Russian spies tried to kill Putin's fiercest critic with the deadly nerve agent novichok before he could be flown to Berlin, Western intelligence sources reveal.
Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure in Russia, was on a flight from Siberia to Moscow when he started to feel ill. Sweating, disorientated and filled with a sense of impending doom, he collapsed in the aisle saying: "I'm dying, I've been poisoned."
The pilot made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, where an ambulance crew injected him with atropine, an antidote for poisons. That may have saved his life. But it is now known that the murder operation was not over.
After failing to kill him on the first attempt, suspected state security agents tried to finish off President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critic with a second dose of poison before he could be flown to safety in Berlin, western intelligence sources have told us.
The botched double assassination attempt, details of which are revealed for the first time today, demonstrates the extent to which political murders, employed extensively in the Soviet era, are again playing an important role in the Kremlin's repertoire of intimidation tactics — none with more theatrical impact than poisonings.
Passengers watched through the aircraft windows as Navalny was loaded unconscious into an ambulance in Omsk on August 20 — a reminder, if any were needed, of the risks of opposition to the Russian president.
The growing toll on Putin's critics makes the survivors seem increasingly brave, particularly Navalny, 44, a charismatic lawyer, anti-corruption campaigner and favourite punchbag for a regime that has harassed and vilified him. "The question people most frequently ask me is 'How come you're still alive?'" he said when I first met him.
Today his supporters display the same grim humour, joking that instead of trying to find out who wanted to kill Navalny, the authorities are investigating why he survived.
Before he boarded his five-hour flight to Moscow, Navalny was exposed to a nerve agent — not, as initially believed, when he drank a cup of tea in the departure lounge but when he got dressed that morning: it is thought that minute droplets of poison were squirted on to his clothes, probably his underwear.
State security agents are suspected of breaking into Navalny's hotel room when he was out at a meeting in the hours before his flight. Vladimir Uglev, a retired Russian chemist who developed nerve agents, believes Navalny's poisoners would have been instructed to place novichok on the elastic waistband of his pants, where it would come into contact with his skin.
It probably would have killed Navalny if the pilot had not insisted on landing at Omsk airport, despite being told that it was closed because of a bomb scare, possibly staged by security services to keep the opposition leader in the air.
His chances of survival were also helped by the ambulance crew.
"That atropine saved his life," said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the British army's Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment and author of Chemical Warrior.
"Nerve agents cause multiple organ failure. The lungs give up first and you die. Used quickly, atropine reverses the effects."
Navalny was not so lucky when he arrived at the hospital in Omsk. Russian state security agents had raced there, setting up base in the office of the head doctor, who was later alleged to have tried to cover up the poisoning: Navalny was more likely to be suffering from a metabolic disorder than poisoning, he announced. Fearing the hospital might be under pressure to prevent Navalny's recovery, his wife, Yulia, demanded that he be allowed to leave Russia for treatment in Germany. But the doctor said he was too weak to travel.
After international pressure, Putin eventually agreed to let Navalny go to Berlin. German security sources have told their associates in the UK that the attackers struck again as Navalny lay in an induced coma before being put on a medical flight to Germany.
"This was with a view to him being dead by the time he arrived in Berlin," one source said.
Atropine probably saved him again. "Giving a second dose of novichok would undoubtedly increase the chances of killing," said Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University. "But if he were already 'atropinised' this would counteract the nerve agent, although it might mean prolonging his coma. The toxin would take longer to be degraded in the liver."
Testing in a German military laboratory showed that Navalny had been targeted with a previously unknown form of novichok, the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector, in Salisbury in March 2018.
Novichok sounds harmless enough in Russian, meaning "newbie" or "newcomer". But there is nothing bland about the banned chemical substance developed in a Soviet laboratory in the 1970s: a drop can kill in minutes if swallowed. Its effects take longer when absorbed through the skin, but can still be lethal.
Speaking on an independent radio station last month, Uglev, who regrets developing deadly chemicals and is not a fan of the Russian government, explained that using a spray is much more effective than drops; with drops, more of the poison is absorbed by the fabric of the clothes than the victim's skin.
Whatever method is used "it's not a substance you can cook up in a kitchen, not something you could administer without training," a security official says, scoffing at Russia's denials of involvement. "Novichok can only come from a state."
So why does Russia risk international condemnation by using it against civilians at home and abroad?
After the downfall of communism, the West had expected Russia to evolve in a liberal direction. That turned out to be a forlorn hope: the country's "managed democracy" has become darkly authoritarian as Putin, 68, prepares for a third decade in power after rigging a constitutional referendum in the summer to allow him to rule until 2036.
