Wednesday, December 23, 2020

HoliDaze: Russian To Judgment, Feliz Novichok Edition

The enterprising folks over at Bellingcat have gotten their hands on a recording of a nearly 50-minute phone call between Russian dissident Alexey Navalny and the FSB, where Navalny pretends to be a Politburo aide asking about how the FSB poisoned Navalny in August, and the FSB just tells him on an open line exactly how they did it.

The phone call took place on the morning of 14 December 2020; several hours before Bellingcat and its partners would publish their investigation into the Navalny poisoning. Legal and journalistic standards obliged the co-publishing partners to confront the main subjects of the investigation and offer them the right of reply.

Prior to offering these rights-of-reply, Alexey Navalny requested the opportunity to confront, by telephone, members of the FSB squad implicated in his poisoning. Bellingcat agreed and arranged for its representatives to be present during the calls, for the purpose of obtaining any additional information that might be exchanged.

The calls were made beginning at 4:30 am CET (6:30 am Moscow time) from a location in Germany, where Navalny has been recuperating since his poisoning. In order to increase the chance of his calls being answered by the FSB operatives, Navalny used an IP telephony application which permits the custom-setting of a caller ID. In this case, the number that was selected for ID spoofing was that of an FSB landline which, call records showed, had been in regular communication with several of the squad members.

In the initial calls, which were made to the key members of the FSB squad and chemical weapons scientists who had been in contact with them during the operation, Navalny introduced himself and asked why the respective person had agreed to be involved in a plot to kill him. The called parties did not reply and hung up, with the exception of one of the contacted chemical-weapons scientists: Oleg Demidov — who said he had Covid-19 and couldn’t talk.

In addition to calling most of the FSB operatives on his own behalf (and failing to get a response), Navalny decided to call two members of the FSB squad, Mikhail Shvets and Konstantin Kudryavtsev, by impersonating a senior security official. To both of these officers, Navalny introduced himself as a fictional character: Maxim Ustinov, an “aide to [Chairman of Russia’s Security Council] Nikolai Patrushev”. The premise of the call was that Navalny — playing the role of “Maxim Ustinov” — would ask the officers for an oral report on the reasons for the failure of the Navalny poisoning operation.

The first call — to Mikhail Shvets, a member of the squad who had tailed Navalny during his July 2020 trip to Kaliningrad — was unsuccessful. Shvets listened to Navalny’s introduction as “Maxim Ustinov” and replied “I know exactly who you are”, before hanging up.

The second and last call was to Konstantin Kudryavtsev — a member of the FSB team who had graduated from the Military Biological-Chemical Academy and then worked in the 42nd (biological warfare defense) Institute of the Ministry of Defense, before joining the FSB. As we reported, Kudryavtsev traveled to Omsk twice in the aftermath of the poisoning: once on 25 August and a second time on 2 October 2020. His phone records had also shown that just before and during the suspected time-range of the poisoning, he had been in regular communication with Col. Stanislav Makshakov, the direct commander of the FSB squad and deputy director of FSB’s Criminalistics Institute.

This call was successful. Kudryavtsev initially thought he was receiving a call from Artyom Troyanov (his first line upon answering the phone was “Artyom, greetings…”), an FSB officer who — in Kudryavtsev’s own words — uses that landline number. “Maxim”, the non-existent aide to Nikolay Patrushev, told him that his call was routed via the FSB phone exchange, which might explain why it appears as someone else’s number, and Kudryavtsev appeared to believe this.

“Maxim” told Kudryavtsev that his boss had requested an urgent report from all members of the FSB team involved with the Navalny operation due the enormous problems this operation has led to. (Kudryavtsev implied that he understood what these problems were, saying “I also watch TV and read the Internet”). Kudryavtsev was initially hesitant to talk on an open line, and said he was not informed about all aspects of the operation due to compartmentalizing of information on a need-to-know basis. From his own subsequent account, it appears he was primarily involved with the evidence clean-up following the poisoning attempt and not the poisoning itself. However, “Maxim” was able to convince Kudryavtsev that his presumed boss needs every team member’s personal assessment of the operation, and furthermore, that the call had been authorized by Gen. Vladimir Bogdanov, director of FSB’s Special Technology Department. The latter piece of information appeared to persuade Kudryavtsev, and he agreed to answer detailed questions from Alexey Navalny, acting as the fictitious “Maxim”. This phone call was made before any publication on the FSB squad and their link to the Navalny poisoning operation, and without any of the operatives being publicly named. Thus Kudryavtsev’s decision to open up and share top-secret details seemed to be swayed by the detailed, non-public knowledge “Maxim” appeared to have about the composition of the FSB team that was involved in the operation.

The call lasted for 49 minutes. Navalny did not break character until the end.
If I'm the FSB, I offer Navalny a job. You know, for a number of reasons.
This is also a pretty good read, so give it a spin.
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