December 22, 2020

Smoking Underpants


Smoking Underpants

In an astonishingly brazen operation, opposition politician Alexey Navalny pulled the ultimate punk on FSB operative Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who allegedly tried to kill him.

Calling from Germany, where he is recuperating from his Novichok poisoning, and masking his phone number to look like it was routed through the KGB switchboard, Navalny introduced himself as  Maxim Sergeyevich Ustinov, an aide to Nikolai Patrushev, Russia's Secretary of the Security Council. He (Ustinov), Navalny said, had been tasked with writing up a two-page report about The Navalny Incident and what went wrong. And he just wanted to hear Kudryavtsev's perspective.

What follows is a 49-minute exercise in actorly brilliance (Navalny) and intelligence operative indiscretion (Kudryavtsev). While the recording has not been verified, the exchanges between the two certainly make it ring true, and Kudryavtsev is gradually duped by Navalny, while retaining a bit of skepticism that this sort of conversation could be had over an open line. ("Maximum conspiracy - this is of utmost importance. No one must be seen," Kudryavtsev says at one point, when asked by Navalny-Ustinov if there is any chance any of the operatives were ever made by Navalny and his team.)

It does, of course, seem strange that someone who was involved in the shadowing of Navalny over the course of several years would not have recognized Navalny's rather distinctive voice. But that could be chalked up to the early morning hour, or simply the fact that one would generally not expect the object of a failed poisoning to call one of his alleged killers on the phone.

Nonetheless, the details of the operation are discussed in sufficient detail to definitively incriminate Kudryavtsev and the FSB (the Novichok was apparently applied to Navalny's underpants, and Kudryavtsev says that the only reason he thinks the operation failed is that the flight did not last long enough and the ambulance came too quickly in Omsk).

Indeed, the call substantiates the extensive details of the Bellingcat investigation, which used cellphone data readily available on the Russian black market to meticulously document the movements of the FSB operatives following Navalny. As a result, there can be little doubt that the FSB conducted a years-long operation to surveil and ultimately attempt to murder Alexey Navalny on Russian soil using a banned nerve agent.

As noted by Bellingcat, no legal authority is currently investigating or prosecuting the attempted murder. Western governments, most notably Germany, have condemned the action, requesting a Kremlin explanation, and saying further sanctions would be on the table if none was forthcoming.

President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, in his annual marathon press conference, called the whole episode a fabrication of western intelligence, indicating that, yes, of course the FSB was following Navalny, keeping an eye on him because he was a danger to society. But no, the FSB had not poisoned Navalny, because if they were going to undertake that action, they would have succeeded.

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