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

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

In early June, Soldatov, a journalist who co-founded the investigative website Agentura.ru, said he began receiving text messages from his Russian bank demanding he pay huge government fines. Without explanation, Soldatov assumed it was a phishing attack – a common risk in his line of work. But then another bank reached out to say its assets were being frozen, he said.

This bank provided the number of a criminal case against Soldatov. The case was opened on March 17, although Soldatov said no one told him. He accused the 46-year-old journalist of a serious crime: spreading “fake news” about the Russian army.

“I did not understand which law enforcement agency initiated the criminal case against me. I have not received any official notice from the government. No messages. No calls. No email. Just these text messages from my bank,” Soldatov said in a phone call from London, where he has lived since 2020.

Authorities issued fines worth $80,000 for each of his bank accounts, he told me. They managed to confiscate Soldatov’s remaining savings in Russia. Even his vintage car, an unremarkable 1999 Opel Astra, was taken away. The journalist soon discovered that he had been added to Russia’s domestic and international wanted lists, meaning he would be immediately arrested if he returned to Russia. Soldatov’s lawyers have advised him that he could be arrested 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 to his family who remain in Russia – including his father, an internet pioneer in Russia who has been locked in a legal battle with the Kremlin itself since 2019. “My case and his case … it means I have to think more about his safety,” Soldatov said.

But when Soldatov started looking into his case, he came to believe it showed him something important: that his reporting on the flawed intelligence that led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine had touched a nerve. And so, while Soldatov doesn’t believe he will get a fair trial, he has instructed his lawyers to still go to court.

“It’s not just about fighting,” he said. “This is about getting more information about the case.”

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

For Soldatov, like many Russian journalists, the invasion of Ukraine marked a new era in their lives. Reporting in post-Soviet Russia has never been easy. Since Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency in 2000, the situation has slowly worsened. Several of Soldatov’s former colleagues at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, including Anna Politkovskaya, were murdered in connection with their reporting.

But Russian journalists delved into this hostile environment, uncovering stories of misconduct that would make Western journalists sigh. Even as pressure has increased in recent years, new outlets such as Insider and Proekt have published scoops on national security and Putin’s private life.

Journalism changed the needle in Russia, even if it was difficult to change. Alexei Navalny, the country’s most famous opposition figure, used investigative journalism to find compelling evidence of massive corruption. Novoya Gazeta founding editor 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 success of the embattled industry, 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 who hoped to understand their own country, but also for outsiders who sought it out.

Soldatov and Borogan moved to London before the Ukraine invasion, prompted by warnings from sources in Russia. But the February 24 invasion soon had many other Russian journalists following. 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 Russian reporters who managed. Independent media remained closed or self-censored. Echo of Moscow, a longtime centrist radio station, and TV Rain, an exclusively critical television station, both stopped broadcasting. Even Novaya Gazeta suspended operations; Muratov raised $103.5 million for Ukrainian refugee children by auctioning off his Nobel Peace Prize medal.

In Ukraine, at least eight journalists were killed while working. Reporters Without Borders said on Wednesday it had found evidence that Russian forces tortured and killed a Ukrainian photojournalist in March.

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

It took some time for Soldatov to figure out why he was being targeted. Officially, the allegation related to comments he made during a March 11 live broadcast on the Popular Politics YouTube channel, run by Navalny’s allies, when Soldatov questioned the readiness of the Russian National Guard in Ukraine.

But Soldatov said he has verified that the allegations relate to his and Borogan’s reporting of the conduct of infighting in Russia’s FSB, a successor to the KGB intelligence service that operates under the Kremlin. Although the FSB is a domestic intelligence service, Soldatov and Borogan reported that Putin had given one of his departments — known as the Fifth Service — responsibility for keeping former Soviet republics in Russian orbit.

The Fifth Service provided intelligence on Ukraine in the run-up to the war that led Putin to conclude that invading Ukraine would be an easy victory, Soldatov said. After the evidence proved to be faulty, the duo reported a purge through the ranks of the FSB, with a Fifth Service leader sent to a notorious prison.

Soldatov said documents in the court case revealed that the FSB’s homeland security department had initiated the investigation into him, with an agent from that department signing the first report against him. “It seems that they were very unhappy that we messed with their [internal] case,” he said.

The complaints about the national guard were a late-cover story, Soldatov said. “They realized they can’t accuse me based on that story because they would have to talk about the issues with the FSB,” he added. The Kremlin has denied reports of purges at the FSB.

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

Soldatov is also worried about travel: he has yet to find out whether Russia has issued a “red warning” to him through Interpol, a common tactic now used by authoritarian governments to harass dissidents abroad.

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It is unclear how many other Russian journalists are in the same position as Soldatov. One of them, Ivan Safronov, was tried for treason. Two other journalists, Michael Nacke and Ruslan Leviev, are facing “fake news” charges in absentia. Soldatov noted that the serial numbers in his court documents appear to suggest hundreds of open cases.

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

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

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

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