An elite Russian intelligence chemical weapons unit trailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny for the past three years, right up until his near-fatal poisoning in August, according to the investigative website Bellingcat.
The squad from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), according to Bellingcat, started shadowing Navalny in 2017, shortly after he announced he would stand against President Vladimir Putin in presidential elections.
Members of the unit specializing in toxins and nerve agents followed the activist on more than 30 trips, according to phone records, flight manifests and other documents unearthed by Bellingcat in a joint investigation with CNN, Russia’s The Insider news site and Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine.
Navalny is recuperating in Berlin. Western governments say he was poisoned with the deadly Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the same substance British officials say was employed in an attack in England in 2018 in a bid to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. The European Union has sanctioned FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov and senior Kremlin officials over the attack.
In September, ahead of the U.S. presidential election, President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden gave different reactions to the poisoning.
"It is interesting that everybody is always mentioning Russia," Trump told reporters at a press briefing. "And I don't mind you mentioning Russia, but I think probably China at this point is a nation that you should be talking about much more so than Russia."
Biden, now president-elect, bluntly blamed Navalny’s poisoning on the Moscow government.
"Once again, the Kremlin has used a favorite weapon — an agent from the Novichok class of chemicals — in an effort to silence a political opponent," he said. "It is the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent," he added.
Navalny fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20. The plane made an emergency landing in the Siberian city of Omsk, where Russian doctors said they found no trace of any toxic substance. After Navalny was transferred to a hospital in Germany following an international outcry, tests in Berlin showed the presence of the nerve agent.
Subsequent tests by French and Swedish laboratories confirmed the German result. In an interview with a German magazine in October, Navalny accused the Kremlin of being behind his poisoning.
"I don’t have any other versions of how the crime was committed," he said.
The Kremlin has denied any role in the poisoning. Putin on Friday accused European countries, which have demanded Moscow investigate the poisoning, of refusing to cooperate with Russian authorities or to send detailed information. But Putin also said Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning did not warrant the opening of any criminal investigation in Russia.
Last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested Navalny may have been poisoned on the plane taking him to Germany, or once he arrived in Berlin.
Bellingcat said the FSB unit shadowing the Russian activist comprised six to 10 agents, including medical doctors and toxicologists in their late 30s and 40s, and was commanded by military scientist Stanislav Makshakov.
He communicated with senior figures at the FSB before and after Navalny’s trips, cellphone logs suggest. Makshakov is thought to have previously worked at a chemicals institute in the closed town of Shikhany-1.
The August incident may not have been the first attempt to poison Navalny. During a trip in July to Kaliningrad, Navalny’s wife, Yulia, fell ill with symptoms consistent with low-dosage poisoning, according to toxicologists. Bellingcat said flight manifests indicate that at least three members of the FSB unit were in the city at the same time as the Navalnys.
Bellingcat said for the August attack, three FSB officers followed Navalny to Tomsk. At least five more FSB employees supported the mission. Some went on to Omsk, when Navalny was taken to the hospital there in critical condition. Members of the chemical weapons unit communicated with each other throughout the trip, with peaks in phone activity shortly before the poisoning.
Bellingcat uses open-source data for its investigations and named the poisoners involved in the nerve-agent attack on Skripal and his daughter in 2018. The British government subsequently identified the same men as being behind the assassination bid.
Navalny on Monday uploaded a video comment to YouTube. He said the FSB’s attempt to kill him was an act of "state terrorism." He said the FSB’s surveillance operation began when he announced he would stand against Putin.
"We now have the villain, the reason, murderers and the murder weapon," he said.
Navalny also described the moment he may have been poisoned. Navalny said he had a cocktail in a hotel restaurant the night before boarding his flight back to Moscow. It was "tasteless," he said, and stopped drinking it after a couple of sips.