he maintains that Putin himself must have given the order to poison Navalny.
Yet, after Navalny had been hospitalized in Omsk, the Russian leader was in “a practically hopeless situation,” he said.
If Putin had blocked Navalny’s medical evacuation to Berlin and the activist had died in Omsk, he would have been seen as an accessory to his death, Gudkov noted.
He speculated that Russian medical experts may have assured the Kremlin that the Charite Hospital would not find traces of Novichok. As yet, though, no such evidence exists.
However, Azerbaijani toxicologist Ismail Efendiyev pointed out that civilian laboratories, like that of the Omsk hospital that initially treated Navalny, “practically cannot detect” Novichok.
Even the Charite hospital, known for its toxicology labs, turned to the German armed forces, noted Efendiyev, who worked in the hospital 15 years ago.
Despite international labs’ conclusions that Novichok was indeed used on Navalny, Efendiyev, a member of the European Association of Toxicological Centers and Clinical Toxicologists, emphasized the need to keep in mind other chemical weapons as well as analogues and modifications to Novichok.
If standard Novichok had been used, he stressed, that would have meant that “Aleksei did not even make it to the plane.”
“Novichok acts quickly, acts destructively, and its destructive effect on the body is practically irreversible,” Efendiyev said.
He also stressed the importance of keeping in mind the poisoners’ likely aim that the poisoning resemble a natural death as much as possible.
If, as German scientists contend, Novichok had been applied to Navalny’s underclothes and entered through his skin, that would mean the nerve agent would take longer to impact the body, according to Efendiyev.
That could have provided time for Navalny’s collapse on his Moscow flight, where emergency medical care cannot address poisonings.
As do other medical experts, Efendiyev believes that the pilot saved Navalny’s life by making an emergency stop in Omsk.
There, he received atropine, which, with a delayed onset of the nerve-agent, would be able to prevent the shutdown of Navalny’s respiratory and circulation systems and eventual death, Efendiyev explained.
Unlike other sources, Efendiyev did not directly blame the Russian government for this poisoning.
But, he noted, ”only certain states” have the special equipment needed to produce the military-grade nerve agent used on Navalny.