Years before a Russian poison squad nearly killed Alexei Navalny by allegedly planting a Novichok-like nerve agent in his boxer shorts, the same group was honing its skills on other Russian opposition figures, according to a new report by Bellingcat.
The same agents who Bellingcat says stalked, trailed, and spied on Navalny for more than three years, also trailed three other Russian dissidents, including Kremlin critic and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who, like murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, was a contributor to The Washington Post.
Kara-Murza was poisoned twice, both incidents leaving him in prolonged comas while his vital organs shut down. Like Navalny’s suspected poisoning, Russian authorities refused to investigate the attacks on Kara-Murza despite international outcry.
According to Bellingcat’s report, two Russian hospitals and three independent examinations concluded that Kara-Murza was poisoned by an unidentified substance.
Using travel records, Bellingcat concluded that the same FSB poison squad who trailed Navalny also showed up where Kara-Murza was for months before his first poisoning in 2015 and trailed him again until he was poisoned in 2017. “The number of coinciding trips—seven destinations with 14 overlapping flights—renders a coincidental overlap statistically implausible,” according to the Bellingcat report. On at least one occasion while trailing the journalist, the squad was accompanied by Roman Mezentsev, who headed the FSB’s Directorate for Protection of the Constitution and the Fight Against Terrorism. Bellingcat says Mezentsev was a close ally with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s former adviser known in Kremlin circles as The Grey Cardinal.
At least two members of the same poison squad also reportedly trailed Russian anti-corruption activist Nikita Isaev in the weeks before he died on a train ride from Tambov to Moscow in 2019.
The investigative group says it has focused on FSB poison-squad activities outside Moscow because the overlap between the agents and the potential victims is harder to refute, but they do not exclude that the agents actually prefer to kill far from home. “This may be either because of the assumed inferior quality of emergency medical services in those regions; due to the relative ease of accessing a target’s hotel room during trips; or even due to expected long-haul trips by their targets during which medical care would be impeded,” Bellingcat reports. “However, the observed preference of the FSB squad for ‘out-of-Moscow’ poisonings can be used as a proxy for determining their likely complicity to Moscow-based operations as well. It can be logically assumed—and is corroborated by data in the Navalny and Isaev cases—that the squad typically tails a target of a political assassination for at least several months before a hit is launched.”
Because Kara-Murza received treatment for his poisoning in the U.S., The Washington Post has called on the Biden administration to release information about the substance used and whether it was banned, which could open the door to sanctions or more. Late last month, the Post editorial board wrote that since the bureau is “investigating this matter as a case of intentional poisoning,” it should release the details. “It has refused to release the results of its laboratory tests, which might show whether Mr. Kara-Murza, like Mr. Navalny and other Kremlin targets, was attacked with a banned chemical weapon.”
The Post has also unsuccessfully petitioned congressional members, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is a senior member of the intelligence committee that would be privy to details of the matter. “In light of the string of attacks on Kremlin opponents and the imperative of holding the Putin regime accountable, that’s not acceptable,” the Post editorial board wrote. “Incoming Attorney General Merrick Garland should order the FBI to disclose what it knows about Mr. Kara-Murza.”