This is a personal blog, please observe Think Hour for ad hoc quasi-diary writings and Big Ideas for my ratified longform items. I will see you there.


2020-12-21


No time to talk. Time to think. The items read are from open source intelligence conglomerating institution bellingcat.

Alexei Navalny // fbk

Alexei

This set of articles comes with great recommendation, on a topic I have not really heard much of. Alexei Navalny is a prominent Putin-opposer in his mother Russia, and he was apparently subject to an assassination attempt this past August. For some reason I recognize the guy’s face, he’s got a real saggy-but-tensile look to him in most pictures, and while avoiding the inbred lightbulb-or-neanderthal skulled sausage lipped low-class look (as a politician ought) of the bydlo and gopnik masses, pale lips and interior eyes, exterior encasement deep set and charred like fresh craters across semipalatinsk, betray his origin quite vivid. It’s quite a good and memorable face really, and he wears a three quarter vanished hairline pretty well.

“I want to live in a normal country, and refuse to accept any talk about Russia being doomed to being a bad, poor or servile country,” Navalny said in an interview with NPR. “I want to live here, and I can’t tolerate the injustice that for many people has become routine.”

He’s killing it on YouTube, he’s killing it on Twitter and has a monopoly on the non-profit front in Russia. Very interesting, makes sense that his face is triggering pattern recognition. He really seems like less of a politician and more of a freedom fighter and mascot perceptually, appropriate given the context and probably appropriate in any if we abstract enough. In actual function it seems like he is a media figure or journalist, providing through his platforms some exposing stories and much needed alternative takes on russian government or rather the ruling class.

Alexei

The recent assassination attempt was a simple routine russian poisoning, some cases of which are quite clear in the mind probably due to locality (Litvinenko, Skrupal/Sturgess), if not for the apparent visibility of its target. Occurring on, or within temporal range of, a domestic Russian flight, the man has been seen screaming on video in apparent knowledge of his impending death. After an emergency landing, he was taken to a russian hospital to be treated. Before long, german NGO “Cinema for Peace” blew a bag chartering a plane to transfer him to a krankenhaus, where it was soon disclosed that he had indeed been poisoned in a russian way. With some basic reading, and hopefully accurate analysis, behind me it is time to more fruitfully enjoy the insights provided by bellingcat coverage and investigation of this event.

Nerve Gas // bellingcat

Charite Hospital

Navalny is in hospital, in Germany, and there are indications he was poisoned with a “cholinesterase inhibitor”. Now this is quite interesting. I am not a biochemistry expert, but reading about the so called “choline esterase” enzyme in mammalian context reveals that it is capable of relaxing muscles, and is maybe part of the ever ongoing function of controlling them. Naturally its reversible or irreversible inactivation or inhibition leads, with a delayed onset, to issues in this regard ranging from muscles spasming to salivation and inability to breathe - it seems easy to die without enough of this enzyme floating around. This is dependent on a sufficient load of course, in less potent amounts it can remain effective against insects and pests. Famous examples of these applications are organophosphate (irreversible) Sarin and carbamate (reversible) Aldicarb, respectively. Also apparently worth noting is the herbicide and perennial villain Glyphosate (RoundUp), potentially.

It is standard practice to administer a cholinesterase inhibitor (e.g., neostigmine) at the end of a surgical case to reverse suspected effects of neuromuscular blocking agents regardless of whether such residual effects are present. The authors hypothesized that cholinesterase inhibition when given the in absence of neuromuscular blockade (NB) would decrease upper airway dilatory muscle activity and consequently upper airway volume.

I want to note for myself embarrassingly here that while in the distant past I once welcomed the dunning-krugered and retarded mindset of “physics is applied maths, chemistry is applied physics and biology is applied chemistry” as some kind of intellectual hierarchy for personal application, as if, even if true, this macroscopic idea was useful enough to not only be stored in memory but to inform the design of thoughts, some of the papers being revealed in Google and Bing searches on this topic are insane and awe-and-intrigue generating. Biochemistry to me is obviously non-parsable, but when trying to apply basic concepts of neurotransmitters the qualitative breadth and borderline magic is laid bare right alongside the very mortal importance and personal bodily relevance - hopefully this is an well articulated transfer of this feeling to words.

To finish the opening movement of the sequence of articles, it is addendum that the charité hospital of Berlin, who performed diagnostics to reveal cholinesterase inhibiting actions, reported the discovery of the specific cause of this inhibition in Navalny’s case. While I had to manually find my way to actual undressed press releases by the hospital, after suffering through the deluge of hyperlinks offered by popular search engines that lead only to varnished articles by narrative production companies, it seems the announcement originated from the federal government. Here the findings indeed specify a nerve agent from the “Novichok group”, developed and touted by Russia to be the deadliest ever of their kind.

Military Medicine // bellingcat

two separate entities

In October the EU adds six russian head honchos and one research institution to a sanctions list as a result of the incident, meaning they will all be barred from entering EU states (and the UK) and any of their assets therein frozen. These men and this institute are listed due to playing a part in, or being the most responsible in the cleverly federated pecking order, the scheme which the theory building around the incident supposes. This scheme postulating that Navalny was monitored (federal security service sanctionee) in siberia (one sanctionee’s jurisdiction) and poisoned (the institute) probably in order to end his contribution to the political landscape. This is ratified along with some unfortunately limp-wristed language, probably legally necessary stipulation, that even without the intent this scheme implies, the lies or at very least negligence (“it was a small amount, for antidote research - stolen”) revealed by the deadly agent being used is enough justification for sanction listings.

