The investigation of Alexei Navalny’s poisoning by the officers of the FSB Criminalistics Institute (commonly known as the NII-2) has exposed a few more operations this team had a hand in. In this installment, you will learn about their successful assassination attempts. Our findings have shown that the victims, the motives, and the method of murders varied greatly. The team of hitmen, however, was more or less the same: a group of officers from the NII-2 and FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System, which is known for persecuting political activists, among other things. We also learned that the FSB task force displayed cynicism and overconfidence, turning down CCTV footage in an entire street before killing a journalist and stepping forward to run forensic blood tests after their victim's death. It also turned out that, apart from activists and journalists, they targeted mainstream figures, even those appearing on propagandist TV shows and criticizing Navalny.
A joint investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat with contribution from Der Spiegel
It is not always possible to link mysterious poisonings to specific assassins unambiguously based on the information about their movements. For one, many considered the possibility that the same gang of assassins who tried to poison Navalny may also have murdered terrorist Doku Umarov in 2013. Doku Umarov, the leader of a terrorist group calling itself Imarat Kavkaz, died on September 7, 2013. According to Kavkazsky Uzel sources, he was poisoned with a highly-potent chemical in the course of an FSB operation. We have proof of two Navalny’s poisoners – Vladimir Panyaev and Alexei Alexandrov – heading for the south of Russia late in August 2013 (Panyaev to Makhachkala and Alexandrov to Krasnodar). Indeed, this may have been a coincidence. However, at least three cases of murders coinciding with similar travel arrangements leave little doubt about the complicity of this group of poisoners.
On the evening of July 31, 2014, Timur Kuashev, a journalist and human rights advocate from Nalchik, a resort city in the south of Russia, was going to the theater to watch his mother in one of her performances. At half past six, half an hour before the curtain, he called his mother and promised to dress appropriately and arrive on time. Shortly after, eyewitnesses saw him leave home and meet two acquaintances (whom he greeted with a hug). They left together and presumably got into a car. He did not seem to be leaving for a long time because he had left his papers and his mobile phone at home (normally, he always carried it with him). He never showed up at the theater. Returning home at around ten p.m., his mother found his mobile phone, theater tickets, some cash, and his ring, which he only took off to shower. On the following day, his body was found at the side of the road in a forest outside the community of Khasanya in the outskirts of Nalchik. He was lying on the ground face down. His face and knees were scratched and bruised. The forensic expert detected an injection mark in his armpit.
The forensic report (in Russian)
The abrasions on Timur's face were only on his brow and cheeks, as though one of the assassins had put a cloth soaked with chloroform or a similar substance on his nose and mouth from behind to render him unconscious. Despite the abundant evidence of violence, the 26-year-old activist was pronounced dead from coronary failure.
Not long before his death, on July 13, 2014, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who would later become known for his detailed reports on poisonings to “Patrushev's assistant Maxim Ustinov” enacted by Navalny, arrived in Nalchik. A week later, on July 22, Doctor Ivan Osipov, another FSB NII-2 officer who would later poison Navalny, flew to Mineralnye Vody (an hour and a half’s drive away from Nalchik). On July 29, two more task force members, Denis Machikin and Roman Matyushin, arrived in Vladikavkaz, another city nearby. Both of them had return flights booked for July 30, while Osipov intended to fly back on the 31st. However, something went south, pushing the attack one day forward. Both the abduction and the murder occurred on July 31, and all of the poisoners rebooked their flights: Machikin and Matyushin flew out on the same day, and Osipov followed them on August 1.
When the journalist’s father Khambi Kuashev (a seasoned Soviet police investigator) tried to find out what had happened to his son, he found many inconsistencies. Thus, all CCTV cameras along the route from Kuashev's home to his body's location (at least four cameras) turned out to have been disabled on the night of his death “due to a malfunctioning switchboard”.
The official reply to the request for CCTV camera footage on the night of Kuashev's death (in Russian)
Kuashev's father also told The Insider that Timur's keys were missing (no one had been able to find them at the murder site). He believes the assassins visited Timur’s apartment and took his flash drive, which he had normally kept plugged into his computer. The drive is missing too. The father also insisted on a forensic examination to check if his son had been poisoned. Kuashev's blood samples were sent to Moscow – for tests at the very same FSB NII-2. Naturally, they did not find anything suspicious. The forensic report was signed by none other than Vasily Kalashnikov, whom Kudryavtsev mentioned on the phone with Navalny (Kalashnikov is the only known poisoner to have been in Omsk; as an expert in gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, he was most likely tasked with verifying if Novichok was still traceable in the poisoned politician's blood).
The forensic report saigned by Kalashnikov
There is more. The criminal case termination statement reads that on the day of Kuashev’s death his phone received two text messages from the Megafon service center (that is, from the mobile carrier). According to Megafon, it is “technically impossible” to access the content of such messages.
An excerpt from the case file regarding Megafon's reply to the request for Kuashev's cell phone records (in Russian)
However, Kuashev's cell phone records were purged of all his calls and text messages up to August 2, including his call to his mother and the two texts from July 31 mentioned in the case file.