The former KGB officer has run rings around Europe and America — he is a master of "grey zone" warfare, which goes on just below the threshold of armed conflict, using cyber-attacks and disinformation. But at home he is under threat from growing public discontent, his sense of insecurity perhaps exemplified in a law being pushed through parliament that will give Putin and his family lifetime immunity from prosecution.
Protests over corruption and poverty smouldered this summer, like forest fires through Siberia, and flared in neighbouring Belarus. The country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Putin, was accused of fiddling his re-election.
There is only one opposition figure in Russia capable of channelling such popular discontent into a mass revolt — Navalny. While convalescing in Berlin, the opposition leader said his death by poisoning "had always been on the agenda". The plan was executed in August, he believes, because Putin "got scared".
Russia's penchant for poisoning goes back long before Putin. In tsarist days, legend has it that Prince Yusupov fed cyanide to Rasputin in cakes and a glass of Madeira wine, hoping to kill him. When that failed, Rasputin was shot in the head.
Today's toxins are more terrifying and their use by the state is a powerful deterrent to Putin's opponents.
Who can forget the haunting images of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector and Putin critic, as he lay in bed suffering an agonising death in London in 2006 after drinking a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.
Recordings shared on social media of Navalny's stricken groans from the back of the aircraft and images of him unconscious on a stretcher will no doubt have a similarly chilling effect on his followers.
"It sends a very clear message — 'If you screw with us terrible things will happen'," says General Sir Richard Barrons, Britain's former commander of Britain's Joint Forces Command and an expert on "hybrid warfare". He adds: "It's more ghastly than other forms of assassination — a slow death, they like that. They like to see their enemies suffering, it adds to the message."
Also in the Kremlin's grisly arsenal is the "poison umbrella" that shot a pellet containing deadly ricin into the thigh of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, as he was waiting to catch a bus to his office at the BBC in 1978. It took him four days to die.
As our correspondent in Moscow in the early 1990s, I knew Oleg Kalugin, a reformist former KGB general who liked to dress in brogues and tweed jackets. Over tea one day at the Metropol Hotel he explained how the adapted umbrella had been supplied to a Bulgarian hit squad by his masters: he was in the room when Yuri Andropov, KGB chief and Soviet leader, signed off on the plan.
To find out more about today's poison plots, I turn to the Russian dissident and Cambridge graduate Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was a protégé of Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian opposition leader. Nemtsov was shot dead in Moscow in 2015. That same year Kara-Murza, aged 33 at the time, was also targeted — but not with bullets. He, like Navalny, was felled by a suspected nerve agent as he was about to get on a plane. Kara-Murza survived but suffered a second attack in 2017. He believes that he was singled out for assassination over his energetic lobbying in America in favour of the Magnitsky act, which allows sanctions to be imposed on Russians accused of human rights abuses.
"There's definitely a sadistic side to it," he says. "It's a painful and terrifying experience, not to be able to breathe. You feel as though you are suffocating. Like Alexei, I felt that this was it, this was the end, I was going to die. I felt the life going out of my body as different parts of it were shutting down."
He was in a coma after each poisoning and needed months to recover. "I had to learn to walk again, I used a cane for more than a year."
Kara-Murza believes that using poison gives the Kremlin a degree of deniability, since deaths and illness can always be attributed to other causes. "In my case they said the poisoning was caused probably by alcohol or an overdose of medicine."
From accidentally shooting down civilian airliners to meddling in foreign elections, the Kremlin always insists on its innocence, often to a risible degree, dismissing compelling evidence as "fake news" or western "Russophobia". One example was the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when the Kremlin denied that the Russian speakers in combat fatigues who had appeared on the streets of Crimea — and who came to be known in the press as "little green men" — were, in fact, Russian soldiers.
In Navalny's case, testing by a German laboratory made his condition a medical fact — but not for the Kremlin: it insists either that there is no proof of poisoning or that the West was somehow to blame. Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, said the poisoning could have happened in, or on the way to, Berlin.
After the Salisbury novichok attack, similar tactics were used by Alexander Yakovenko, Russia's ambassador to the UK at the time, who accused Britain of trying to kill Skripal in a "false flag" operation to make Russia look bad. He was subsequently nicknamed "Comical Ali" in the British press after Saddam Hussein's mouthpiece, famous for his outrageous claims. Yakovenko's successor, Andrei Kelin, did not reply to my letter inviting him to shed light on Russia's involvement in poisonings. He has previously described such accusations as "groundless".
