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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

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
Jan 19, 2021 - Podcasts

Bill Browder on Russia-U.S. relations after Alexei Navalny's arrest

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was recently arrested in Moscow, just months after being poisoned in an assassination attempt, in what could become Joe Biden’s first major foreign policy test.

Axios Re:Cap speaks with Bill Browder, an investor and author who has his own history of clashing with Putin, to better understand the Navalny situation and how the U.S. might respond by using a law that Browder helped create.

Trump political team disavows "Patriot Party" groups

Marine One carries President Trump away from the White House on Inauguration Day. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Donald Trump's still-active presidential campaign committee officially disavowed political groups affiliated with the nascent "Patriot Party" on Monday.

Why it matters: Trump briefly floated the possibility of creating a new political party to compete with the GOP — with him at the helm. But others have formed their own "Patriot Party" entities during the past week, and Trump's team wants to make clear it has nothing to do with them.