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Kremlin Critic Navalny Makes Prank Call To Agent Allegedly Involved In His Poisoning

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There is a new twist in the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Navalny says he called up one of the Russian agents involved and got him to reveal stunning details of the plot. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: With help from online investigators at Bellingcat, Alexei Navalny has compiled evidence that he was tracked by Russian operatives who almost killed him with a nerve agent in August. He pranked one of them with a phone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: Navalny pretended to be an aide to a top official on Russia's National Security Council. He said he was trying to figure out why the operation failed, meaning why the Novichok poison didn't kill Navalny.

ARIC TOLER: It's crazy. Yeah. I mean, it's - getting on the phone is not the problem. But the getting him to stay on the phone for almost 45 minutes - that's the shocking part.

KELEMEN: That's Aric Toler of Bellingcat, who says Navalny learned in the course of the call how he was poisoned.

TOLER: Turns out that the - his underwear was poisoned. So, like, on, like, the crotch part of the underwear, like, the seam - they put the poison along the seams of the inside of the underwear. Like, of all places in your body, this is one of the place where the poison would absorb into your skin the most reliably.

KELEMEN: The agent on the call suggested that Navalny would have died on his plane ride back to Moscow had the pilot not made an emergency landing in another Russian city. Navalny was treated there and later medevaced to Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KELEMEN: Russia says the phone call is fake. Last week, President Vladimir Putin said that if the FSB security agency wanted to kill Navalny, it would have finished the job. He also accused Navalny of working with U.S. intelligence services. Georgetown University's Angela Stent points out that Bellingcat investigators have a good track record. They outed another Novichok case in the U.K.

ANGELA STENT: Because there's so much corruption in the system, it's possible to get data, which obviously they shouldn't be able to get.

KELEMEN: Bellingcat's Aric Toler says that it's easy to buy or otherwise access phone data, flight records and other information in Russia, which the journalists used to establish the identity of the FSB agents who were trailing Navalny. Toler says he hopes that this kind of reporting will make such operations harder.

TOLER: And so these are guys who can no longer work and travel around because their faces are all over Russian media right now. And there's memes all over, right? If you go to Russian Facebook and Twitter, you know, these guys' faces are now just memes.

KELEMEN: And he thinks by making all this public, Navalny may be a bit safer when or if he returns to Russia from Germany.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.