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Photo: Alexei Druzhinin\TASS via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday denied that Russian intelligence officers were involved in the near-deadly Novichok poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, suggesting with a laugh that they "would have probably finished the job," the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: A bombshell investigation led by open-source research group Bellingcat found that agents of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) with expertise in chemical weapons followed Navalny on more than 30 trips to and from Moscow starting in 2017 before he was poisoned in August.

  • An analysis of "voluminous telecom and travel data" by Bellingcat suggests the poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok “was mandated at the highest echelons of the Kremlin."
  • Bellingcat's investigation also alleged that Russia is operating a clandestine chemical weapons program operating under the cover of an FSB investigative unit.

What he's saying: Speaking at an annual news conference, Putin insisted that American intelligence was the reason why the poisoning has continued to receive so much attention, and seemed to acknowledge that Navalny was being surveilled, per theTimes.

  • "This patient in the Berlin clinic has the support of American intelligence agencies," Putin said without naming Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and one of Russia's prominent Putin critics.
  • "The intelligence agencies of course need to keep an eye on him. But that does not mean that he needs to be poisoned — who needs him? If they had really wanted to, they would have probably finished the job," he continued.
  • Putin also suggested that Western intelligence agencies were using the poisoning to increase Navalny's popularity.

Flashback: Specialist labs in France and Sweden confirmed in September that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a calling card of the Russian security services. Navalny, who fell into a coma but ultimately recovered in a German hospital, accused Putin in October of orchestrating the poisoning.

  • The Kremlin denied this, with Putin even suggesting that Navalny poisoned himself for attention.
  • Of note: Novichok is the same agent used in the attempted assassination in 2018 of Sergei Skripal, a Russian former double agent who had relocated to the U.K.

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
Jan 26, 2021 - World

Biden holds first phone call with Putin, raises Navalny arrest

Putin takes a call in 2017. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

President Biden on Tuesday held his first call since taking office with Vladimir Putin, pressing the Russian president on the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the Russia-linked hack on U.S. government agencies.

The state of play: Biden also raised arms control, bounties allegedly placed on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, according to a White House readout. The statement said Biden and Putin agreed maintain "consistent communication," and that Biden stressed the U.S. would "act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies."

Dave Lawler, author of World
46 mins ago - World

Globetrotting climate envoy Kerry makes Biden team’s first visit to China

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

John Kerry became the first senior Biden administration official to touch down in China this week. He's also been the first to sit down with a string of world leaders.

Why it matters: Kerry may no longer be secretary of state, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise after a glance at his calendar. The unusual role could make Kerry a foreign policy force multiplier for President Biden, or potentially a source of mixed messages.