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‘The FSB understood Navalny’s value’ Journalist Christo Grozev on how he plans to investigate Navalny’s death

Source: Meduza
Evgeny Feldman

On Monday, officials from Russia’s Investigative Committee told Alexey Navalny’s mother that the cause of her son’s death had still “not been established” — and that his body will not be handed over to his family until it has undergone a 14-day “chemical examination.” Navalny’s associates fear that this long delay will allow the authorities to erase valuable evidence of the politician’s true cause of death, making it harder to find those responsible. Four years ago, when Russia’s Federal Security Service poisoned Navalny with the chemical nerve agent Novichok, a team led by investigative journalist Christo Grozev identified the agents behind the attack. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke to Grozev about who he suspects is responsible for Navalny’s death and how he plans to get to the truth this time. Meduza has summarized the conversation in English.

In early 2021, when Alexey Navalny was getting ready to return to Russia just five months after being poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, Christo Grozev asked Navalny’s wife Yulia whether she realized that her husband would face certain arrest when his plane landed in Moscow.

“In response, she just smiled and said, ‘Christo, you’re so naive. They won’t just arrest him. They’ll keep him in torture chambers for years. And they might also kill him,’” Grozev told Meduza.

This past Friday, when Navalny’s death was first reported, Grozev and Yulia Navalnaya were both at the Munich Security Conference. Shortly after learning the news, Navalnaya took the conference stage and vowed that if the reports were true, Putin’s regime would “be brought to justice” and that this day would come soon.

“I realized [when I heard Yulia speak] that Russia has a chance not to fall into despair,” Grozev said. “That’s how quickly Alexey’s work was picked up.”

Taking on the mantle

‘We know exactly why Putin killed Alexey three days ago’ Yulia Navalnaya announces she will continue her husband’s work

Taking on the mantle

‘We know exactly why Putin killed Alexey three days ago’ Yulia Navalnaya announces she will continue her husband’s work

‘A new wave of repressions and murders’

The first time Grozev met Alexey Navalny face-to-face was shortly after the politician’s poisoning in 2020. “I just wrote to him on Twitter: ‘Alexey, I think I’ve found the people who tried to kill you,’” he said. “And within two days, we were going to visit him in Germany, where he was recovering from the poisoning.”

If Navalny had lived to see the end of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Grozev believes his political career could have had a wildly successful second act. “The wife of one of my sources, a Russian security official, watched the documentary Navalny and told her husband: ‘I had no idea he was like this! If he runs for president, he’ll have my vote!’” Grozev said, adding that he had expected Navalny to follow the path of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

Though Yulia Navalnaya called him naive, Grozev is nothing if not informed about the inner workings of the Russian state. And the rumors he’s already heard from his contacts in the wake of Navalny’s death make him pessimistic about the country’s future in the near term.

“I’ve already gotten warnings from my sources that there could be an entire new wave of repressions and murders — that Putin has ‘special plans’ for Russian opposition leaders,” he told Meduza. If these reports are true, he noted, jailed opposition figures such as Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza will be “especially vulnerable” to Putin’s whims. Grozev continued:

There’s only one possibility I’ve completely ruled out: that Navalny’s death came as a surprise to the Russian authorities, especially an unpleasant one. I just don’t believe that they simply ‘under-treated’ him or inadvertently drove him to that condition through negligence. That’s impossible. Because the FSB understood Navalny’s value for Russia’s future, whatever it might be. Alexey would have been a valuable asset for future negotiations or for a [prisoner] exchange. They would never have just ‘lost’ him.

A ‘typical symptom’ of poisoning

Grozev has already begun thinking about how to investigate the circumstances of Navalny’s death. He said that dealing with Russia’s byzantine prison bureaucracy will present challenges, but the fact that Navalny died in a remote Arctic village could make the job easier.

“Not just because there will be billing and flight data, but because there will be witnesses,” he explained. “It’s one thing to search for them in a large city; it’s another thing entirely when an FSB vehicle drives through a small village. It will be seen from every window.”

Catching Navalny’s poisoners

‘It’s always a choice’ ‘Bellingcat’ lead investigator Christo Grozev explains how his team unmasked the Russian agents who tried to kill Alexey Navalny

Catching Navalny’s poisoners

‘It’s always a choice’ ‘Bellingcat’ lead investigator Christo Grozev explains how his team unmasked the Russian agents who tried to kill Alexey Navalny

On Sunday, two days after Navalny’s death Novaya Gazeta reported that Navalny’s body was in a morgue in the town of Salekhard, the capital of the region where he died, and that it has bruises suggesting he was physically restrained while convulsing.

According to Grozev, convulsions are a “typical symptom” of poisoning by high doses of organophosphates, nerve agents expressly prohibited by the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is a party.

“As strange as it may sound, the task of eliminating Alexey in the prison colony could have been assigned to the same team [of FSB agents] and it’s possible that in our investigation, we won’t uncover a new set of perpetrators but the same ones who poisoned Navalny in 2020,” Grozev told Meduza. “It’s entirely possible that they were told: ‘Come on, guys, it’s time to finish the job.’ All the more so because they’ve already been exposed — why risk new people?”

According to Grozev, the FSB “punished” the exposed agents who failed to kill Navalny in 2020 with boring work and hid them thoroughly, including by changing their phone numbers and those of everyone close to them. “These people have even stopped appearing in the ordinary documents that often get leaked,” he said. “But we haven’t tracked their movements from the past few months yet.”

Four days after Navalny’s death, it’s unclear when the Russian authorities plan to hand over his body to his family — or whether they plan to do so at all. However, Grozev said that as soon as an autopsy report is published, he and his colleagues will check for the involvement of agents from the FSB Criminalistics Institute, which oversees the team that poisoned Navalny.

“If they’re overseeing the [autopsy] procedure, it will be obvious that they were the ones who carried this out,” he said. “And that they’re currently trying to make it so that no [evidence] remains on the body.”

In a video statement published on Monday, Yulia Navalnaya said that she knows “exactly why Putin killed Alexey” and promised to reveal this information in the near future. Asked whether he knows what she was referring to, Grozev said he does but that he’ll let her be the one to reveal it.

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Interview by Lilia Yapparova. English-language summary by Sam Breazeale.

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