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Putin dissident: Russian spies poisoned me -- through my underwear

Is this a bad South Park joke? By way of Borat, perhaps. The amateurish bungling of the assassination attempt on Vladimir Putin’s political opponent Alexei Navalny took an even more clownish turn just days after CNN and Bellingcat put together a case against the Russian FSB for the murder attempt using Novichok, the same Soviet-era nerve agent used in the equally bungled Serkei Skripal assassination attempt.

This morning, CNN reports that Navalny has exclusive audio of an FSB assassin discussing the plot. How did Navalny get Konstantin Kudryavtsev to talk to him? Navalny posed as an FSB supervisor demanding a debriefing of how they failed. And, oddly enough, “debriefing” turns out to be appropriate in this episode of Underwear Gnomes Gone Bad:

A Russian agent sent to tail opposition leader Alexey Navalny has revealed how he was poisoned in August — with the lethal nerve agent Novichok planted in his underpants.

The stunning disclosure from an agent who belonged to an elite toxins team in Russia’s FSB security service came in a lengthy phone call following the unmasking of the unit by CNN and the online investigative outfit Bellingcat last week.

In what he was told was a debriefing, Konstantin Kudryavtsev also talked about others involved in the poisoning in the Siberian city of Tomsk, and how he was sent to clean things up.

But the agent was not speaking to an official in Russia’s National Security Council as he thought. He was talking to Navalny himself, who almost died after being poisoned in August.

Be sure to read the whole thing, if for no other reason than to marvel that this team of morons managed to keep from poisoning themselves. Russia has built a fearful reputation for its intel services, but this is at least the second high-profile assassination of a Putin critic they’ve blown, using the exact same nerve agent. By the way, the use of that nerve agent makes it very clear that these are sanctioned hits by Putin’s government, a deliberate decision to instill terror in Putin’s opponents. The survival of these victims, however, makes the cases even more high profile, which increases the scrutiny and pressure on Putin himself.

Thanks to Kudryavtsev’s bungling, Navalny manages to expose pretty much everyone on the assassination project. That includes Stanislav Makshakov, a Soviet-era researcher on nerve agents who apparently is one of the key FSB figures in Putin’s assassination program:

Navalny and his team have several times demanded that his clothes be returned to him, but Russian authorities have refused.

Later, Kudryavtsev says, “I was told to work precisely with the underpants, on the inside.”

Navalny asked: “Who said that? Makshakov?”

“Yeah,” answered Kudryavtsev.

That makes Putin’s official denial last week look less than reliable, no? Putin had to admit that his spies had been trailing Navalny for three years, thanks to CNN and Bellingcat, which produced hard evidence of that stalking. Putin denied that the FSB tried to murder Navalny, saying they would have “finished it” if they had, but that’s an empty brag. Only the Russian government uses Novichok, and its use in the Skripal and Navalny assassinations tie the two together even more closely.

So what will be done about it? Not much, likely, at least in the short run. Not all that much happened after Skripal’s assassination attempt either, although Donald Trump did reluctantly add some sanctions to a slate that had already been imposed. The massive hack by Russia uncovered last week will occupy most if not all of our diplomatic and intelligence response. Other counties, perhaps the UK most of all where Skripal was poisoned, might react more specifically to the Navalny poisoning and Putin’s despotism. However, it won’t likely deter Putin from continuing to use the same tactics, both at home and abroad, although the embarrassing disclosure by Kudryavtsev might prompt Putin to clean house at the FSB.

On the other hand … maybe this is why Putin’s suddenly so interested in post-presidential immunity, eh?