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Tinker tailor Navalny spy Questions you should be asking about Russian television's latest bombshell

Meduza
03:18, 12 april 2016

Photo: Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Scanpix

In the most recent episode of his weekly news broadcast, Russian television show host Dmitry Kiselyov aired a segment accusing oppositionist and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny of cooperating with British and American intelligence agencies. The report is littered with oddities that raise serious questions about its credibility: agents write in poor, bizarre English; an audiotape doesn't match Navalny's real voice; and, on two occasions, Navalny appears to travel in time, according to the timestamps on “secret correspondence.” Meduza takes a closer look at this new deep dive into opposition politics and espionage.

The news report that aired on Rossiya 1 claims that the man behind Alexey Navalny's political activities is William Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital and noted Vladimir Putin critic. Browder, Kiselyov's show argues, in turn, represents the intelligence agencies of the US and UK. 

The show's whole premise is based on several dispatches allegedly between CIA agents and British intelligence agents. According to the report, the CIA launched a secret operation in 1986 to influence and change politics in Eastern Europe and the USSR. This operation continued, Kiselyov's show says, despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

In 1995, a British agent (it's unclear why she was British, if this was a CIA operation) allegedly recruited William Browder, assigning him (again, without explanation) the codename “Solomon.” That same year, Browder founded Hermitage Capital. In 2006, Browder reportedly recruited Navalny, giving him the codename “Freedom.”

It was Browder, according to Rossiya 1, who advised Navalny to create the Union of Minority Shareholders, and he also allegedly persuaded him to campaign in support of the so-called “Magnitsky list” (an American law designed to punish Russian officials believed to have been involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who represented Hermitage Capital). Navalny is said to have received 100 million rubles ($1.5 million) for these causes (including 7 million rubles, or $105,000, through the Moscow Helsinki Group), and another $300,000, later on. 

How did reporters get their hands on these ‘secret documents’?

According to the report, Rossiya 1 acquired the materials thanks to the coup in Ukraine and Sergei Sokolov, the former head of Boris Berezovsky's personal security. Today, Sokolov heads a private security company, specializing in what he calls “information collection.” He says roughly 60 computer servers full of secret data were smuggled out of “that country of wild idiots” in “those days.” There's nothing else in Kiselyov's report to suggest how his TV network gained access to the information.

Sokolov told Meduza that Berezovsky had advised him to use Ukrainian servers to host correspondence, and that's how Sokolov says he knew to look for secret documents on servers in Ukraine, when the Yanukovych regime was collapsing. He says he was able to access the email servers of several companies in Ukraine, including the news agency RBC-Ukraine, thanks to a friend in Ukraine's State Security Service. Sokolov refuses to name any other companies. Between September and December 2014 (when Sokolov says he made off with the servers), the only media reports at the time about missing servers pertained to hardware seized from the Ukrainian newspaper Vesti. There have been no reports about servers seized from RBC-Ukraine.

Why do the agents write in lousy English?

The memos allegedly written by American and British intelligence agents are littered with grammatical errors, including misused articles, missing prepositions, and sentences without a subject or predicate.

Image: Vesti.ru

There's now a popular theory gobbling up Reddit, where users argue that the agents made the grammatical errors intentionally, in order to make it easier to say the documents were fake, if they were ever leaked. (Rossiya 1's report doesn't even mention the grammatical errors.)

Why are there such strange dates displayed in the chat correspondence? 

At least twice in the conversations that allegedly took place between Navalny and Browder, the timestamps on replies to different messages jump backwards in time.

On March 3, 2006, Navalny supposedly asked Browder a question about future projects, but Browder's response is timestamped, for some reason, on February 27. The same thing happens in the records of another supposed conversation in November 2008, when Browder wrote to tell Navalny that Sergei Magnitsky had been arrested. Navalny's response is inexplicably recorded as having arrived two years earlier, in 2006.

“I endowed Navalny with time-traveling powers, so there was at least one person who could return to 2007 and fix everything.”
Barack Obama (a parody account)

What's up with Navalny's and Ilya Ponomarev's voices?

According to Kiselyov's TV show, Navalny's documentary film about Attorney General Yuri Chaika was made using information handed over by William Browder. (The film, with several million views on YouTube, accuses Chaika's family members and several high-ranking state prosecutors of being involved in shady business practices and having ties to organized crime.)

The Rossiya 1 report says Navalny discussed the exposé with Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev, shortly before releasing it. (For more than a year, Ponomarev has been living abroad, fearing prosecution in Russia from crimes related to his role in the Skolkovo Innovation Center.) Kiselyov aired an audiotape supposedly recorded during this conversation, but the voices don't sound like Navalny's or Ponomarev's. 

Coincidentally, Attorney General Yuri Chaika has also accused William Browder of orchestrating Navalny's documentary film tying his family to the murderous Tsapok mob. Navalny has appealed to multiple courts in Russia, trying to contest Chaika's remarks as defamation, but no judge has agreed to hear the suit. 

Where on Earth is Alexey Navalny?

At one point in Rossiya 1's report, the station confronts Navalny outside the office of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is located in Moscow, in the “Omega Plaza” business center. The caption on the screen, however, says the footage is from Kiev, Ukraine.

Image: News-Front / YouTube

Subsequently, Kiselyov's show made several revisions to the report, replacing “Kiev” with “Moscow” in its captions, and “correcting” the timestamps in the correspondence records. But some errors remain, nevertheless. The show as it was originally transmitted is also available on YouTube.

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Kiselyov only aired part of VGTRK's report on Navalny. The full report will be broadcast on Wednesday, April 13. Navalny has already said he plans to sue the TV network for defamation.