It is becoming increasingly more difficult for Vladimir Putin to make excuses about the August poisoning of Russia’s opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Earlier in December, Navalny, who had previously been deliberately poisoned with the Soviet-era chemical nerve agent Novichok while on a trip to Siberia, called his attackers and pretended to be “Maxim Ustinov” an assistant to Nikolay Patrushev, the powerful former head of Russia’s FSB security service, the successor agency to the Soviet Union’s KGB.
In a stunning revelation, the operative revealed every detail about the operation (which he considered successful) and also admitted that he had cleaned Navalny’s clothes to remove any trace of the poison that had been applied to his underwear.
This revelation is the most shameful failure of Russia’s intelligence services in recent years, even surpassing the poisoning on former double agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom nearly three years ago.
Navalny actually called almost all of those who attempted to kill him. All but one, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, slammed the phone down. Kudryavtsev is a military chemist from the FSB’s Institute of Forensic Science and had also previously worked at the Biological Security Research Center of the Ministry of Defense and the Military Academy of Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection. Following the attempted assassination, Navalny’s team received confirmation that a group from the Institute of Forensic Science travelled to the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Omsk to destroy evidence.
The investigation proved that the whole of the Russian law enforcement system has been compromised and cannot be trusted. Many people aside from Kudryavtsev were involved in the poisoning of Navalny, everyone from doctors and police officers to the local FSB agents in Omsk. Kudryavtsev noted in the phone conversation with Navalny that the latter’s clothes were given to him for cleaning by an individual known as “Mikhail”, the head of the local FSB counter-terrorism department.
“Mikhail” refused to speak “via an unencrypted channel”, but confirmed that he had handed over Navalny’s clothes to Kudryavtsev and had worked with local police officers to cover the tracks of the attackers. The mysterious “Mikhail” has been identified by British-based investigative news outlet Bellingcat as Mikhail Evdokimov. Evdokimov confirmed to Navalny, who was posing as a government official, that he had received Navalny’s clothes from Kudryavtsev.
One of the Soviet developers of Novichok, Vladimir Uglev, suggested as early as September that Navalny was most likely poisoned through his underwear, saying, “In terms of time and dynamics, Navalny got up at about six in the morning, took a shower, steamed his body, put on infected underwear and was on the plane began to already show serious signs that he’d been poisoned.”
The dose of Novichok is believed to have applied to Navalny’s underwear because this is the most intimate clothing object that a person possesses, which no one but their owner usually touches. This also essentially eliminates any risk of injury to bystanders and leaves no collateral damage, unlike in the Salisbury attack against the Skripals. Experts have noted that socks are also a good option, but there isn’t the same sort of soft and sensitive tissue that can be exposed as there is with underwear.
Investigative journalists, including Bellingcat and others, have succeeded in exposing the use of chemical weapons, like Novichok, thanks to the repressive laws of Putin’s regime and Russia’s corruption of officials. The market for stolen personal data is flourishing in Russia. Its annual turnover is approximately $50.7 million. The information is often sold by corrupt police officers, who can access it at any time. It is possible to buy the travel history of a particular person for only $230-380. Data from phones is also inexpensive. The same officials can sell information about conversations, SMS messages and six months of social network activity. The price depends on the mobile operator but can reach up to $1,200.
Information about a person’s place of residence and number plates can also be bought for the right price.
Russian journalists from the Daily Storm Group made several test purchases of personal data and $12,000 were able to gather information about the FSB officers who tried to poison Navalny.
Russian citizens owe the emergence of such an open information market to Irina Yarovaya, the Deputy Chairwoman of the State Duma, who co-authored a package of laws adopted four years ago that were billed as legislation aimed at “fighting against terrorism and extremism”. Dubbed “the Yarovaya Law”, they obliged mobile operators and Internet providers to collect and archive information for at least three years. Yarovaya, who is a member of the ruling United Russia party, is a hardline Putin loyalist who has sponsored laws limiting civil freedom in the name of state security and co-authored multiple laws, including the toughening of responsibility for violating the rules of holding rallies, tightening immigration, criminal libel and registration requirements for ‘foreign agents’ for non-profit organizations with foreign funding.
To comply with the Yarovaya Law, Russian companies are required to provide access to all of the data collected to the police and security services. The type of information that must be handed over includes simple transactions like ticket sales, as well as other mundane details, all of which give Russia’s intelligence services the ability to control the life of the country’s citizens.
Once they have acquired the data, Russian officials then began to trade them on the open market. In this way, a weapon that was supposed to serve Putin and his regime actually backfired, as proven by Navalny’s phone conversations with Kudryavtsev and Yevdokimov.
As a result, the dark market for personal data is now in a panic and Russia’s intelligence agencies are tracking down those who helped expose their colleagues.
The complete failure of Putin’s operation was on full display when a law was hastily passed by the Russian parliament the day after Navalny published a video about his conversation with Kudryavtsev. The law prohibits the publication of information about the property and private life of government officials and all security service officers.
The parliament also passed a law to block YouTube and Facebook after having accused both of discriminating against Russian state-controlled media outlets, including its English-language propaganda network Russia Today (RT). Moscow has said it would maintain a register of platforms that follow in YouTube and Facebook’s footsteps and will punish them with traffic slowdowns and administrative fines. The sanctions will only be removed if they lift all restrictions on Kremlin-approved media.
The story of Navalny’s poisoning is hard to comprehend in a year like 2020 when the whole world is trying to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Who could imagine that a KGB-style assassination attempt against a Russian opposition member would happen nearly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union? The event proves that Russia is quickly moving towards the North Koreanization of itself – a country with no opposition, no Internet and no privacy – particularly when the country’s endemic corruption robs average citizens from knowing the whole truth about the FSB’s activities and how it targets its own people.