Journalist Maxim Shevchenko, who knew Timur Kuashev and his father, closely examined the circumstances of his death and believes Timur was poisoned for covering court proceedings:
“I think Kuashev was assassinated for his active coverage of the trial of 58 defendants in the case of the Nalchik mutiny of 2005. The demonstrative proceedings had been going on for seven years, with the authorities promoting the narrative of an “Al-Qaeda underground” in Kabardino-Balkaria. When General Sergey Melikov was assigned Putin's plenipotentiary representative in the North Caucasus and Yury Kokov headed the republic, Moscow ordered to wrap it up with the trial. Timur attended every hearing and kept detailed minutes of this disgraceful lawsuit. Eventually, the defendants who had been arrested with weapons in their hands got seven years of jail, while Rasul Kudaev got a life sentence in the high-security Black Dolphin Prison without any substantial evidence. Allegedly, he was 'complicit in the murder of a police officer', who was not even named – because no one had been killed anywhere near his location. He had spent the entire day at home, which was confirmed by many journalists who had called him for comments on the unrest that day. Kudaev was made into a scapegoat because the authorities needed an Al-Qaeda connection, and as a former Guantanamo prisoner, he fit the bill just perfectly (even though the Americans had not charged him with anything).
Timur Kuashev was covering these aspects in great detail, and the authorities were hard-pressed to bring the proceedings to a conclusion, though it was not legally possible: even announcing the sentence was supposed to take around six months. However, they were done in just a few days. Naturally, someone who regularly attended the hearings and shared every word with the public was in the way.”
As one of the few independent journalists in the region, Kuashev kept receiving threats and pressure from local authorities and security agencies. Once a box was placed at his doorstep, with wires and a caption: “gift from uncle to Timur Kuashev Kalashnikov pistol” [sic]. While he was away at the police station reporting it, someone removed the box. In 2014, more threats followed.
Kuashev mentioning threats in a personal chat
Although Timur Kuashev had many ill-wishers, the FSB-controlled trial of presumed “terrorists” may have become the main reason why the secret service took a particular interest in him.
Interestingly, based on parking data, both Machikin and Matyushin work at the FSB’s Second Division with an ironic name: “Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System”. Since 2006, the Service has been headed by Army General Alexey Sedov, a native of Saint Petersburg. As the Dossier Center informs, Sedov is the appointee of billionaire Roman Rottenberg, ex-mayor of Saint Petersburg Georgy Poltavchenko, and “the President's massage therapist” Konstantin Goloshchapov. The FSB's Second Division is the security agency that takes care of Russian political activists (admittedly, it investigates real gangsters and extremists too, including Dzhako’s gang and the BORN neo-Nazi group).
On March 24, 2014, the town of Kaspiysk (outside Makhachkala) was shaken by the murder of Ruslan Magomedragimov, a local activist from the regional movement Sadval (“Unity”). Around noon on the same day, he had called an acquaintance and arranged to meet him at an upcoming Lezgin language festival. He never made it to that rendezvous. His body was found in a seaside park at around two or three p.m. His car was parked some 400 meters away from the body, in a remote, isolated courtyard of 24 Lenina Street. According to Islam Klichkhanov, a friend of the deceased, someone had taken the dash camera and two out of his three cell phones. The pre-investigation inspection revealed someone else's footprint inside Magomedragimov’s car. According to the official version, Ruslan died from suffocation, even though no traces of violence were identified. His family members insisted that two dots resembling injection marks were visible on his neck.
In January 2015, poisoner doctor Ivan Osipov visited Makhachkala twice for a couple of days. From March 11 to March 16, Kudryavtsev also paid a visit. Finally, a few days before the murder, on March 20, 2015, Ivan Osipov flew to Vladikavkaz (a four-hour drive away from Kaspiysk), to return to Moscow two days after the murder. While in Timur Kuashev’s case the number of flights taken by the poisoners rules out the version of a coincidence, with Magomedragimov, we can only say their involvement is highly likely. The centerpiece of this operation was Osipov, who had other trips to Makhachkala, so it might still have been a coincidence, after all. It should be noted, however, that using a syringe with poison is not at all typical of local security agencies and gangs, while more parallels can be drawn with Timur Kuashev's murder. Therefore, even a limited number of coinciding flights could be sufficient proof of the likely complicity of the NII-2 poisoners in both murders.
As an activist of Sadval, a regional civil society organization, Magomedragimov advocated the rights of the Lezgin people and promoted the idea of reuniting the Lezgins of Russia and Azerbaijan by creating an autonomy called “Lezgistan”. Despite the benign nature of the organization's activities, the FSB may have viewed it as hostile because the security service is sometimes extremely aggressive when it comes to organizations promoting “ethnic autonomy” in various Russian regions. Exactly a year after Magomedragimov’s poisoning, the chair of Sadval, Nazim Gadzhiev, was found dead in his apartment in Makhachkala on March 20, 2016. He was reported to have died from multiple knife wounds. None of the poisoners was in town at the time, but the very fact that Sadval's leader was murdered leads us to believe that Magomedragimov's activities within the organization may have been the reason for his elimination.
