IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Did Putin order Russia's latest poison attack? What Navalny's Novichok diagnosis tells us

No matter who is pulling the strings, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny clearly reflects the growing impunity with which Russia's security services are operating at home and abroad.
Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Saint Petersburg
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert in Saint Petersburg on Dec. 15, 2018.Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images file

Two years ago, British intelligence alleged that Russia's military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, used a nerve agent from the Novichok family — an exotic Soviet-developed class of chemical weapons — to poison one of its former spies, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia. Depending on whom you ask, the operation was either a tremendous failure — the only death was that of a U.K. woman who was exposed to the poison by accident, and both Skripals recovered — or a very successful, very public message to Russia's spies about the consequences of becoming a turncoat.

Even through the lens of Navalny's near-Jobian decade in Russia, the use of an exotic and deadly nerve agent such as Novichok marks a nearly unthinkable escalation.

On Wednesday, the German government revealed that a similar nerve agent was used against Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has risen to become Russia's best-known opposition figure. After more than a decade of investigating corruption in the highest levels of Russian business and government, Navalny is no stranger to state-led or -approved retribution: He and his family have been the subject of multiple trumped-up charges of fraud, street-level violence and even a (relatively) mild poisoning while in prison. Even through the lens of Navalny's near-Jobian decade in Russia, the use of an exotic and deadly nerve agent such as Novichok marks a nearly unthinkable escalation in the Kremlin's campaign against him.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is often carelessly portrayed as the singular force behind all violent actions carried out by Russia's state organs and its proxies. This picture is overly simplistic, as the Russian state — just as in America — is not monolithic, encompassing a number of competing actors pushing and pulling for influence. But who else bears responsibility for the clear pattern of impunity and flagrant assassinations carried out by Russia's competing factions and intelligence services?

In the most generous reading, we can say Putin is a leader in name only with no control over his state apparatus and underlings. In a less generous, and more realistic, reading, we can say Putin allows and may even personally authorize these assassinations against both his own people and his perceived enemies abroad, now including the most prominent domestic opposition figure he has faced throughout his period of rule.

No matter who is pulling the puppet strings, the poisoning of Navalny clearly reflects the growing impunity with which Russia's security services are operating both on their own soil and abroad. On the domestic front, the poisoning of Pyotr Verzilov, an avant garde performance artist-turned-investigative reporter, is instructive. Two years ago, while working on an investigation into the activities of Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin and his GRU-linked mercenary group in the Central African Republic, Verzilov was poisoned with an unidentified substance in Moscow and was later treated at the same Berlin hospital as Navalny. Fortunately, Verzilov recovered, but unfortunately, the poison was never identified, making direct attribution difficult even as the culprit seems obvious. A similar story can be found in the cases of other poisoned domestic opposition figures, including Vladimir Kara-Murza and Dmitry Bykov.

Russia almost always denies any involvement in these killings.

In the most generous reading, we can say Putin is a leader in name only with no control over his state apparatus and underlings.

We know that the GRU and the Russian federal security service, known as the FSB, organize and carry out clandestine assassinations with frightening regularity. My organization, Bellingcat, uses a combination of public digital evidence (such as social media posts and public databases) and leaked citizen data (such as vehicle registration information and flight travel records, information widely available on the Russian internet) to investigate these acts of violence. For example, last year we found photographs from the wedding of a well-known GRU commander's daughter. Clearly visible in some of the photographs is Anatoliy Chepiga, the "sports nutrition salesman" who was revealed to be a GRU spy suspected in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in 2018.

The GRU carries out operations tied to Russian geopolitical goals, which include a broad range of nonviolent operations (specifically hacking) and attempted assassinations. The group's successful hacking campaign against the Democratic Party in 2016 needs no rehashing, but its poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, while less well-known, follows the same playbook as in the Skripal and, apparently, Navalny cases.

With the FSB, more direct methods are used to murder the Kremlin's enemies. In August 2019, the FSB is alleged to have dispatched one of its operatives, Vadim Sokolov (real name, we believe, Vadim Krasikov), to Berlin to assassinate a Chechen former commander named Zelimkhan Khangoshvili. The operation was partly successful: Khangoshvili was killed in broad daylight in a park, but the suspect was captured by police after a couple of teenagers saw him ditch his wig and pistol into the Spree River. We at Bellingcat have identified a number of other assassination operations that appear to have been planned and carried out by the FSB and its elite "Vympel" unit, including two killings in Istanbul and the murder of a Chechen commander's wife in Kyiv, Ukraine, while the commander survived. The common thread in these murders is retribution, carried out on foreign soil, for the actions of these people while fighting Russia during the Chechen wars.

Russia's state security services, operating out of Moscow, do not have a monopoly on violence targeting the state's enemies. Two men in particular command literal armies to harass and murder its enemies, with implicit or explicit Kremlin support — Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man called "Putin's Chef." Kadyrov has been linked to perhaps the two most infamous assassinations within post-Soviet Russia — those of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. More recently, a Chechen anti-government blogger was stabbed to death in his hotel room in France in February. While Navalny has been a public target of Kadyrov's ire in the past, there are no indications that Kadyrov was involved in the recent poisoning.

Like Kadyrov, Prigozhin has his own private mercenary army, which works with Russian military intelligence and has left fingerprints in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and a number of African states. The billionaire has long harassed and threatened independent journalists in Moscow and his home city, St. Petersburg, but he seems to have become emboldened in the last few years. Prigozhin was linked to organized surveillance and disinformation campaign against CNN journalists and to the murders of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic.

After news of Navalny's poisoning broke, speculation as to whodunit circulated like a morbid game of Clue — was it Kadyrov, as payback for an investigation from years ago, or Prigozhin, who has long waged a campaign to destroy Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation? Now that the poison has been revealed, the only mystery is exactly which Russian state security organ carried out the plot — and why now. What is very clear, though, is that even if Putin himself did not personally endorse the act, the environment of impunity he has fostered leaves no doubt about where the responsibility for this violence ultimately lies.