A joint investigation between Bellingcat and The Insider, in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, has discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of the prominent Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Moreover, the August 2020 poisoning in the Siberian city of Tomsk appears to have happened after years of surveillance, which began in 2017 shortly after Navalny first announced his intention to run for president of Russia. Throughout 2017, and again in 2019 and 2020, FSB operatives from a clandestine unit specialized in working with poisonous substances shadowed Navalny during his trips across Russia, traveling alongside him on more than 30 overlapping flights to the same destinations. It is also possible there were earlier attempts to poison Navalny, including one in the Western Russian city of Kaliningrad only a month before the near-fatal Novichok poisoning in Siberia.
This investigation identified three FSB operatives from this clandestine unit who traveled alongside Navalny to Novosibirsk and then followed him to the city of Tomsk where he was ultimately poisoned. These operatives, two of whom traveled under cover identities, are Alexey Alexandrov (39), Ivan Osipov (44) – both medical doctors – and Vladimir Panyaev (40). These three were supported and supervised by at least five more FSB operatives, some of whom also traveled to Omsk, where Navalny had been hospitalized. Members of the unit communicated with one another throughout the trip, with sudden peaks of communication just before the poisoning as well as during the night-time hours (Moscow time) when Navalny left his hotel and headed to the Tomsk airport.
In the course of this investigation, Bellingcat and its partners also uncovered data pointing to the existence of a clandestine chemical weapons program operated by members of Russia’s domestic intelligence services (FSB). Both phone logs and employment records show that this program is run under the cover of an FSB unit formally tasked with carrying out forensic investigations of terrorist acts and hi-tech crime prevention. However, while the latter has some legitimate investigative activity, one of its key and secretive roles has been to provide cover for a clandestine sub-unit comprising approximately 15 operatives with backgrounds in chemical and biological warfare, medicine, and special operations.
This sub-unit appears to report to a scientist who previously worked in Russia’s military chemical weapons program in Shikhany, where nerve agents from the Novichok family were originally developed, and is supported by a network of other chemical weapons specialists dispersed at several government-run institutes. SC Signal, previously identified by Bellingcat, is one of these institutes.
This report for the first time reveals data that directly links the August 2020 poisoning of Navalny to Russia’s domestic security services. This investigation is particularly important due to the legal vacuum in which no country other than Russia – the country implicated in the assassination attempt – has offered its jurisdiction for an official investigation into Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning.
A comprehensive analysis of phone metadata and travel data of a total of 12 FSB operatives linked to the Criminalistics Institute paints a picture of a specialized chemical weapons facility, run within this institute, that has a similar profile to that of the KGB-run laboratory described by the aforementioned Soviet-era ex-KGB officers.
The this program is supervised by Col. Stanislav Makshakov, a military scientist who previously worked at the State Organic Synthesis institute in the closed military town of Shikhany-1, also known as military unit 61469.
Col. Makshakov reports to General Kirill Vasilyev, director of the FSB Criminalistics Institute. Kirill Vasilyev is subordinate to major-general Vladimir Bogdanov, former chief of the Criminalistics Institute and currently head of its parent entity, the FSB’s ‘Special Technology Center’ He is also deputy director of FSB’s powerful Scientific-Technical Service. Bogdanov reports to the Director of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, who, in turn, reports to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
This independent investigation, is particularly important given that no country has offered its jurisdiction to investigate the poisoning of Navalny, a political activist, blogger and former presidential candidate, with a banned chemical weapon. Such tacit refusal to investigate amounts to a deferral of the duty to investigate to Russia – a state that is not only implicated in the crime itself, but one which has officially declined to open a formal investigation.