CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
Pretending to be an aide to the Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prank-called the spook who tried to assassinate him with Novichok. The result was Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, and James Bond all at once.
The story began when Bellingcat—an international collective of journalists and investigators—took advantage of the Russian black market in personal data to finger at least eight FSB operatives who had shadowed the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny on more than 30 trips.
These men, they concluded from their phone and travel data, were the operatives who poisoned Navalny with Novichok.
If you need a refresher on Navalny’s poisoning, here’s Navalny himself narrating the best 50 minutes of television you’ll watch this year:
Yes, yes, it’s like in a movie—only real life. It’s cooler than any movie.
The case of my attempted murder has been solved. We know the names of the killers— real and fake. We know their addresses. We know their place of work: the FSB. We know the organizers and customers.
This is one of the most amazing investigations ever. After examining it, you will understand why Putin, personally, lies so desperately about my poisoning. Why propagandists are going crazy.
After the publication of this video, the authorities will throw a real tantrum, and I ask you to help. Of course, there will be no official investigation. But let’s answer the scoundrels at least by disseminating this video as widely as possible so that tens of millions will know the truth about what happened.
A few days ago, at his annual press conference, Putin haughtily declared the FSB–—the successor organization to the Soviet Union’s KGB—had nothing to do with Navalny’s poisoning. “If we’d wanted him dead,” he said, “the case would have been concluded.”
So Navalny got on the phone and called the FSB—on their landline. He declared that he was “Maxim Ustinov,” an aide to the Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev.
There is no such person as Maxim Ustinov.
Navalny managed to get through to Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an FSB operative who graduated from the Military Biological-Chemical Academy, then worked in the Biowar Institute of the Ministry of Defense.
Maxim Ustinov ripped into Kudryavtsev: “How come Navalny’s still alive, you sacks of—”
Kudryavtsev stammered. Maybe not a good idea to talk about this on an open line?
“Forget all of that!” Maxim Ustinov barked at him. “The boss is furious.” Ustinov—who doesn’t exist, remember—declared that he needed every team member’s personal assessment of the operation, and he needed it immediately, and furthermore, he added, General Vladimir Bogdonov himself—director of FSB’s Special Technology Department—had authorized this call. The heads of the Security Council need a report from every member of the team! Do not make Nikolay Platonovich wait! “Did you hear what I said, Konstantin Borisovich? I am calling on Patrushev’s orders!”
That’s all it took. Kudryavtsev, the terrified fool, spent the next 49 minutes confessing every detail of Navalny’s attempted murder, on an open line, while the astonished Bellingcat journalists listened.
“I am doing a report for Nikolay Platonovich,” Navalny said to Kudryavtsev, “which will be discussed by the Security Council at the most senior level. I need a single paragraph from every unit member: What went wrong? Why was the Navalny operation in Tomsk a complete failure? Tell me your view, I will write it down and then you can elaborate further in your own report.”
The cowed Kudryavtsev obliged. The problem, he explained, was that everyone was more competent than they expected them to be: The pilot landed so quickly; the ambulance was waiting at the airport; the medics knew just what to do …
Navalny continued, in character. He demanded Kudryavtsev rate his colleagues’ performance. “Okay. From one to ten, how do you assess Osipov?—Wait,” he said, in the voice of a bureaucrat both imperious and beleaguered, “… so I can write it down.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Kudryavtsev replied. “I assess him positively.”
“Therefore,” Navalny retorted, “one might reasonably ask, and I am sure you would agree, and I must explain to Patrushev—if both Alexandrov and Osipov were doing their job well, how come the operation failed?”
“Well, I’ve been wondering about that myself,” Kudryavtsev said, “not once or twice—”
“Perhaps, the dosage was not correctly estimated?
“Well,” Kudryavtsev said, “I can’t say that. As far as I know, we added a bit extra.”
