Russian Poet Dmitry Bykov Targeted by Navalny Poisoners

  • In a December 2020 investigation, Bellingcat and its partners identified seven FSB officers who had tailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny on more than 35 trips around Russia since early 2017. Three members of this group – which included chemical weapons experts, medical doctors and security operatives – had shadowed Navalny to Novosibirsk and onward to Tomsk, during his August 2020 trip to Siberia. Navalny fell into a near-fatal coma on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on 21 August 2020, the result of what three European laboratories and the OPCW later identified as severe Novichok poisoning. The telephone of one member of the FSB team was geolocated within walking distance of the hotel Navalny was staying the night before he fell ill.
  • During a phone call with Navalny, one of the members of the FSB team – Konstantin Kudryavtsev, a chemical engineer with a military chemical weapons background, stated that the FSB team poisoned the Russian politician, and subsequently tried to cover its tracks by removing traces of the nerve agent from the victim’s clothes. 
  • Subsequent investigations by Bellingcat identified significant correlations between the travels of members of this FSB squad, and previously unexplained poisonings or deaths of several other public figures – including the twice near-fatal poisoning of outspoken opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza. Other likely targets included two human rights activists in the Caucasus as well as an anti-corruption activist.
  • As the number of investigated cases grew, a pattern emerged in each poisoning case showing collaborative action of two FSB departments: secret service operatives from the anti-extremism department of the FSB’s Second Service, on one hand, and chemical weapons specialists with chemistry or medical backgrounds from FSB’s Criminalistics Institute, on the other. In the early stages, a poisoning target would be tailed by members of the Second Service, while the Criminalistics Institute experts would typically join them in the latter, implementation phase of each poisoning operation. In each case, members from both FSB units participated in the final, operational trips during which the victim was poisoned. 
  • In addition, in each of the cases identified by Bellingcat the poisoning took place outside of Moscow, typically during the victim’s trip to a provincial town. It is not clear whether this pattern is the result of preference for poisoning the targets in remote locations – where both access to the victim’s personal items in hotel rooms is easier, and the victim’s access to quality medical treatment is less likely – or the result of a selection bias, due to the fact that our initial clues to a poisoning incident are based on comparison of travel data.

An illustration of Dmitry Bykov (c): Bellingcat

Bellingcat and its investigative partners have identified a cluster of plane and train trips by members of these two FSB units that coincided in time and place with the travels of Dmitry Bykov, a leading Russian intellectual and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin. The poison squad’s trips took place in the period between May 2018 and April 2019, and culminated in a flight to Novosibirsk on 12 April 2019 that preceded Bykov’s arrival on a lecture tour in Siberia by just a few hours. Two members of the FSB squadone from the Second Service, and one from the Criminalistics institute, traveling under cover identitiesstayed in Novosibirsk alongside Bykov on 13 April 2019, and on the next morning left back to Moscow on tickets they booked at the last minute.

Dmitry Bykov then flew to Ekaterinburg the next day and on to Ufa the following morning. He fell severely ill during the flight to Ufa, began uncontrollable vomiting and ultimately lost consciousness just after the plane landed. He remained in a coma for five days, suffering from what doctors initially diagnosed as cerebral edema and critical blood glucose levels. He was placed on artificial ventilation and treated symptomatically as well through broad-action antibiotics against an unknown source of “bacterial poisoning”.

Following persistent intervention from his Novaya Gazeta colleagues, and despite initial obstruction by authorities, Bykov was ultimately transported to a Moscow neurological institute where he regained consciousness on 20 April 2019. Over the next week his condition improved and he was discharged on 26 April, despite the cause of his sudden neurological failure remaining unidentified. Initially doctors believed he may have suffered a stroke, but later changed their diagnosis to “unspecified brain damage” linked to a type-2 diabetes condition. Bykov’s hospital release document attributes the medical emergency to an unidentified bacterial food poisoning. Bykov says his emergency doctors privately advised him they could not find the source of the poisoning. Chemical weapons experts consulted by Bellingcat confirmed that Bykov’s severe medical symptoms could be reasonably explained with the neurological effects of organo-phosphate poisoning.

