‘A series of horrible events’ Journalist Christo Grozev on the circumstances of Navalny’s death and Putin’s plans for the future

Four years ago, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) tried to murder opposition politician Alexey Navalny using the chemical nerve agent Novichok. At the time, a team led by investigative journalist Christo Grozev was able to identify the agents behind the attack. Now, Grozev believes the FSB may have finished the job. Russian journalist and writer Mikhail Zygar spoke with Grozev about the ongoing investigation into Navalny’s death and about Grozev’s behind-the-scenes work on a potential humanitarian exchange to free the politician in the lead-up to his passing. Meduza summarizes the interview.

Not all the statements below are Grozev’s direct quotations, but their essence has been preserved.

On the investigation into Navalny’s death

I can say that we have data, although the authorities are hiding much more than before. They’ve learned not to leave traces after our previous investigations. Still, they keep making mistakes, so I’m confident we’ll find those responsible. But the very behavior of the authorities shows they have something to hide. It shows fear and unease. And I think we’ll soon find the reason for this fear.

It’s not possible to draw conclusions based on incomplete data, but we can look at the issue analytically. I believe that this is almost certainly Novichok. Because it’s highly likely and possible that they attempted to finish what they started in 2020 in the same way. Otherwise, they’re left with another unfinished Novichok killing, where they’ve invested so much time and money that abandoning it would be inconceivable.

On negotiations for a humanitarian exchange

I apologize for not saying everything because there’s still an ongoing process. There are other political prisoners whose fate we’ll keep working on.

It was a long process that began more than a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, when Masha [Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation,] and I decided that after the start of the war, we needed to find a way to free Alexey.

The first reason for this was because after the start of the war, it became clear that the Russian authorities had already crossed all their red lines and that there was no longer any political or reputational cost for Putin’s regime. Consequently, there was nothing holding Putin back from completing the attempt on Alexey’s life. The second reason was because Alexey had to become the loudest and most visible opponent of the war in order to end it as soon as possible. We believed he could do this better while free than from prison. […] Although no one asked him, we decided that the moral calculation that compelled him to return to Russia before the start of the war had changed. And so the process, which was very long and very complex, began.

On choosing to offer Krasikov for Navalny

It was clear to me from the very beginning who, among all the spies imprisoned in the civilized world, Putin values most: [Vadim] Krasikov.

I’ve been investigating this since the day he assassinated [Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin]. I tried to find information on Khangoshvili, but he was really a refugee, fought during the Chechen war, and so on. Putin called him a terrorist. But that’s an epithet, an evaluative judgment that needs proving. Putin was just saying words. From that day on, it became clear that Krasikov was a very important guy.

Why? First of all, the people they use for these crucial and symbolic assassination attempts are agents who’ve already been commended. For example, with the attempt on the Skripals — the people they sent were already named Heroes of Russia for other things, right? In other words, the authorities give Heroes of Russia tasks that are very symbolic, very showy. And it’s not some kind of obligation, it’s a privilege for someone to try to kill a Chechen in the center of Berlin who, apparently, Putin considered a very important enemy. Because we’ve never seen Putin justify a murder so openly and frequently before and call the victim all kinds of names. Apparently, he was an important target for Putin. So, sending some unimportant, ordinary FSB guy there to do the job, well, that’s illogical.

Second of all, during the investigation, it became clear that Krasikov had received a lot of awards. […] He was considered an exemplary employee. And it also became clear that he’d participated in other assassination attempts before that could also be linked to the Kremlin’s interests, to Putin’s interests.

On the details of the deal

We began putting together a deal that involved many countries. Russia was supposed to release American citizens, whose number increased during our project because they arrested our colleague, Evan Gershkovich. But there were also a number of political prisoners — we almost tried to get them all in the exchange. But to do this, we needed to find an equal number of criminals, murderers, or just Russian spies sitting in Western prisons. This is my job, I’m working on it, this is exactly what I’ve investigated. It was logical for me to be the one searching for these people and creating the lists. And, logically, there were a lot of these types of criminals.

They’re imprisoned in different countries: in the U.S., in Europe, in Poland, in Norway, in Brazil. We created some kind of a list for the exchange. We really hoped it would become the list for a real deal. And the day before [Navalny’s] murder, we were very optimistic. But the next morning, we heard the sad news.

On Putin knowing about the deal

When I watched [Tucker Carlson’s] interview with [Vladimir Putin], I already knew what I’m telling you now. I was looking at [Putin] and thinking how angry he was that he was blatantly offered Krasikov in exchange for Alexey Navalny. He addressed Americans directly, who he genuinely believes control Germany. He started saying: ‘What are you doing? Call your vassal, then, and tell him to give me Krasikov, and I’ll give you Evan [Gershkovich].’ […] It was an emotional response, for me. He was somehow very upset about this offer. Then, I got a little worried. But the most important thing for me at the time was that the West wouldn’t back down, would stick to their guns. And they held their ground to the end: ‘We want Navalny.’

On a new generation of Kremlin spies

The authorities have left exposed intelligence agents for internal tasks, including in the war against Ukraine. Tasks where they don’t need to show their faces or travel with passports — because the authorities have permanently closed that chapter for them.

They’ve trained new people for international operations. They’re all about 10-15 years younger than Petrov and Boshirov. They were born between 1993 and 1998, and they’re being trained for international terrorist operations. The good thing is, we know who all of them are.

On the possibility of more political murders

After Alexey’s death, my source hinted that this won’t be the last such incident. I don’t want to make predictions, but I really fear that Putin’s motivation with this murder was to prove to the West that he doesn’t have any more lines he won’t cross and to force them to negotiate on Ukraine on his terms.

[…] Putin probably has a lot of these warning shots — you know, like in the movies where hostages are taken, and then the mafia starts killing them one by one until they’re given, say, 10 million in a suitcase.

I think we’re entering a period like this now, where it will be a series of horrible events. Putin will signal to the West that, if you’re not ready to negotiate, it’ll be even worse. It’s better to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and do everything possible to prevent it than to look at everything through rose-colored glasses.

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