While several famous incidents of poisoning happened outside of Russia, something foreshadowed specifically by an often cited law signed in 2006, this one being domestic makes it very much more interesting and perhaps easier for russia to obfuscate. Lucky for us there are some independent investigators on the case, the renowned armchair google maps cross-reference jpeg triangulators, pdf collectors and metadata inspecting fans at bellingcat. They are offering some specifics beyond or perhaps derivative of the big men and purportedly now-incapable institute sanctioned by the EU.

Call metadata showed he called Artur Zhirov, who specialized in research of Nanoscopic Encapsulation… which can, alongside effecting a delayed onset of the poison, provide an opportunity for masking the presence of the active ingredients of Novichok, through the (overwhelming) presence in the victim’s body of chemical compounds from the cell’s “membrane” – which can be a different, decoy poisonous substance.

There’s a lot made of phone records, flight info and metadata (I want to know how they got this stuff, and I think they will tell us soon) of a certain scientist known to have worked, among other things, in the realm of organophosphate poisons, and specifically those that tell of communication with the publicly invisible military intelligence org Unit 29155. These communications grow in frequency and appear to coalesce with a big visitation just before the aforecited Salisbury incident, and when coupled with further informations about his colleagues, establishes a tangible “Novichok” development and implementation pipeline. This is a pretty good article.

Confronted by phone about his frequent interactions with members of GRU’s Unit 29155, Mr. Sergey Chepur, before hanging up, advised us to “stop lying to everyone including to yourselves”.

Next Article // bellingcat

corkboard

Now with the foundation in place we can begin to place our main totem into the big socket, mr. navalny. We begin with being made to understand this will be fruits of a joint investigation with The Insider and “in cooperation” with Der Spiegel and CNN. The data shows a team of russians trailing him on his flights at the time of the poisoning. They apparently operate under the broad “federal security service”, who, among other things, are noted to have played a role in investigating the kursk disaster, which I recall reading about - it is very frustrating in aspect of lack of co-operation between russia and more westerly offers of aid during that event (though I don’t think it was FSB specific) that speak to the sad disconnect and strange gulf between these two parts of the world. A defector also claims they helped do a man named Georgi Markov.

Georgi Markov was assassinated on a London street via a micro-engineered pellet containing ricin, fired into his leg from an umbrella wielded by someone associated with the Bulgarian Secret Service. - Editor’s note: Jesus Christ

I am already tired of reading this trail of articles, mostly because of the “voluminous” amount of russian names. Reading these names, I am being very serious, makes me taste vodka in my mouth and it makes me feel quite sick. It’s quite strange that is. Anyway, hundreds of thousands of telecom datums/pings (now this inline link is extremely interesting, I have to look at this again later date), a series of unflattering passport photos and speculation of an earlier assassination attempt later we are impressed now with the scope of the work here. Especially considering the incorporation of cover identities to obfuscate their movements, the triangulation of events is very nice to read. There is simply no way to regurgitate or re-articulate beyond this - though it does leave one wanting to see more database snapshots.

Data

There’s something really odd about this whole operation (the surveillance and assassination attempt itself). While there’s something to be said for the profile of the target, you have to wonder about the methods they’re employing. Why don’t they just script a car crash or drunken fight? While russia is no longer the soviet union of old, surely it is not beyond their means to script a demise more elegantly. Is the autocratic nature of the state actually a hindrance? Does big Putin want the standby-for-my-go and signature poison, is it necessary as calling card - or does the poison’s effects instil extra fear in the living? I am not questioning these veteran secret operators necessarily, just my inability to reconcile this tale comfortably. Already diminished, idea of Russia as a serious country seems to be becoming more silly to me… oil and social cohesion aside.

Regardless, the guy does indeed ingest some cholinesterase inhibiting substance, potentially be the night before his flight. A false alarm of a bomb means a delay in the plane’s emergency landing - with navalny onboard suffering the full-effect of the poison, this must have been very awful, though maybe he wasn’t conscious of it after long - but eventually our man is given a dose of atropine to counter the effects of the poisoning, the grace of which is interesting in and of itself.

Last Article // bellingcat

russian guy

It all culminates in the final article. In a slightly (perceiving it this way may be an issue on my part) cringe way, navalny himself (who has being taking part in this investigation, naturally) begins initiating phone conversations with members of the team tasked with his assassination. He eventually succeeds in faking his way with one man, who soon begins ratifying already suspected details, filling in blanks and generally shedding light on the operation. This is pretty interesting. While I’m primed to complain that we couldn’t hear from any of the other team members, it’s great news they got so much out of this one man.

The guy in question is “Konstantin Kudryavtsev”, detailed in a former article as having a 1980 birthyear and having had a career and education exclusively, as far as is known, in the realm of chemical/biological warfare. This man fits into the “formless” category of slavs, and the hairline is diabolical. I kind of feel sorry for the guy, I wonder if he will be killed or forced into a labour camp of some kind, years of top-level experience gone to waste. I’m seriously spent reading about this now. I’m done.