The case of Dmitry Bykov’s presumed poisoning bears a striking resemblance to that of Alexey Navalny, including an extended FSB tailing period, presence of the same FSB officers near the victim shortly before the poisoning, an onset of symptoms and collapse into a coma during a flight, and an initial obstruction by authorities to the victim’s relocation to a more sophisticated medical establishment.

Who is Dmitry Bykov

Dmitry Bykov is a well-known Russian writer, poet and journalist. Renowned as a literary critic, educator and a satirist, he often churns out satirical poems – including through the self-styled Citizen Poet project – that provide acerbic social commentary on current events and on the political regime. Bykov is an outspoken critic of the Russian government and twice refused personal invitations to meet with President Putin as part of the president’s sit-downs with representatives of Russia’s cultural elite. He is an active opposition activist, taking regular part in and co-organising anti-government protests. In a primary election for an opposition coordination council in 2012, Bykov received the second-most number of votes after Alexey Navalny. In 2013, Bykov was reportedly the target of a sting operation that sought to politically discredit him by Evgeny Prigozhin, the businessman and close ally of Putin who has been linked to the harassment of opposition figures. According to former Prigozhin associate Andrei Mikhailov, Prigozhin considered Bykov “second after Navalny [among opposition figures] in importance”.

Bykov also previously opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Eastern Ukraine, and protested the incarceration of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov in Russia.

Despite Bykov’s outspoken anti-Kremlin and anti-establishment views, neither his colleagues interviewed by Bellingcat, nor he himself had a clear hypothesis of what specific act or perceived threat might have motivated the FSB to tail him and presumably poison him. In a conversation with Bellingcat and the Insider, Dmitry Bykov opined that the “motives of the Kremlin are not necessarily knowable”, and that he was possibly “just next on the list”.

The Groupies from the FSB

The first documentary evidence of Bykov being tailed by FSB officers from the cross-functional poisoning team is from 20 May 2018, just under a year before his presumed poisoning. At 9:35 am on the morning of that day, Bykov flew from Moscow to Ufa, the capital of Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan. He was visiting the city to deliver a lecture to children and their parents on the importance of the children’s book character Karlsson-on-the-Roof as a disruptive character who helps build integrity in children. Despite the arguably non-subversive goals of this trip, two members of the FSB’s anti-extremism department shadowed Bykov to Ufa on the same flight. These were Vladimir Paniaev, travelling under his real name, and Valery Sukharev, who traveled under his cover identity as Nikolay Gorokhov.

A promotional image for an event with Dmitry Bykov.

Dmitry Bykov booked his flight to Ufa on 12 May 2018. Paniaev and Sukharev booked their tickets on 18 May 2018, and did not initially book a return flight. Flight records show that they both booked their return ticket just after 6 pm local time in Ufa, right after Bykov would have ended his lecture about Karlsson-on-the-roof. They booked a flight for noon the next day, while Bykov flew back at 11 pm that same evening.

Flight booking data for Vladimir Paniaev and “Nikolay Gorokhov” in May 2018.

The intent of this first tailing trip is unclear. Like in other cases of poisoning Bellingcat has investigated, this initial trip involved only members of the FSB’s anti-extremism department, without chemical weapons experts from the Criminalistics Institute.

It was at about this same time that Bykov’s wife Ekaterina Kevkhishvili says she began noticing the first signs of surveillance. She remembers that in May 2018, she repeatedly sighted a man in the house opposite theirs staring directly in the direction of their apartment with binoculars. She says she waved at him several times when she noticed him, and each time he jumped away from eyesight.

After a gap of about six months, during which the two FSB officers did not travel outside Moscow, on 15 November 2018 they both booked tickets for a flight to Rostov on 17 November 2018. Paniaev was the first one to make a booking at 2:34 pm; an hour later, at 3:39 pm his senior colleague Sukharev (using the “Gorokhov” identity), also bought a ticket. However, it appears that he bought a ticket for the wrong flight – and two minutes later he cancelled that ticket and bought a new one, for the same flight on which Paniaev was booked to fly.

Flight booking data for Vladimir Paniaev and “Nikolay Gorokhov” in November 2018.

On 14 November 2018 – just a day before this FSB pair bought their tickets, Dmitry Bykov had booked a flight to the same destination and on the same day – 17 November 2018. He would fly, however, from St. Petersburg to Rostov, as he had planned a one-day visit to that city on 16 November. He landed in Rostov just over an hour and a half before the FSB shadow team.

Arrival times of flights landing in Rostov on Don on 18 November 2017.

Like the previous trip to Ufa, Bykov’s trip to Rostov was earmarked to be an evening of literary readings and musings on Russian classics with no discussion of politics. The two FSB officers booked their return flight to Moscow at 4:34 pm, and flew to Moscow the next day at 12:55 pm. Bykov flew back to Moscow nine hours later, at 10:00pm on 18 November.

Another six months passed without Bykov being apparently tailed by known FSB operatives. Then, again, the author planned a new lecture trip to Rostov on 7 April 2019. This time, Bykov would deliver two talks – one about the aesthetics of the Harry Potter universe, and another about the history of Soviet and Russian political jokes. He booked a flight from Moscow to Rostov at 5:45 pm on 6 April, and a return at 7:45 pm on 8 April 2019.

During the night of 4 to 5 April 2019, Ekaterina Kevkishkvili says she received simultaneous alerts from all of her messenger apps that someone is trying to log in. She remembers that her Telegram account was successfully compromised.

Later that day, on 5 April, the same two familiar officers from FSB’s Second Service booked flights to Rostov for the following day. They landed in Rostov at 5:30 pm, exactly two hours before Bykov would arrive. Paniaev and Sukharev (again using his alter ego “Gorokhov”) had not booked a return ticket. However, booking data shows that late that same night – at 1 am on the 7 April – they bought tickets back to Moscow for 11:50 am the next morning. Thus the two FSB officers left Rostov without staying for Bykov’s performance later that afternoon.

Between Sochi and Siberia

Three days later, the itineraries of the hitherto inseparable co-travellers diverged. On the morning of 11 April 2019 Sukharev, travelling again undercover, flew to Sochi on a one-way ticket, and remained there for the next five days.

That night Bykov hosted his regular talk show on the Echo of Moscow radio station. He talked about his “political jokes” lecture in Rostov, and about his plans to expand on that topic in his upcoming lecture tour to Siberia. He talked about why Vladimir Putin – whom “society perceives as removed from our world, as an alien” – rarely appears as a target for political anecdotes. He also presented his regular criticism of the absence of rule of law in contemporary Russia. 

The next day, 12 April, two FSB officers – Sukharev’s travel partner Vladimir Paniaev from the anti-extremism department and Ivan Osipov, a medic from the Criminalistics Institute – booked tickets on the same flight to Novosibirsk that same evening at 20:30. By this time, they would have known that Bykov planned to fly to Novosibirsk later that night for the first leg of his three-city Siberian lecture circuit.

Notably, both of these FSB operatives flew under their cover identities on this trip – “Vladimir Alexeev” and “Ivan Spirodonov”, respectively. This was the first trip Paniaev would take under his cover persona while tailing Dmitry Bykov (he had last used that identity in 2017 while shadowing Alexey Navalny).

The Aeroflot SU1548 flight arrived in the Siberian city at 4:40 am the next morning. Bykov arrived three and a half hours later, at 9:05 am.

Arrival times of flights landing in Novosibirsk on 13 April 2019.

Novosibirsk

Once they landed in Novosibirsk, Dmitry Bykov and Ekaterina Kevkhishvili made their way into town and checked into the downtown Domina Hotel. At around 1:00 pm they left the hotel room and walked to the Pobeda cinema hall, a 10 minute walk from the hotel. On that afternoon, Bykov had been scheduled to be the honorary reader in the Total Dictant event taking place at the hall – an annual spelling contest that involves journalists and authors reading long literary texts, while the general public tests their orthographic skills. 

Dmitriy Bykov on stage in Novosibirsk. Image provided to Bellingcat.

The actual Total Dictant event takes one hour of net reading time, and typically about two hours in total. The event was streamed online, allowing users to remotely follow the reading. Thus, it was clear from the beginning that Bykov – and his wife who accompanied him to all events – would not return to the hotel for at least the duration of the event. In fact, the couple did not return to their hotel room until after 6:00 pm. They also left their room one more time that evening at 10:00 pm, and came back just after midnight.

Dmitriy Bykov at an event in Novosibirsk. Image provided to Bellingcat.

Just after midnight local time, FSB’s Paniaev and Osipov simultaneously made reservations for a flight from Novosibirsk to Moscow the next morning at 10:05 am local time.

Travel details for Vladimir Paniaev and Ivan Osipov on 13 April 2019.

A Previous Operation?

The Domina hotel in Novosibirsk is part of an Italian-owned hotel chain. On 13 August 2020, the director of investigations of Navalny’s Anti-corruption foundation Maria Pevchikh arrived in Novosibirsk, one day before Alexey Navalny, made her way to the Domina hotel where she had a booking. She had noticed she was surveilled on her way from the airport, and despite several manoeuvres trying to escape her followers, she found them at the hotel when she arrived.

In Pevchikh’s own words, during check-in she was asked unusual and spurious questions, including what her occupation was. Once she checked in, she found her hotel room shared a balcony with another room, and requested to be moved to another room out of safety concerns. The hotel declined her request, despite – after checking availability on booking.com – finding that the hotel was half-empty. Pevchikh then moved out of the hotel without checking out and without informing the hotel staff.

Later that night, the telephone of one of the FSB poison squad members, Alexey Alexandrov, pinged just in front of the Domina hotel. It is not clear if that was the result of Alexandrov staying at or near that hotel, or an attempt to track Maria Pevchikh.

Bellingcat and the Insider approached the hotel with questions about the availability and state of functioning of security cameras during the time of Bykov’s stay at the Domina. By press time the hotel had not replied to the queries.

On the next day, 14 April, Dmitry and Ekaterina spent most of their time away from the Domina hotel. On the morning of 15 April they flew onward to Ekaterinburg, and after a Bykov lecture in the Urals city that afternoon, the two prepared for their final leg of the lecture tour, to Ufa the next morning.

The travel patterns of Dmitry Bykov and members of the FSB team.

Presumed Poisoning 

On 16 April Dmitry and Ekaterina woke up at about 8:30 am. They had breakfast with Evgeny Royzman, another opposition activist, and just after 10 am they took a taxi to the airport. They had arrived by 10:25 am, just an hour before the departure. Dmitry did not drink or eat anything at the airport, and after security formalities headed straight to the departures area. On the way to the gate, just before 11 am, and two-and-a-half hours after he woke up and put on his new set of clothes, Bykov felt nauseous. 

Despite these early symptoms, Dmitry Bykov proceeded to board the plane. During the plane’s ascent to cruising altitude, he began vomiting, his breathing became heavy and his skin was covered with large drops of perspiration. In his own recollections, corroborated by Ekaterina, his mind “switched on and off” – he would periodically shut his eyes and stoop his head, but would not fully lose consciousness, and continued to react to her speech. After some time he lay down on the aisle floor, explaining that this makes him feel better. Notably, this mirrors the reaction that Alexey Navalny said he had after he succumbed to the Novichok nerve agent on the flight from Tomsk to Moscow on 20 August the following year. Just like Navalny, Bykov says he does not remember anything from the moment he lay down on the airplane floor, and like him, he did not lose consciousness for a while thereafter. Unlike Navalny, who at this point became delirious and incoherent, Bykov’s mind remained quasi-lucid until the plane’s landing, and even joked by inviting paramedics to his lecture that evening. 

Just as the UTAir plane carrying the increasingly enfeebled Bykov was landing in Ufa, travel records show, Valery Sukharev appeared at Sochi airport and bought a last-minute ticket back to Moscow. 

After the landing Bykov could not stand on his own feet and medics dragged him to the ambulance. On the way to the Ufa hospital he felt extremely hot, and had his t-shirt taken off. It was during the ambulance ride that he lost his speech capability: in his wife’s description, anything he uttered came out as jumbled, incoherent sounds. At the same time he retained his ability to understand others’ speech. 

In Bykov’s own recollection, the subjective experiences he had in the aftermath of what he believes was his poisoning felt remarkably similar to those that Navalny described following his recovery from his Novichok-induced coma. 

The subjective experiences were not the only similarities between the two cases.

The Battle for Bykov

In the words of Dmitry Muratov, then editor-in-chief of the opposition outlet Novaya Gazeta, as soon as the Bykov’s colleagues from the newspaper found out about his medical emergency, they emptied their medical insurance coffers and paid for a medevac airplane with two EMT doctors to fly to Ufa on 18 April 2019 in order to transport Bykov to a specialized neurological clinic in Moscow, the Burdenko Institute. However, Muratov tells us, less than an hour before the Yakovlev evacuation plane reached Ufa, the pilot, via air dispatchers, received an instruction from Russia’s Health Ministry to “turn the plane around and return to Moscow”. The pilot informed Muratov that unless he received instructions to the contrary, within 10 minutes he would have to comply and turn the plane around.

At this point Muratov and his colleagues initiated a string of hectic calls, including to numbers of Kremlin higher-ups. Muratov says until today he is not sure which call yielded a result, but in the end someone did instruct the pilot to proceed to Ufa and pick up the patient.

Flight Radar 24 tracks the medevac plane flying to Ufa.

Contemporaneous reporting at the time quoted Russian Health Ministry officials as unwilling to permit Bykov’s transportation to Moscow due to his “severe condition”. Ultimately, following public pressure from Bykov’s colleagues, the Burdenko EMT doctors managed to obtain explicit approval for Bykov’s hospitalization at this leading neurological clinic by Russia’s Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova.

Wrong Diagnosis

Doctors to whom Bellingcat and the Insider showed Bykov’s epicrisis (with his permission) confirmed that the symptoms displayed by Bykov had significant overlaps with those of Alexey Navalny, largely made public via a detailed case study in the Lancet. These included hyperhidrosis (profuse perspiration) and normocardia with hypovolemia, i.e. a severe reduction of the volume of circulating blood against the backdrop of preserved heart rhythm (Bykov’s pulse was faster than that of Navalny’s but at 60-65 beats per minute it was still slower than would have been expected under hypovolemic conditions).

Doctors, who requested to be quoted anonymously, also said that Bykov’s glycemic profile showed deviations similar to those displayed by Navalny, including elevated glucose levels, ketones in urine, slightly elevated amylase, and extreme constriction of the pupils. However, at the time the EMT doctors attributed these changes to the side effects of the barbiturates introduced into the patient’s system during his two-day stay in the Ufa hospital, and to the effects of a presumed but non-specific “bacterial food poisoning.” 

Excerpt from Bykov’s epicrisis from the Butenko clinic showing doctors suspected an “unidentified bacterial food poisoning” as the main cause for his coma.

Doctors who treated Bykov never identified the cause of the poisoning, and treated him purely symptomatically. As a precaution against a possible (but not identified) bacterial infection, he was given broad-action antibiotics. After a few days in a coma, Bykov regained consciousness, but remained in a state of disorientation – similar to that observed in Navalny’s case in the days after he came to.

Back in April 2019, the doctors treating Bykov at the Butenko Institute could not agree on a consensual diagnosis. The hypothesis for organophosphate poisoning could not be tested, as Bykov’s cholinesterase levels had not been measured after his hospitalization in Ufa, and they were in the normal range when tested in Moscow a few days later. In the absence of early comprehensive tests results and a deeper understanding of the context, Butenko Institute doctors chose to write the incident off as an unidentified food poisoning accompanied by acute ketoacidosis linked to a latent diabetic condition. At the same time, doctors now agree, an endogenic cause for the ketoacidosis would have resulted in much longer effects on the body – yet, Bykov, like Navalny, was able to shed off the severe symptoms in a relatively short time, pointing to an exogenous source of the clinical condition.

Who are Ivan Osipov, Valery Sukharev and Vladimir Paniaev?

All three FSB officers who tailed Dmitry Bykov also shadowed Alexey Navalny prior to his 2020 poisoning, and two of them – Paniaev and Osipov – followed the target both during the Bykov April 2019 and in the Navalny August 2020 poisonings.

Ivan Osipov is a decorated FSB officer who, judging from his network of co-travellers and telephone communication, is integrated with the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute. Based on an analysis of phone calls from two months around the Navalny poisoning in 2020, over 70% of the phone calls were to other officers from the Criminalistics Institute, and another 20% was with members of the anti-extremism department of the FSB’s Second Service. He also communicated with scientists from the Signal Institute which has been linked to the development of nerve agents.

Data from open-sources including a now-defunct Odnoklassniki profile suggests Osipov graduated from the Moscow Psychology University, but his phone number shows up in various contact-list sharing apps as “Ivan the Doctor”. 

His name is included in a 2008 list of Moscow residents entitled to state benefits (usually due to a veteran military status or a military award). His travel history shows that in the period from 2008 to 2015, his main travel destination was the area of the Caucasus, with dozens of trips to Chechnya, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkarian and the region. On many of the trips to that region Osipov was accompanied by members of FSB’s Unit 36391, or the counter-terrorism department of the FSB Second Service. On his more recent trips he has been typically accompanied by members of Criminalistics Institute, including Alexandrov, Tayakin and Kudryavtsev (all linked to the Navalny poisoning), and by members of the anti-extremism department of the FSB’s Second Service, such as Sukharev and Krivoschekov (also linked to the Navalny poisoning).

Vladimir Paniaev is a member of the FSB’s anti-extremism unit of the Second Service. Meta data from one of his phone numbers shows that his primary work place is at 12 Vernadskogo Bld – the headquarters of the FSB’s anti-terrorism and anti-extremism units. Paniaev, together with Ivan Osipov and Alexey Alexandrov from the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute, tailed Alexey Navalny to Novisibirsk and Tomsk in August 2020. During this period, Paniaev was in continuous communication with key members of the FSB Criminalistics Institute, including Gen. Bogdanov, Makshakov, Alexandrov, Osipov and Tayakin.

Valery Sukharev is an FSB officer born in 1956. Based on an analysis of his travel and communication pattern he appears to be the senior-most FSB officer involved with the series of poisoning operations of opposition figures. Sukharev tailed Vladimir Kara-Murza in 2015 and shadowed him on a trip to Kazan just two days before his first poisoning in May 2015. 

After assuming a cover identity as Nikolay Gorokhov, born 1955, he tailed Alexey Navalny on most of his 2017 presidential candidate’s campaign trips – shadowing the opposition leader to a total of 18 destinations around Russia. He used the same cover identity to tail Dmitry Bykov in 2018 and 2019.

During the days leading to and during the Navalny poisoning in 2020, Sukharev made dozens of calls to many FSB officers linked to the operation: including Gen. Vladimir Bogdanov chief of the FSB’s Technical-scientific Service, Stanislav Makshakov, deputy chief of the Criminalistics Institute, and the three operatives who flew alongside Navalny to Novosibirsk and Tomsk. However, he made even more phone calls to – and travels on more joint flights with – officers from the Second Service of the FSB, which suggests he belongs to that FSB department, and simply coordinates specific poisoning operations with the poison squid from the Criminalistics Institute.

Like Osipov, Sukharev was listed as entitled to special state benefits in a 2008 Moscow residential database reviewed by Bellingcat.

Bellingcat and the Insider attempted to contact the three operatives via the telephone numbers used by them during the Navalny poisoning operation in 2020. None of three numbers responded. Bellingcat also sent questions to them via telegram messenger, but did not receive a response by press time.

New Insights of FSB’s Poisoning Modus Operandi

Тhe investigation into Dmitry Bykov’s presumed poisoning reveals yet more about the modus operandi of the FSB poisoning team. As with previous missions, the ad-hoc poisoning teams comprised of operatives from two different FSB departments, the anti-extremism unit of the Second Service, and the Criminalistics Institute, part of the Technical-Scientific Service of the FSB. In these cross-functional teams, the Second Service appears to have a leading role, with its members tracking the target for a period of time before involving the poisoning experts from the Criminalistics Institute. 

The prominent role of Valery Sukharev in the poisoning operations also became clear after Bellingcat was able to identify his cover identity. The existence of “Gorokhov” as a team member was initially discovered after finding that this person booked tickets at exactly the same time as Paniaev during a number of flights tracking Bykov. Initially, Bellingcat confirmed that there is no real person with this exact name and birth date. A time-series comparison of flights by “Gorokhov” and other known FSB members showed a perfect match with the real identity of Sukharev (i.e. “Gorokhov” only flew to destinations to which Sukharev also had flown, and there was never a temporal overlap/conflict). Last, after we obtained phone call records for Valery Sukharev for one specific month, we compared the times of calls to the travel history of “Gorokhov” for that month and found that the phone was never used during Sukharev’s flight times.

After establishing the identity of “Gorokhov” as Sukharev, we matched the two names’ cumulative overlapping trips with those of Alexey Navalny, and discovered that Sukharev tailed Navalny to more destinations – 18 in total – than any other member of the poisoning squad. His important role in the 2020 operation (during which he did not appear to travel) was validated by the fact that during the week of Navalny’s Siberian trip, he had in more than 50 phone interactions with all operatives linked to the poisoning, including the deputy-chief of the Criminalistics Institute Col. Makshakov the chief of the Technical-Scientific Service Gen. Bogdanov. 

Another observed operational pattern that requires further investigation is the role of Sochi as an important parallel destination during many of the poisoning operations. Travel data shows that during the final phase of several of the poisoning trips, a separate team of members from the poison squad who are not deployed to track the target instead travel to Sochi, sometimes for trips that take only a few hours. The role of this location, whether as a logistical or a coordination centre, is not yet clear.

The investigation into the Bykov presumed poisoning also raises further questions about the poison deployment and application method. If the substance that caused Bykov’s poisoning was an organophosphate nerve agent, it is plausible that it would have been applied in a manner similar to previous known incidents of intentional poisoning. According to British and Bulgarian law enforcement authorities, the application method in the Skripal and Gebrev cases (presumably used by GRU officers) was identical: by spraying or spreading the substance on door or car handles, ensuring transmission through skin contact.

In the Navalny poisoning case, linked to the same FSB team, the application method was most likely through spraying or anointing the agent on his underwear (a less likely scenario would be via contamination of food or drinks). If the same application method (and general class of nerve agent) was used by the same team in the Bykov operation just over an year earlier, the FSB squad would have had to access the target’s underwear (underpants or t-shirt) during his absence from his hotel room in the afternoon or evening of 13 April 2019. In this scenario he would have first been exposed to the nerve agent on the morning of 16 April 2019, when putting on the contaminated piece of underwear. Two chemical weapons experts Bellingcat consulted confirmed that a substance of the Novichok class would remain active with minimum volatility and degradation for at least several days if anointed on clothes, especially if it was of the A-262 type and if (but not necessarily) nano-encapsulation had been used. If this approach was indeed used in the Bykov operation, the time between him coming in contact with the contaminated piece of clothing and the first symptoms would have been nearly the same as that between the time Navalny put on his fresh underwear and the onset – approximately two-and-a-half hours.

This investigation was conducted in partnership with The Insider Russia and Der Spiegel.

Christo Grozev and Yordan Tsalov served as the primary researchers for Bellingcat.