Andrei Soldatov: How a Russian investigative reporter found out he was a Kremlin target

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Russia’s investigative journalists are no stranger to pressure from the Kremlin. But for Andrei Soldatov, what has happened to him after the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been an alarming escalation.

At the start of June, Soldatov, a journalist who co-founded the investigative website Agentura.ru, said he began getting text messages from his Russian bank demanding he pay huge government fines. With no explanation, Soldatov assumed it was a phishing attack — a regular hazard in his line of work. But then another bank got in contact to say that his assets were being frozen, he said.

This bank provided the number of a criminal case against Soldatov. The case had opened on March 17, though Soldatov said no one had told him. It charged the 46-year-old journalist of a felony crime: Spreading “fake news” about the Russian Army.

“I didn’t understand which law enforcement agency started the criminal case against me. I got no official warnings from the government. No messages. No calls. In emails. Just these text messages from my bank,” Soldatov told me in a phone call from London, where he has lived since 2020.

The authorities had issued fines worth $80,000 for each of his bank accounts, he told me. They were able to seize Soldatov’s remaining savings in Russia. Even his old car, an unremarkable 1999 Opel Astra, was taken. The journalist found out he had been added to both Russia’s domestic and international wanted lists, meaning that he would be immediately arrested if he returned to Russia. Soldatov’s lawyers advised him that he could face arrest if he travels to a country on friendly terms with Russia, such as Turkey or Hungary.

He fears the pressure the charges against him could bring on his family that remains in Russia — including his father, an early internet pioneer in Russia who has been locked in a legal battle with the Kremlin himself since 2019. “My case and his case … it means I have to think about his security more,” Soldatov said.

But as Soldatov began digging into his case, he came to believe that it showed him something important: That his reporting on the faulty intelligence that had led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine had touched a nerve. And so, while Soldatov does not think he will get a fair trial, he has instructed his lawyers to still go to court.

“It’s not only about fighting,” he said. “It’s about obtaining more information about the case.”

Fleeing Putin’s wartime crackdown, Russian journalists build media hubs in exile

For Soldatov, like many Russian journalists, the invasion of Ukraine marked a new era in their lives. Reporting in post-Soviet Russia had never been easy. Since Vladimir Putin took the presidency in 2000, it had slowly gotten worse. A number of Soldatov’s former colleagues at the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, including Anna Politkovskaya, had been murdered in connection with their reporting.

But Russian journalists dug into this harsh environment, uncovering tales of malfeasance that would make Western journalists gasp. Even as the pressure grew over recent years, new outlets like Insider and Proekt published scoops about national security and Putin’s private life.

Journalism shifted the needle in Russia, even if it was hard to budge. Alexei Navalny, the most famous opposition figure in the country, used investigative journalism to find compelling evidence of enormous corruption. The founding editor of Novoya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, was recognized for decades of hard work in 2021 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Soldatov and his partner Irina Borogan were part of the embattled industry’s success, writing extensively about Russian intelligence services, creating their own website called Agentura.ru and ultimately publishing four books on the subject. They became resources not only for Russians hoping to understand their own country, but outsiders looking in.

Soldatov and Borogan moved to London before the invasion of Ukraine, prompted by warnings from sources in Russia. But the Feb. 24 invasion soon saw many other Russian journalists follow them. Just over a week later, the Kremlin passed a strict new media law that criminalized “deliberately false” information about the military.

Foreign correspondents fled the country, as did the Russian reporters that could. The independent media stayed either shut down or self-censored. Echo of Moscow, a long-running centrist radio station, and TV Rain, a uniquely critical television station, stopped broadcasting. Even Novaya Gazeta suspended operations; Muratov raised $103.5 million for Ukrainian child refugees by auctioning off his Nobel Peace Prize medal.

In Ukraine, at least eight journalists have been killed while doing their work. Reporters Without Borders said Wednesday that it found evidence that Russian forces had tortured and killed a Ukrainian photojournalist in March.

These are the journalists killed during Russia’s war on Ukraine

It took Soldatov some time to work out why he was being targeted. Officially, the charge was related to comments he made during a March 11 live-stream on the YouTube channel Popular Politics, run by allies of Navalny, when Soldatov had questioned the readiness of the Russian National Guard in Ukraine.

But Soldatov said he has ascertained that the charges are related to his and Borogan’s reporting into the conduct of infighting in Russia’s FSB, a successor to the KGB intelligence service which operates under the Kremlin. While the FSB is a domestic intelligence service, Soldatov and Borogan reported that Putin had given one of its departments — known as the Fifth Service — the responsibility of keeping former Soviet republics in the Russian orbit.

The Fifth Service provided intelligence on Ukraine in the buildup to the war that led Putin to conclude the invasion of Ukraine would be a walkover, Soldatov said. After that evidence proved faulty, the pair reported a purge in FSB ranks, with one Fifth Service leader sent to a notorious prison.

Soldatov said documents in the court case had revealed that the FSB’s internal security department had started the investigation into him, with an operative from this department signing the first report against him. “It looks like they got really unhappy that we messed with their [internal] case,” he said.

The complaints about the national guard were a belated cover story, Soldatov said. “They realized that they can’t make a case against me based on this story because then they would have to talk about the problems with the FSB,” he added. The Kremlin has denied the reports of purges in the FSB.

Being in the FSB’s targets is clearly a worrying prospect. Soldatov said he had all his electronics checked by cybersecurity experts, but he remains worried about the security of his sources who remain in Russia. Physical safety is also a factor. “Of course, I need to think more about my security measures. That’s obviously a challenge now,” he said.

Soldatov is also worried about travel: He has not yet been able to find out if Russia has issued a “red notice” for him through Interpol, a common tactic now used by authoritarian governments to harass dissidents abroad.

Foreign governments are aggressively targeting dissidents on US soil

It isn’t clear how many other Russian journalists are in the same position as Soldatov. One, Ivan Safronov, had been put on trial for treason. Two other journalists, Michael Nacke and Ruslan Leviev, are facing “fake news” cartoons in absentia. Soldatov noted that the serial numbers on his court documents seem to suggest hundreds of open cases.

While Borogan appears to have escaped prosecution, perhaps because he did not appear in the March 11 Popular Politics video, Soldatov said he had no way of knowing if she faces other charges.

During our conversation, Soldatov noted that the first time he was interrogated by the FSB was in 2002 after he reported on the bugled response to a hostage crisis at a Moscow theater that resulted in the deaths of at least 170 people. Now, he doubts he can go back to Russia until the political situation changes.

“To be honest, I’ve been writing about these guys for 20 years,” he said. “It’s always changed for the worse, never the better.”

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