Navalny continued, unfazed. The long-suffering Maxim Ustinov told Kudryavtsev, “You understand where I’m coming from. My bosses are telling me—you know what bosses are like—‘Hurry! Go! Write this again, for the fifteenth time!’”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” replied Kudryavtsev —he knew what bosses are like .
“Let us then turn to the specific technique,” Navalny continued, much in the manner of a man trying to solve the chronic under-supply of Ladies’ Size Seven to the Glavny Universalny Magazin shoe inventory. “How was the substance administered? Do you think an appropriate method was selected?
“Oh, yes, yes. I think, yes.”
“How can I briefly present this in the report?”
Kudryavtsev momentarily considered the wisdom of explaining this. “Well, this should be communicated via a secure channel … ”
The exasperated Maxim Ustinov chastised him. “Do you understand who will read this report? On this level, there is no place for operative channels. On this level, people are not concerned with details—I must explain them briefly how things transpired, and I want to do it correctly!”
“How what transpired?”
“How was the substance administered?
“Well, maybe I should say this on a secure channel—”
“Look. Again. We’re having a frank conversation! You understand why I’m writing this: a bottle, a scandal, television—all discovered! That’s why my bosses are telling me to explain why it was discovered. Why it was on the bottle. And I must explain it succinctly.”
It’s hard to pick the best part, but perhaps it’s this:
Navalny: And on which piece of cloth was your focus on? Which garment had the highest risk factor?
Kudryavtsev: The underpants.
Navalny: The underpants.
Kudryavtsev: A risk factor in what sense?
Navalny: Where the concentration could be highest?
Kudryavtsev: Well, the underpants.
Navalny: Do you mean from the inner side or from the outer? I have an entire questionnaire about this, which I am about to discuss with Makshakov, but will require your knowledge as well.
Kudryavtsev: Well, we were processing the inner side. This is what we were doing.
Navalny: Well, imagine some underpants in front of you, which part did you process?
Kudryavtsev: The inner, where the groin is.
Navalny: The groin?
Kudryavtsev: Well, the crotch, as they call it. There is some sort of seams there, by the seams.
Navalny: Wait, this is important. Who gave you the order to process the codpiece of the underpants?
Kudryavtsev: We figured this on our own. They told us to work on the inner side of the underpants.
Navalny: Who said that? Makshakov?
Navalny: I am writing it down. The inner side. Okay … the grey-colored underwear, do you remember?
Kudryavtsev: Blue. But I am not sure, better ask him about it.
Navalny: And they are whole, I mean theoretically we could give them back? We are not going to do this, but they are undamaged and everything is ok with them?
Kudryavtsev: Yes, all is clear.
Navalny: Visually, nothing would be discovered? There are no spots, nothing?
Kudryavtsev: No, no. Everything is fine, they are in good condition, clean.
Navalny: The trousers?
Kudryavtsev: There was a possibility that something remained there—on the inner side. So we cleaned them, as well. But this is hypothetical, since there was contact with the trousers, so some of it may be there. We processed the trousers. They are also clean and everything is fine with them.
Navalny: Do you think this was a mistake—the method of administration?
Kudryavtsev: Well, this is not my call.
Navalny: What is your opinion?
Kudryavtsev: It’s is what my superiors decided, therefore, it is probably correct. The method is a good one.
Navalny: Well, he remains alive, therefore, it is not that good. Do you understand what I am saying?
The Belling Cat crew presumably stood there with their jaws agape and whispered to each other: “Impossible. They can’t be this dumb. They just can’t be. These are the uber-geniuses who just pulled off cyber Pearl Harbor? The masterminds behind the destruction of liberal democracy in the West? How could they possibly be so gullible, so stupid, so lacking in basic tradecraft? They fell for a prank, for God’s sake—a Navalny prank! They are absolute idiots!”
Then it probably began to dawn on them. I assume they felt a bit sheepish upon realizing what that means. It couldn’t be clearer, though: Our guys must be dumber than these bozos.
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.