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Alexei Navalny. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

One of the Russian agents who tailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny before his poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok in August was duped into revealing how the botched operation was carried out in a 49-minute phone call with Navalny himself, CNN and Bellingcat report.

Why it matters: Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that the Kremlin had any role in Navalny's poisoning, calling the anti-corruption activist a pawn of Western intelligence and claiming that Russian agents "would have probably finished the job" if they were responsible.

The big picture: Bellingcat and CNN uncovered "voluminous telecom and travel data" in a joint investigation published last week that suggests the poisoning "was mandated at the highest echelons of the Kremlin." The call recorded by Navalny appears to be the first piece of direct evidence that the chemical weapons unit Bellingcat tracked was in fact involved in the attack.

Details: Navalny, who recovered from the poisoning after a long stint in a German hospital, provided audio recordings to CNN and Bellingcat of a call in which he impersonated a high-ranking security official to Konstantin Kudryavtsev, a member of a toxins team in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

  • Kudryavtsev said the team applied Novichok to a pair of Navalny's underpants so that it would be absorbed through his skin when he began to sweat.
  • Navalny began to feel ill on a flight to Moscow from the Russian city of Tomsk, and the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, where he received life-saving medical treatment.
  • Toxicology experts told CNN that Navalny would have almost certainly died if he had flown to Moscow before being treated.

What they're saying: "Well I think it was supposed to happen shortly thereafter, maybe even… Or maybe it was calculated that he would fly, because you know, yes: it takes three hours or so to fly, it’s a long flight," Kudryavtsev responded when asked what went wrong in the operation.

  • "If you don't land the plane the effect would've been different and the result would've been different," he added. "So I think the plane played the decisive part."

While CNN and Bellingcat did not find evidence Kudryavtsev was in Tomsk for the poisoning, the call suggests he traveled to Omsk, where Navalny was treated, to clean up evidence.

  • He told Navalny that agents used a special procedure to cleanse Navalny's clothes of any traces of Novichok: "They treated it with solutions, that it wasn’t… ohhhh… how to say it… treated it so there wouldn’t be any marks there, nothing like that."
  • Kudryavtsev also insisted that there was no chance Navalny could have recognized the agents: "Oh, no, we always have strictly approached this, changing our clothes, and other stuff."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Jan 27, 2021 - World

At Davos, Putin points to U.S. to warn Big Tech is driving social divisions

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the virtual “Davos Agenda” conference on Wednesday that recent events in the U.S. had underscored the danger of “public discontent” combined with “modern technology.”

The big picture: Putin, a late addition to the speakers' list, is facing protests at home over the arrest of opposition figure Alexey Navalny. Several experts and activists criticized the World Economic Forum for inviting him, with chess champion and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov tweeting that Putin’s appearance showed he was “desperate to reassure his cronies he's still acceptable in the West despite his brutal crackdown.”

National parks "drowning in tourists"

Expand chart
Data: National Park Service; note: Gateway National Recreation Area is excluded due to missing data in 2021. Chart: Connor Rothschild/Axios

National Parks across the U.S. are overflowing with a post-pandemic crush of tourists, leading to increased issues with congestion, traffic jams, user experience, strain on staff and increased damage to the parks.

Why it matters: Some are seeing such a record number they're being forced to limit, and even close, access to certain areas to avoid the danger of eroding the land. The result, ultimately, could change the way Americans interact with the parks going forward.

Why Mark Zuckerberg is going meta

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Michaela Handrek-Rehle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook's "next chapter," Mark Zuckerberg says, is to be prime builder of "the metaverse" — an open, broadly distributed, 3D dimension online where, he says, we will all conduct much of our work and personal lives.

The big picture: Zuckerberg admits Facebook will only be one of many companies building this next-generation model of today's internet — but he also intends Facebook to lead the pack.