On November 16, 2019, Nikita Isaev, the leader of the Novaya Rossiya (A New Russia) movement, died on a train from Tambov to Moscow. Shortly before his trip to Tambov, head of A Just Russia Sergey Mironov appointed him his regional development adviser and tasked him with selecting candidates in the city and preparing them for the election.
Isaev's death was witnessed by his assistant Alina Zhestovskaya (Lvova), who also claims to have been his lover. Here is her account of the events: “I woke up in the middle of the night and checked my phone. It was 01:12. <…> Nikita woke up too, borrowed my slippers, and went to the toilet. He was gone a while. Then he entered, bent forward. I jumped to my feet, thinking someone had stabbed him in his stomach in the aisle. I come up to him, and he says: ‘I think I may have food poisoning.’ He couldn’t say anything else. His legs gave, his eyes rolled back, and he was shaking all over. I tried to sit him on the bed and go fetch the car attendant. But he was so much heavier than me. So we both slid to the floor.”
Nikita Isaev, a selfie taken on that very train
Alina brought the car attendant, but stopping the train was not an option: there was nothing but woods for miles around, and the nearest station did not even have a dispensary. They did not reach the next stop, Uzunovo, until an hour later, when Isaev already had no pulse, his pupils were not responding to light, and his fingers and lips had turned blue. The medics at the station pronounced him dead. His body was cremated even before the forensic report was released (according to his ex-wife, this was the will of the deceased), and the official cause of his death was stated as a heart seizure. Soon after, Zhestovskaya began saying that Isaev had indeed died from a heart attack and that everyone who speculated about his or Navalny’s poisoning was just seeking publicity.
Based on the data on the known FSB poisoners’ movements, Isaev had been followed since his trip to Chelyabinsk in December 2018. Aligning data from the flight database with Isaev’s trips that he mentioned online, we identified seven matching destinations and dates (excluding his latest visit to Tambov). Most likely, there were more coincidences, considering that Bellingcat only has access to an incomplete database. The task force that was onto Isaev included two poisoners complicit in Navalny’s assassination attempt: Alexei Alexandrov and Ivan Osipov (both doctors of medicine).
Killer doctors from the FSB: Ivan Osipov and Alexei Alexandrov
Three other FSB officers were Alexander Samofal, Viktor Kravchenko, and Mikhail Tikhonov.
On the left, you may see how other users referred to Kravchenko in their contact lists ("Fsbb")
Interestingly, during the trip to Tambov, when the assassination took place, none of them is featured in the database. Three options are possible: they could have used different names, the database could have been purged, or the assassins could have come by car (Tambov is about five hours away from Moscow). However, the metadata in one of the poisoners’ phones indicates that its owner was indeed in Tambov on November 1, 2019. We cannot disclose who it was because Bellingcat is concerned that this information may endanger our source.
Isaev’s associates and relatives are open about his close ties to the Presidential Administration back from the days when Vladislav Surkov headed it and his absolute loyalty to the Kremlin. For one, he cooperated with Vasily Yakemenko and was in close touch with Alexander Malkevich (“Putin's chef” Evgeny Prigozhin’s right-hand man). He was a frequent guest on state-owned TV channels, criticized Navalny despite posing as an oppositionist, and based his political activities on environmental protection in various Russian regions. Moreover, in 2019, he was well-positioned to make a career in A Just Russia, whose deputy Oleg Shein had introduced him to party leader Sergey Mironov. They agreed to cooperate, and if their plans had come to fruition, Isaev would have run for a seat in State Duma as a party member.
And yet something may have troubled him. His relations and friends recall that he had been considering taking his family abroad since June 2019 (he never mentioned any threats, but an acquaintance he contacted in June says that Isaev was “visibly ill at ease”). According to two of his close friends, shortly before his death, Isaev suspected that Alina Zhestovskaya was “planted to keep an eye” on him and said he planned to get rid of her. Zhestovskaya had met Isaev on a train, began working with him pro bono, and soon replaced a part of his team, assuming some of his responsibilities, and taking over his scheduling.
No one from Isaev's circle can come up with a plausible explanation of how a pro-government “patriot” could have displeased the FSB. Conflicts with regional authorities are highly unlikely to be the motive, as his friends and relatives are unanimous that Isaev would have taken the hint from the federal government if someone was unhappy with his activities. Hypothetically, Nikita Isaev could have served two masters at once: both the Presidential Administration and secret services, for instance, the SVR (Russia's foreign intelligence). His frequent foreign trips, including as an “insurance agent” and “export specialist”, provided an excellent cover. The fact that he easily earned Sergey Mironov’s esteem further confirms this hypothesis (Mironov's two closest associates are SVR officers). In this case, Isaev may have done something that the secret service interpreted as treason and decided to order his assassination. However, we are yet to find any hard evidence to back this theory.