by Gordon M. Hahn
Having reviewed Alexis Navalnyi’s video revealing the results of his investigation in cooperation with CNN, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel into his own alleged poisoning by Novichok, one can make the following conclusions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smhi6jts97I&fbclid=IwAR0iIxLjtZIhzq_ztOdAv4q0kmXkZz4zy7m1K-A3jx-urrTw9nkU3L9S6P8&ab_channel=%D0%90%D0%BB%D0%B5%D0%BA%D1%81%D0%B5%D0%B9%D0%9D%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B0%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%BD%D1%8B%D0%B9). Assuming that all that is said in the video is true – and many of the claims are not supported by evidence in the video – the investigation confirms my belief that the most likely perpetrators are rogue Russian intelligence officials or former such officials. Although neither Navalnyi nor the evidence in the video suggests that such rogue siloviki did so, I would ad that this could very well have been done in league with organized crime elements tied to these officials.
However, the evidence provided in the video does not demonstrate or support Navalnyi’s claim that Putin gave an order for his assassination or that FSB Chairman Alexander Bortnikov did so. Although these two claims cannot be excluded entirely out of hand, the evidence presented does not support such claims. Thus, for example, Navlalnyi presents phone records demonstrating, by all appearances from the video, that there were numerous phone calls between the parties he accuses of participating in the alleged poisoning in the period surrounding his alleged poisoning, which he previously establishes as likely given their travel records coinciding with Navalnyi’s own and that of his wife as well as two incidents when they both suddenly and inexplicably briefly fell ill. What Navalnyi does not present — despite his or, more likely Bellingcat hackers’ or some country’s intelligence service’s access to the phone records of those he accuses — is evidence of phone calls to Lubyanka no less any evidence of Bortnikov’s involvement not to mention that of Putin.
It is not necessarily true that such an operation could be undertaken by the specific eight names he cites allegedly having ties to the FSB and one with the military without Bortnikov’s go-ahead, not to mention Putin’s. It does seem less likely but not impossible that the organizers and perpetrators of the alleged crime would not have acted without Bortnikov’s approval if not order, but such an impression is the result of having lived in a law-based state. In countries without strong rule of law, personages and institutions can often go off on their own ventures. Competition and even violence between clans happens, and it can extend to enemies outside the regime, who may or may not have stepped on one or more regime clan’s toes. One need only to look at recent events in the U.S., where a mere decline in the rule of law has seen false charges against a sitting U.S. president of colluding with Russia being alleged by U.S. intelligence officials and Democratic Party state and federal officials. The same is true of the latter with regard to the extraordinarily high number of credible reports of electoral fraud by the Democratic Party state officials in the key swing states during the presidential election. (As an aside, CNN’s extremely unprofessional and biased ‘journalism’, its pro-Democratic Party propaganda function casts some doubt on the veracity of any role it may have played in the investigation, which given its radical indentitarian politics, characterizes Putin like Trump as fascists largely because they are white males and conservatives—of very different stripes, of course.) Given this, the possibilities for chaos and crypto-politics in a much less law-governed state like Russia seem nearly endless.
Without the rule of law, cryptopolitics tends to run increasingly rampant inside state bureaucracies, creating a downward cycle of abuse of office, hijacking of state institutions for partisan purposes, and intensified inter-factional political polarization. I would assess the likelihood of Bortnikov’s lack of involvement to be no less credible than a scenario stipulating his involvement. The same is possible with regard to the 1999 apartment bombing, Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, and Nemtsov cases, though I have proposed elsewhere a ‘Chechen trail’ as being more likely scenarios involving in each of these, with Berezovskii thrown into the mix in the apartment bombing and Litvenenko cases.
In Putin’s case, I have addressed elsewhere as how a rogue operation under Putin’s ‘watch’ is possible elsewhere – rogue groups, the desire not to provoke potentially dangerous clans, refusal to expose Russian disorder to foreigners – based on Putin’s status as more of an arbiter than a dictator within his so-called ‘sistema’ of numerous competing clans crosscutting state institutions. Navalnyi’s claim that Putin’s motive for ordering his killing was his own declaration to run in the presidential elections is completely nconvincing, since Putin has numerous ways of blocking Navalnyi from running, most obviously Navalnyi’s ineligibility ro run for office as a result of Russian law which precludes such for anyone with the status of convicted felon, which Navalnyi has, on trumped up charges albeit.
One can certainly sympathize with Navalnyi and understand how the state’s repression has prejudiced his attitudes towards Putin and his inner circle. He has been in prison. His family has been harassed and his brother incarcerated. He has had his political rights stripped from him. He hates Putin and will always find Putin to be at fault and guilty. Navalnyi has a combative personality. One need only see his interview with then presidential candidate Kseniya Sobchak a few years ago. So, he aggressively and courageously stands up against Putin’s authoritarian rule, soft authoritarian as it may be for most, though not so soft in its treatment of Navalnyi. But an analyst’s job is to assess matters not on the basis of emotion but rather on the basis of available data. To date the available data does not include evidence indicating Putin gave an order to have Navalnyi killed or that Bortnikov did. And logic suggests such an extreme measure was not necessary for them and so not in their long-term interests.
Moreover, Navalnyi’s claim — standard in the West and among the Russian opposition — that Novichok is only obtainable from Russian state institutions has been debunked by numerous sources (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/04/05/putin-skrypal-novichok-and-spy-markets-update/). First, a 2006 terrorism and medical response publication “Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook” states that Novichok agents “can be made with common chemicals in relatively simple pesticide factories.” [Charles Edward Stewart, Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook (Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2006), p. 26, https://books.google.lv/books?id=7ZnXZfwWwgcC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q=fourth%20generation&f=false]. Therefore, the nerve agent used in Salisbury could in theory be from anywhere. Among the former Soviet republics with large pesticide plants are Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
Second, while Novichok was developed and produced in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, it was tested in Soviet Uzbekistan, according to the New York Times, where apparently they were also stored in sufficient quantities that the US Defense Department worked there to destroy or remove them under a non-proliferation agreement on destroying Russia’s chemical weapons (www.nytimes.com/1999/05/25/world/us-and-uzbeks-agree-on-chemical-arms-plant-cleanup.html).
Third, it is noteworthy that some Russian stocks went undeclared for unclear reasons [Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen. Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 25 cited at http://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/russia_chemical_table3.pdf?_=1396918200%5D. Therefore, the agent could have fallen into the hands of Russian or even non-Russian non-state actors .
Fourth, the same 2006 “Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook” that is cited above notes that unspecified “Russian sources” might have given Novichok agents to Iraq and been encountered by US forces (Stewart, Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook, p. 26). Thus, in Iraq, Iraqis, Americans or whoever could have acquired the agent and passed it on to whomever.
Fifth, in 1995 a Novichok agent was reportedly used to poison Russian banker and head of the Russian Business Round Table Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary Zara Ismailova. According to The Independent, a closed trial determined that Kivelidi’s business partner “obtained the substance via intermediaries from Leonard Rink, an employee of a state chemical research institute GosNIIOKhT, one of the two Russian locations where Novichok was developed. Rink told police he had been selling such poisons to pay debts (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/uk-russia-nerve-agent-attack-spy-poisoning-sergei-skripal-salisbury-accusations-evidence-explanation-a8258911.html). The Russian opposition, pro-democracy newspaper Novaya gazeta published two detailed investigative reports documenting my point regarding Novichok’s availability to criminal groups on the black market since the mid-1990s as evidenced by the 1995 murder of businessman Kivelidi. Novaya gazeta provides documents from the questioning of Leonid Rink, a director of a department at Russia’s Shikhani plant that produced ‘Novichok’, who gave several samples to two different individuals, one of which was never recovered. From his testimony, it appears Rink gave out some 5 samples each with doses a hundred times more powerful than needed to kill; 4 were recovered by the FSB upon arresting the criminal (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/02/76026-otritsanie-novichka and http://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/03/22/75896-rezhim-novichka). However, it is not know whether all the chemical agent in these vials was recovered. Moreover, on page 152 of the prosecutor’s report shown in the article, it is noted that Rink prepared 8-9 vials, not 5 (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/02/76026-otritsanie-novichka). The sample(s) not recovered certainly could have ended up on the black market and fallen into the hands of other criminals. Indeed, the same section notes that Rink sold a vial “to a person of Chechen nationality on 13 September 1995.” The Chechen link suggests a purchase by an organized crime member — Chechens had a large organized crime syndicate — or someone associated with the rebel Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya, at the time a mostly ultra-nationalist though evolving jihadi terrorist structure. That the sale occurred 10 months into the first Chechen war is of interest. Also of interest is that Rink was never arrested, perhaps having traded information for immunity or perhaps he was protected by a rogue siloviki group (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/02/76026-otritsanie-novichka). ‘Oddly’, no Western media has picked up on these detailed reports. Only a Russian newspaper, embattled albeit, has had the courage to go against the trend in the liberal global media in its publications on the Skrypal case and publish real investigative reports. This information was reiterated by Novaya gazeta‘s editor-in-chief Dmitrii Muratov in the wake of the Navalnyi alleged poisoning (https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2707131-echo/). Navalnyi’s ignoring this data indicates the extent to which he is suffering from confirmation bias driven by understandable emotion and the desire for revenge against Putin.
In sum, again, the evidence Navalnyi presents if full and accurate suggests that at a minimum we have had a rogue FSB operation to assassinate Mr. Navalnyi. Further evidence is needed in order to widen the circle of those to be considered having been involved, and of course Navalnyi and his partners need to publish hard or electronic versions of all the data presented and referred to but presented in his video. The evidence provided should be enough for Russian prosecutors to begin an investigation, which should have been done already anyway. Again, Putin’s failure to nudge law enforcement to begin investigating is at this point demonstrates political motives of the kind outlined above rather than criminal motives on his part. Finally, an open mind would dictate that however unlikely the version of the incident that holds Putin ordered the FSB in one way or another to assassinate Navalnyi, it should be pursued by journalists and law enforcement. At the same time, however, the version that Putin did not order the assassination ought to be pursued, if only as a check on other versions.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: The West and the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.