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Navalny’s Prank Phone Call Shows FSB Officers “Are Not Gods”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left, front) and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov (right, front) arrive for a February 10, 2020 meeting of the FSB Board at the agency's headquarters in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left, front) and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov (right, front) arrive for a February 10, 2020 meeting of the FSB Board at the agency's headquarters in Moscow.

Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny’s recorded phone call with a presumed Federal Security Service employee he claims attempted to poison him this August has not only undermined the Russian government’s assertions of innocence in the poisoning scandal, but stripped away their domestic intelligence agency’s protective image of invincibility, observers believe.

In the December 14 conversation, the individual, believed to be FSB chemist Konstantin Kudryavtsev, acknowledged to Navalny, posing as an aide to Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, that he had been part of an August 2020 operation to poison the 44-year-old activist with a nerve agent.

When Navalny succumbed to the poison on board an August 20 flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow, “it’s possible there would have been a different effect and the result would have been different,” if the pilot had not made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, the individual commented. The emergency medical assistance Navalny received at the Omsk airport was also “one of the factors,” he said.

The conversant confirmed that his task was “to clean” the poison (believed to be the nerve agent Novichok) from Navalny’s clothes; particularly the crotch and seams of the activist’s underpants. He did not elaborate about how he or any associates had done so, but stated that "they treated it with solutions” so that no trace of the nerve agent would remain.

The Omsk transportation police provided the FSB group with Navalny’s clothing, he said.

The conversation, released on December 21, was recorded in the early morning, Moscow time, before the December 14 publication of an investigation by Bellingcat, CNN, The Insider, and Der Spiegel, in which Navalny participated, that linked the FSB to the activist’s August 20 poisoning.

In a December 22 response to the phone call, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov took aim at what he termed Nagalny’s “megalomania” and “persecution mania.” Peskov termed “Freudian” the activist’s “obsession with the crotch zone” of his underwear.

At his December 17 press-conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not deny that the individuals named in the media investigation into Navalny’s poisoning work for the FSB, but rejected the notion of any FSB attempt to poison him.

“If they had wanted to [poison Navalny], they probably would have gone all the way,” he claimed.

The conversation, however, has prompted an outpouring of scoffing on social media about the FSB’s professionalism and basic street-smarts.

“I’ve been covering the FSB for years and never thought that they were great professionals. But Navalny’s prank comes as shock even for me,” tweeted Russian journalist Irina Borogan, co-author of The New Nobility, a 2011 book on Russia’s security forces under Putin. “They are dumb and that makes them even more dangerous.”

Retired senior FSB officer Gennady Gudkov, a Navalny supporter and outspoken Putin critic, did not, however, find the alleged Kudryavtsev’s failure to recognize Navalny’s voice surprising. Listening in to Navalny’s conversations was not likely one of the FSB chemist’s assignments, he said.

Amidst the stress of receiving an early-morning call from a presumed senior government official, it likely never occurred to Kudryavtsev that Navalny himself would call him from Germany and have such a conversation, Gudkov said.

“But, of course, he did not have the right to say anything [about his FSB work] over a usual telephone, no matter who it was introducing himself as someone -- even the Lord God,” he added.

Gudkov asserted that members of the FSB’s alleged Navalny group do not “deserve” to be called “employees of the special services.”

“They’re just part of a state band [of people] that knew where it was headed” – toward “murder without a trial and investigation,” he charged.

Before his alleged Kudryavtsev call, Navalny had already tried his phone technique on other members of the alleged FSB squad supposedly assigned to his case. Most of the group simply hung up when he identified himself, Bellingcat reported.

Yet one FSB employee, Maksim Shvets, whom the activist believed had tailed him in the Russian city of Kaliningrad in July 2020, detected Navalny’s ruse. When the activist introduced himself as Security Council aide Maksim Ustinov, Shvets called his bluff and hung up the phone, according to Bellingcat.

Whether these individuals informed their superiors or anyone else who could warn other FSB employees about Navalny’s attempted phone calls is not clear.

When Kudryavtsev’s turn came, he spoke with Navalny for 49 minutes – a conversation that at least one foreign expert on the Russian intelligence services has called “unprecedented.”

Russian security professionals took prompt steps to stop that trend.

After Navalny’s associate, Lyubov Sobol, showed up at Kudryavtsev’s apartment building in eastern Moscow to film a report after the conversation aired, police arrived on the scene, brusquely dispersing media, and detained Sobol for unclear reasons. She was later released and not charged, but two other activists, Olga Klyuchnikova and Akim Kerimov remain detained for allegedly disobeying police, Sobol said.

Local law enforcement appeared interested in more than Sobol, however.

Late on December 21, Current Time’s Aleksei Aleksandrov noticed a group of five police officers and individuals in unmarked uniforms entering Kudryavtsev’s part of the apartment building. When they left, one group member carried a deep container, the size of a pizza box, that was placed in a waiting police car. The individual’s uniform was marked with the acronym for the Interior Ministry’s so-called E-Center, or Anti-Extremism Center, Aleksandrov noted.

Kudryavtsev did not respond to Current Time’s repeated attempts to contact him. However, late into the night, a light indicated that someone was in his apartment, Aleksandrov said.

If nothing else, commented political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov, the Navalny phone call with the supposed Kudryavtsev and footage of the media visits to his apartment building made plain to Russian viewers that mid-ranking FSB employees are simply state functionaries – with, in Navalny’s case, an “unusual” and “scary” mission.

“They’re not gods. They’ve already descended to earth. They’re the same as we are. … ordinary people from the crowd . . .” commented Kolesnikov, head of the Carnegie Moscow think-tank’s Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions program. “All these pictures in our mind [of competent intelligence professionals] from Soviet cinema have vanished like smoke,” he said.

The FSB has rejected the Navalny call as a “fake” and a “planned provocation” carried out with the “organizational and technical” assistance of foreign intelligence services “to discredit the reputation of the FSB and its employees.”

Using a substituted phone number is a calling card of such services that has been used before in “anti-Russia operations,” the FSB alleged.

Bellingcat, which had its “representatives” present during the calls, reported that Navalny employed an IP telephony application that allows the user to set the caller ID to a specific number – in this case, that of an FSB landline that, Bellingcat claimed, had been used before in calls to the FSB team involved in the Navalny case.

Bellingcat did not explain how it had acquired this number or tracked its previous calls.

The outlet conceded that Navalny’s call raised “ethical questions about this method of obtaining data.” After “an internal debate,” though, it decided that the call itself was of an “overriding public interest in light of the extraordinary circumstances.”

As yet, what impact the call will have on holding the government accountable for any possible criminal actions is unclear.

“The state is cornered, and from this it’s becoming, by the way, even scarier. It's gotten its back up, and all these things will tell on civil society also,” predicted Kolesnikov. “[The state] will take revenge and fight with civil society, with investigations, with normal people.”

-With additional reporting from RBK and TASS