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Executive Summary-Investigation into Navalny’s Attempted Assassination Identifies FSB Involvement

Updated: Jan 3

Team: EUCOM

Week of: December 21, 2020


Alexei Navalny


On August 20, 2020, prominent Russian opposition and social media figure Alexei Navalny collapsed into a coma, after an alleged poisoning in Tomsk, Russia. He fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and was put into care in Omsk, before ultimately being transferred on to a Berlin hospital, where chemical agents associated with the Novichok group were identified and confirmed to be present in his blood system. On December 14, 2020, the team at Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence agency, in collaboration with The Insider, Der Spiegel, and CNN, conducted an investigation into the potential perpetrators of the crime and were able to identify three Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives who traveled alongside Navalny to Tomsk, along with other relevant parties to the assassination attempt. The investigation’s publication was accompanied by a Navalny video being posted on YouTube, and both have sparked discussions and demonstrations in Russia, including President Vladimir Putin being asked about the allegations at a recent press conference. Despite the evidence provided, Putin and the Russian government continue to deny any involvement.[1]


The continued use of Novichok agents has been debated since the most highly publicized attack in Salisbury, England in March 2018, when Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with the chemical.[2] A prior investigation by Bellingcat was critical in unearthing key details of that attack, including the identities of the suspected GRU intelligence operatives. Russia came under significant scrutiny from the international community but insisted that it had long ago abandoned its chemical weapons program. The poisoning of Alexei Navalny, as confirmed by German doctors, with a Novichok agent, revealed the ongoing presence of a highly complex, chemical assassination program with approval coming from the highest levels of the Russian state apparatus.

Detailed in the Bellingcat investigation was a suspected 3-year “shadowing” effort that took place, wherein FSB operatives traveled in pairs, in rotating shifts, often alongside Navalny as he moved domestically and abroad. Using open-source phone data, the investigative team tracked the movements of the three primary suspects, overlapping the travel itinerary of Navalny on a variety of occasions. It is believed that this long-term tail was meant to gain information about his habits and movements, and, ultimately, could be used to assassinate the often outspoken opposition activist, if an order came down from the higher levels of the FSB. Navalny’s wife also exhibited signs of Novichok poisoning, and the investigative efforts uncovered increased chatter between the suspected operatives and senior FSB officials on the day of the attack, providing further proof of foul play.[3] In an incredible development, Navalny also posted a video wherein he poses as his assassin’s boss and coaxes the individual into confessing his involvement in the plot.[4]


The attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny comes in the wake of a variety of extenuating regional factors that could have acted as motivation. Most notably, the wave of anti-establishment protests throughout the post-Soviet space, including in Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia, among other places, in combination with severe economic contractions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has led Russia to a profoundly unpredictable social climate. Though Putin and the Russian government have remained largely removed from the aforementioned movements, protests in their own Far-East and North Caucasus have caused tense moments in 2020. A revolutionary individual, with a history of opposition, as well as an established audience, poses a significant threat to the Russian establishment. Just as Belarussian opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanouskaya has been, Navalny could position himself as the pro-democracy contender for the Russian presidency, at a time in which Putin has solidified his grip on power through constitutional reforms that would allow him to serve two more six-year terms as President.[5]





The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)


[1]FSB Team of Chemical Weapons Experts Implicated in Navalny Novichok Poisoning, Bellingcat, December, 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/12/14/fsb-team-of-chemical-weapon-experts-implicated-in-alexey-navalny-novichok-poisoning/

[2]Salisbury Novichok poisoning: Russian Nationals named as suspects, BBC, September, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-45421445

[3]FSB Team of Chemical Weapons Experts Implicated in Navalny Novichok Poisoning, Bellingcat, December, 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/12/14/fsb-team-of-chemical-weapon-experts-implicated-in-alexey-navalny-novichok-poisoning/

[4]“If it hadn’t been for the prompt work of the medics” FSB Officer Inadvertently Confesses Murder Plot to Navalny, Bellingcat, December, 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/12/21/if-it-hadnt-been-for-the-prompt-work-of-the-medics-fsb-officer-inadvertently-confesses-murder-plot-to-navalny/

[5] Putin Signs Constitutional Reforms on State Council, Secession, Russian Law, The Moscow Times, December, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/12/08/putin-signs-constitutional-reforms-on-state-council-secession-russian-law-a72278

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