The Kremlin's denials are often accompanied by a smirking nod and a wink. Alexander Murakhovsky, the head doctor at the Omsk hospital who obliged the Kremlin with his denial that Navalny had been poisoned, was promoted to regional health minister last month in what looks like a reward. Another example is the medal for "services to the nation" that Putin awarded to Andrei Lugovoi, one of two former agents in the Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor of the KGB, who were suspected of killing Litvinenko.
After leaving a radioactive trail all over London, Lugovoi was elected to Russia's parliament, enjoyed a lucrative career as a television show host and today runs a thriving security business. When I called him after the Salisbury attack, he invited me to his Moscow restaurant, another of his businesses. I recall the sneering smile playing about his lips as he denied involvement in the Litvinenko affair and claimed to have been "set up" by British intelligence. Eventually the mask fell away to reveal anger: "What bloody business of yours is it how we run our country? Russia is tired of being lectured by the West."
Just as brazen were the two suspects in the Skripal attack. They were identified as Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, officers of the GRU, a Russian military intelligence organisation, after being caught on CCTV cameras as they walked around Salisbury. Back in Russia, they went on TV to claim that they had been engaged in nothing more sinister than sightseeing.
"That incredible 'we just wanted to see the Salisbury Cathedral — it has a very famous spire' [speech] was just part of ridiculing Britain," says John Sawers, the head of MI6 from 2009 to 2014. "Using novichok against Skripal was a sort of calling card. They couldn't possibly have expected that spreading it on his doorknob wouldn't be picked up."
He goes on: "The Russians are good at choosing their targets, they like to kick people when they're down. They saw Britain as being down after the Brexit referendum and felt able to give us a good kicking at the same time as achieving what they wanted with Skripal."
Putin effectively declared open season on traitors and spies in 2010 when he proclaimed that "these people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms, whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them". Sawers believes that this may have amounted to a "general licence" to the GRU to "deal with people".
It marked the rebirth of a spy-killing unit that had been launched by Joseph Stalin in the 1940s under the name Smert Shpionam — "Death to Spies", or Smersh for short. The organisation is familiar to most for Rosa Klebb, a character in the James Bond novel From Russia With Love who had a poison-tipped blade hidden in her shoe.
The latest lethal group is known, more prosaically, as Unit 29155. It is no less ruthless, however. A 15-man team of former military veterans is reported to have operated out of the Haute-Savoie in the French Alps, roaming around Europe on a variety of "wet jobs", including the shooting of a Georgian-born Chechen rebel in Berlin in August 2019 and the poisoning in Sofia of a Bulgarian arms dealer whose car door handles were smeared with a nerve agent in 2015.
The unit's most notorious operation, though, took place in Salisbury. An investigation by the Bellingcat news agency recently found evidence that, in the run-up to the attack on Skripal, agents of Unit 29155, including Chepiga and Mishkin, liaised with various Russian scientific institutes that have carried on experimenting with novichok despite an international ban on the retention and development of chemical weapons.
The agents needed training in how to use the substance without accidentally killing themselves, passers-by or other innocent victims. Not that it did much good: they are believed to have smuggled the novichok into Britain in a specially engineered copy of a Nina Ricci perfume bottle, then thrown it away after use on Skripal's doorknob. It was found by a man who lived near Salisbury, Charlie Rowley, who gave it to Dawn Sturgess, his girlfriend. Tragically, she sniffed the novichock and then sprayed it on her wrist, not knowing that it would kill her.
Not to be outdone by their military colleagues in Unit 29155, FSB agents have also been busy disposing of a long list of enemies of the regime, sometimes through proxies. One of the victims was the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was found shot dead in the lift to her Moscow flat in 2006. Two years earlier she had regained consciousness in hospital after drinking a poisoned cup of tea on a plane. Others have been strangled, stabbed or defenestrated, their deaths chalked up as suicides.
Navalny has repeatedly been jailed and has faced constant threats. In 2017 someone threw green antiseptic dye in his face, leaving him partly blind in one eye. Last year he was treated in hospital after a severe "allergic reaction" from an unknown substance that he believes was rubbed on his pillow during one of his incarcerations.
What irks the Kremlin most about Navalny are his corruption investigations, slickly packaged in videos that are watched online by millions of his followers. In some he flies video drones over the mansions of the elite "to explain to people what corruption looks like", stoking rage among ordinary Russians at the "tsar of corruption", as Navalny calls Putin. Ever the showman, Navalny once presented me with a calendar produced by his "anti-corruption foundation" that featured photographs, one for each month, of a "dirty dozen" of Putin cronies pictured against the backdrop of their ill-gotten gains.
