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‘He slandered us’ Journalists respond to Putin’s allegations linking their work to Western intelligence agencies

Source: Meduza
Natalya Kolesnikova / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

During his annual press conference on December 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on two major journalistic investigations — both of which came out in December and concerned the president directly. The first report, published by the investigative outlet IStories, had to do with the business dealings of Putin’s alleged former son-in-law, Russian billionaire Kirill Shamalov. The second investigation — a joint effort by Bellingcat, The Insider, Der Spiegel, and CNN — identified a team of FSB operatives who had been following opposition figure Alexey Navalny for years — and, apparently, were involved in poisoning him with a Novichok-type nerve agent back in August. Putin said that both investigations were the “legalization of materials from the American intelligence services.” In conversation with Meduza, the journalists behind these reports respond to Putin’s allegations.

Roman Anin

Editor-in-Chief of IStories and one of the authors behind the Shamalov investigation

Novaya Gazeta

Putin’s responses were expected. When journalists with documents prove corruption [on the part of the] first family, he always attributes it to an attack from the West and the intelligence services. He did that when we published the Panama Papers. He’s doing it now.

The other thing is that he went too far. Whereas before Putin said that [publications] were ordered by customers from abroad, this time he directly accused journalists of working with intelligence agencies. This, of course, is slander and untrue.

I think that, unfortunately, the president has a distorted picture of the world. He sees enemies, conspiracies, and the intelligence services everywhere. The truth is, the authors of this article don’t work for any Western intelligence agencies. These are young authors — journalists from Yaroslavl, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, St. Petersburg, and Magadan. These are people who love their country. But, unfortunately, this country has been ruled by [one] person for 20 years now. If a person is in power for 20 years and nothing limits his power, his picture of the world is greatly distorted. This majorly impacts the adequacy of one’s perception of the world. He thinks that everyone is seeking revenge against him and wants to plot against him.

In addition, he judges the outside world by how things work in Russia. After all, if he [Putin] really orders [Perviy Kanal CEO Konstantin] Ernst or [VGTRK CEO Oleg] Dobrodeev to bark, they will bark. And he thinks that’s how it works everywhere. That if in America [president-elect Joe] Biden tells someone from CNN to bark, they will start barking — but that’s not the case. He is under the delusion that independent journalists are always fulfilling an order from someone.

This time he said “these guys” — meaning the authors of the article, me and my colleagues — are from the intelligence services. If the president, as the highest official in the country, makes such statements, then he ought to ground them in something, bring facts. We, as the journalists who he is accusing of something, can back up any of our statements with documents, we can come to any court in the world and legitimately prove our position. The president is allowing himself to make unsubstantiated claims. In my opinion, he simply slandered me and my colleagues. 

Christo Grozev

Bellingcat journalist and the primary researcher in the investigation implicating the FSB in Navalny’s poisoning

Jack Taylor / Getty Images

Putin gave an absurd response. He basically didn’t refute anything that we wrote. Apart from our conclusion that the people [from the FSB] were there to poison Navalny. Everything else he actually fully confirmed.

Putin said that they didn’t poison him [Navalny]. But there are two, big, problematic holes in this answer. First off, if Navalny was only under surveillance, how does he explain the fact there were doctors and chemists near him? There is no logic here.

The second big mistake is built into Putin’s life philosophy — I’ve seen it several times already. Putin explains that they didn’t poison Navalny, because it doesn’t benefit them, not because Russia would never do such a thing. This is a big mistake, because a person who doesn’t poison others [would say]: “We don’t do that.” But Putin says: “We would have finished [the job], it we wanted to.”

I’m sure Putin understands that he’s lying when he says that our investigation is a “legalization of materials form the American intelligence services.” I don’t think that [FSB Director Alexander] Bortnikov could afford to deceive Putin. I think he looked at who was verifying the data and who received the list of passengers [on Navalny’s flights]. He must have seen immediately that journalists requested [this] information. Hence, Bortnikov knew [that journalists were doing an investigation]. He wouldn’t lie to Putin. Meaning Putin lied to everyone when he said this was intelligence agencies.

Saying that [Western] intelligence services [did the investigation] is less embarrassing and less inconvenient for the Kremlin than saying it was journalists. [The Kremlin thinks]: “Intelligence services? Well yes, it’s bad that they caught us. It would be much worse if we were caught by journalists.” [That is to say] Putin lied here deliberately.

With his response to our investigation, Putin has significantly limited the work of his surrogates: [TV host Vladimir] Solovyov [and] Life News. How can they create narratives in such a limited form as the one Putin presented? It will be difficult for them to figure out a harmless way to present these stories.

And for us, now it will be important to simply prove the part that Putin called incorrect. We need to prove that the FSB [specifically] tried to poison Navalny. It’s always good when journalists are given a concrete task. We have it. We will be working on it in the coming days.

Interviews by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart