First published Strategic Culture Foundation
(Thanks to John Helmer who, as far as I know, was the first to suggest that Moscow is preparing a treason accusation against him.)
On 1 February RT published a video taken by the FSB of a meeting between Second Secretary Ford of the British Embassy in Moscow, identified by the FSB as an SIS officer, and Vladimir Ashurkov at a restaurant in Moscow. The video was filmed some time in 2012. Ashurkov is the Executive Director of Navalniy’s Anti-Corruption Foundation; he is presently living in the UK where he sought refuge after being charged with embezzlement. In the video he is making a pitch for financial support to the tune of “10, 20 million dollars a year” not, he assures Ford, “a big amount of money for people who have billions at stake”. In short, invest in us us and, when we take over, we’ll pay you back. With interest. Big interest. In the meantime, perhaps Ford could get him some kompromat for use inside Russia. In a word, he’s trying to sell Russia to a foreign power. Which, by any standards, is treason. Ford is non-committal and merely suggests that Ashurkov look to one of the foreign NGOs that the British fund. (It should be understood that the “N” in “NGO”, is silent like the “p” in “pseudo”.). But, given that the video was made six or seven years ago, we don’t know whether the British or others took up Ashurkov on his offer. But we can be reasonably sure that the FSB knows the answer to the question.
I believe that the publication of this video marks a major step towards the Russian government charging Navalniy and his organisation with treason. Note that RT attached to its report a discussion of the famous “spy rock”. Utter nonsense: “alleged… allegedly… allegations”, a “fabrication”, more “pressure against Russian NGOs” RFE/RL assured us in 2006; “they had us bang to rights” admitted a British official in 2012. The FSB has cleverly disarmed the expected cries of fake! setup! lies! and other denials from the West by reminding everyone that it was the FSB that told the truth that time.
Security services hate revealing anything. Their unvarying intention is to hang onto information because a little bit of information can be nursed into a lot of information: a seed revealed is just a seed, but a seed kept and nurtured can grow into a forest. I recommend Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America to show how the ancestors of Russia’s security organisations nurtured every little seed until they grew so big a network in the American government that they were probably better informed than the White House. So, to get them to give up a seed is a big step. It doesn’t happen, as they say, by accident.
Consider what seeds and seedlings the FSB gave up with this video.
The video exposed a man the FSB had identified as British intelligence. They could have marked him, followed his career, noticed with whom he associated, where he went, whom he met. Fed him false information, exposed his network, found others, followed them and, who knows, turned or compromised some. Now, he’s blown and probably won’t go anywhere near the Russian world again. The British will be back-checking his contacts and network and making a damage assessment and probably shutting things down. So, the FSB gave up years of exposure and mapping of networks.
The video also reveals the degree to which the FSB is following Navalniy’s organisation. Everyone assumed that it was, of course, but it appears that the surveillance team was waiting in the restaurant. So that gives away another part of the FSB’s modus operandi. For all we know, the restaurant was a favourite place of the Navalniy organisation; not any more: they won’t be going there again.
Note how good the sound recording is. That would presumably reveal something about the technology and trade-craft the FSB possesses. I’m sure that, to those who know these things, other details of trade-craft and equipment were revealed as well.
It is an easy deduction that the FSB has more information that it has not revealed: for example whether Ashurkov’s pitch resulted in a sale. (Note that Navalniy’s organisation receives a certain amount of funds via the anonymous Bitcoin). Neither has it revealed any other videos of similar sales pitches that one must assume it has. One can only assume that the FSB already has a good case and can trace the money.
As everyone knows, Navalniy fell sick on a flight inside Russia and a few days later, wound up in a hospital in Germany saying he had been poisoned with novichok. While the ever-changing story requires the reader to completely suspend disbelief, as usual in the information war against Russia, new variants are rolled out, confident that its targets aren’t paying attention past the headlines that Putin has poisoned someone again. Thanks to John Helmer’s reporting, we know that the doctors at the Charité Hospital found many health problems when it examined Navalniy but no evidence of novichok. The novichok “evidence” comes from German and Swedish military facilities which have declined to publish their findings. Navalniy, for his part, has several times asserted that Putin attempted to kill him with novichok. So, we have evidence from two civilian hospitals that show no novichok; there are assertions that it was novichok, but they’re secret and come from military sources; Navalniy says it was novichok. Does this look like prima facie evidence that Navalniy collaborated with foreign intelligence agencies against his country?
Where did Navalniy get the illustrations for his video on Putin’s supposed palace? We know that the building is very far from finished because people went to see it. So somebody supplied the faked-up interiors (complete with Putin himself). A Germany-USA production? “in early December, the [German] studio received a request from the United States about whether it had free production capacity. In strict secrecy, work began on Navalny’s film”. Perhaps there’s another charge here, given the expected importance of this “proof” of Putin’s supposed corruption for Navalniy’s campaign. (Another silly story for the gullible, by the way: where would he keep his loot and when does he have time to enjoy it?)
The entire Western propaganda structure leapt on the story. I’ll just quote this one thing from the NYT’s resident sage, Thomas Friedman, because of its amusement value:
Putin is not very important to us at all. He’s a Moscow mafia don who had his agents try to kill an anti-corruption activist, Aleksei Navalny, by sprinkling a Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok, in the crotch of his underwear. I’m not making that up! Russia once gave the world Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Dostoyevsky, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Putin’s Russia will be remembered for giving the world poisoned underwear.
“Poisoned underwear”, “mafia don”, “he keeps stalking us”. Plenty more where that came from: if it’s Putin or Russia, the accusation is the proof. Vide Biden’s demand that “He should be released immediately and without condition“. Suspiciously like a coordinated operation; perhaps the FSB can actually show connections.
Navalniy is the latest in a long line of Western anti-Putin heroes. I’ve been in this business for three decades and I’ve forgotten half of them. Reports on protests that carefully avoid mentioning people who would spoil the narritive. Putin is a “moral idiot“. Lots of poisonings of opponents (is the absence from that list of the long-recovered and now-discarded Yushchenko significant?) and even non-poisonings; but no explanations for why the (almost invariably ineffective) poisons change: dioxin,
thallium polonium and now novichok. Protests are always about to bring him down. Endless endless nonsense about Putin himself – too much to catalogue. Russophrenia. And so on and on; the people change – Browder and Khodorkovskiy fade to the background, Berezovskiy gives up, begs to be allowed home, kills himself (they say) – but the story never changes. Pussy Riot was huge until it wasn’t. Pavlenskiy does something in Russia, he’s a hero, same thing in France, he’s arrested. Always a fraudulent election in Russia (Moscow should take a leaf out of Washington’s book and call all such claims “conspiracy theories” and block discussion.) Washington says it had the MH17 shootdown on film, but you can’t see it. Nothing is ever proven but it never stops. The audience is assumed to have the IQ and attention span of gnats: Moscow hacked the US election system in 2016 but in 2020 the system was watertight while Russia was hacking everything else. It’s information war; most of it nonsense from proven liars. Maybe Moscow has had enough. The Biden Administration is full of Russia-baiters all fully invested in the Trump/Putin conspiracy theory; there will be no change; it’s time for Moscow to give up expecting anything else.
Maybe Moscow is going to make an example of the latest Western favourite and charge him with treason and prove it. Maybe that’s why this video was released. It would appear to be a case of “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization . . . directed at harming Russia’s security” as the treason law puts it. A revision of the law that came into effect, as it happens, in the year the video was recorded. Collaborating with foreign intelligence structures to create a poisoning narrative would appear to fit the definition too. How about writing a letter to a foreign head of state asking him to sanction your country?
And more hints of evaporated patience: Moscow handed over to the OSCE videos of Western police beating up protesters – Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, the USA, Finland, France and the Czech Republic – helpfully pointing out “For doubters, we have shown a contrasting model. How they do it and how we do it. Feel the difference”. The message is clear: motes and beams; or, as they like to say in the West, “whataboutism“. Moscow then expelled diplomats from three countries, accusing them of participating in protests.
Washington, London et alia will protest in the usual way with all the usual statements about human rights that they themselves are pretty casual about at home (“Почувствуйте разницу”), but I suspect that Moscow doesn’t care much what its enemies say. In this matter it may well be that the idiotic Navalniy poisoning story, coming after all the other evidence-free accusations, was the last straw. And perhaps Beijing’s success in shutting down the equally foreign-inspired troubles in Hong Kong was an encouraging example.
We will see, but it’s another indication that Moscow has had enough. After all, there’s an audience out there that isn’t glued to CNN and the NYT. There’s no chance of changing minds in Washington or London; it might still be possible in Berlin and Paris – Nord Stream II is probably the test – but there are hundreds of millions out there who are listening. Zone B, the Saker calls it.