Such antics have earned Navalny many powerful and extremely wealthy enemies among Putin's inner circle, including Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as "Putin's chef", a restaurateur turned regime handyman who sued Navalny last year over one of his video reports. But none would feel free to act against such an important target as Navalny, I am told, without approval from the boss.
A western intelligence source specialising in Russia puts it bluntly: "Russia's leadership is not that different from a Latin American drug cartel. In their suits and ties, people in the government look sophisticated but it's just a veneer for thuggery."
While other opponents of the mobster regime wound up dead or in exile, Navalny's survival had been taken, until recently, as a sign that the Kremlin feared turning him into a martyr. That wariness is reflected in the way Putin has never referred to his rival by name, a habit adopted by underlings for whom Navalny is the "internet blogger" or the "political conman".
In August, however, Navalny was travelling around Siberia urging people to vote in local elections against Putin's "party of crooks and thieves". Siberia had already been the scene of large demonstrations against Putin, who may have feared that upheaval in Belarus would inspire Russians to rally round Navalny in revolt.
When Navalny fell ill, his team members in Tomsk went looking for evidence of poisoning in his hotel room before the security services could remove it. They bagged up water and shampoo bottles and hotel towels. A German laboratory later found traces of a nerve agent on the surface of one of the water bottles. Uglev, the retired chemist, believes that this is because Navalny touched it having got novichok on his fingers after putting on his underpants. CCTV of the hotel corridor was seized by the authorities, depriving any potential investigation — there has been none so far — of key evidence.
Navalny's clothes — another crucial piece of evidence — are missing since being removed in the hospital. He has asked for their return so they can be tested. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, responded with a knowing smirk: "With no disrespect to the patient, we don't deal with clothes. That's not our area."
In a telephone call with the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, after the attack, Putin described Navalny as a "troublemaker", adding that he might have poisoned himself.
Some argue that there are worse threats to worry us than Russia. Its economy is no match for its vast geography and giant military infrastructure — and it is struggling with the coronavirus pandemic and a drop in demand for oil and gas, the country's main exports. Continuing engagement, the argument goes, is the best way of discouraging Moscow's malevolence.
Donald Trump, the departing American president, took this stance a stage further, appearing, at the very least, to turn a blind eye to some of the most flagrant Russian abuses, including the hacking of campaign emails of his opponent, Hillary Clinton that were leaked to the press in the 2016 election that brought him to power.
Bill Browder, who pioneered the Magnitsky legislation in memory of Sergei Magnitsky, his lawyer and friend who was beaten to death in a Russian prison in 2009, says the West must wake up to Russia's threat, with a more forceful response to its multiplying misdeeds.
"Before the fall of the Soviet Union we had the Cold War and there was a containment strategy," Browder tells me, "but after that we all started to forget about Russia. And now we have a criminal dictatorship exporting criminality. We need to set in place a similarly muscular containment strategy."
Barrons, the former Joint Forces Command chief, believes that Britain must swiftly develop its own "hybrid" campaign.
"Russia uses all the levers of influence, it applies them in a thoughtful way — money, diplomacy, social media," he says. "But we have no organisation with the capacity to draw on the greater levers of power to run a campaign of influence back against them ... We can't seem to take the necessary steps, there isn't a unanimous view in Whitehall. And until there is, we'll just keep getting done over."
Navalny once told me that the best way to put pressure on Putin would be to target his cronies in London who had "bought" their way into the British establishment to create "a sort of perverted high society". Preventing them from using London's courts, property, banks and public relations firms to launder their ill-gotten roubles and reputations would quickly poison their appreciation of the Kremlin, he reckons.
A parliamentary report in July concluded that rich Russians have invested huge sums in "extending patronage ... across a wide sphere of the British establishment — PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries ... The arrival of Russian money resulted in a growth industry of enablers — individuals and organisations who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK."
As for Navalny, he has vowed not to abandon his struggle, even if he is in no fit state at the moment to lead anything, let alone the next revolution in Russia. He still struggles to pour a glass of water and use his phone, he complains.
Recovery is a long process, says Hay, the toxicologist. "After this near-death experience there are all sorts of issues to get around, psychological as well as physical. He's a very brave individual."
Navalny has promised to return to his homeland — where his close brush with martyrdom may make him even more dangerous to Putin. First, though, he must get back his full strength, he says, if he is to survive the welcome he suspects the Kremlin will try to lay on for him — another dose of poison.
Written by: Matthew Campbell
© The Times of London