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

Placeholder while article actions are loading

You are reading an excerpt from the Today’s WorldView newsletter. Sign up to get the rest for freeincluding news from around the world and interesting ideas and opinions to know, sent to your inbox every weekday.

Russian investigative journalists are no stranger to Kremlin pressure. But for Andrei Soldatov, what happened to him after the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an alarming escalation.

In early June, Soldatov, a journalist who co-founded the investigative website Agentura.ru, said he started receiving text messages from his Russian bank demanding that he pay huge government fines. Without explanation, Soldatov assumed it was a phishing attack – a regular threat in his trade. But then another bank got in touch saying its assets were 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 had told him. It accused the 46-year-old journalist of a crime: spreading “fake news” about the Russian army.

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

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

He fears the pressure the charges against him could put on his family left behind in Russia — including his father, an early Internet pioneer in Russia who has been embroiled in a legal battle with the Kremlin itself since 2019. “My business and his business… it means I need to think more about his safety,” Soldatov said.

But as Soldatov began to delve into his case, he came to believe it showed him something important: that his coverage of the lack of intelligence that led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had struck a chord. And so, while Soldatov doesn’t think he’ll get a fair trial, he’s ordered his lawyers to go to court anyway.

“It’s not just about fighting,” he said. “It’s about getting 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 became president in 2000, things have slowly gotten worse. Several 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 and discovered crime stories that would make Western journalists gasp. Though pressure has mounted in recent years, new media outlets such as Insider and Proekt have published scoops on national security and Putin’s private life.

Journalism pushed the needle in Russia, even if it was difficult to give way. Alexei Navalny, the most famous opposition figure in the country, used investigative journalism to find compelling evidence of massive 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 controversial industry’s success, writing extensively about Russian intelligence, creating their own website called Agentura.ru, and eventually publishing four books on the subject. They became resources not only for Russians who hoped to understand their own country, but also for outsiders looking inward.

Soldatov and Borogan moved to London for the invasion of Ukraine, prompted by warnings from sources in Russia. But the February 24 invasion soon saw many other Russian journalists following 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 who could. The independent media remained either closed or self-censored. Echo of Moscow, a long-running central radio station, and TV Rain, a unique critical television station, have stopped broadcasting. Even Novaya Gazeta suspended operations; Muratov raised $103.5 million for Ukrainian refugee children by auctioning his Nobel Peace Prize.

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

These are the journalists who died during the Russian war against Ukraine

It took Soldatov some time to figure out why he was the target. Officially, the charge was related to comments he made during a March 11 livestream 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 determined the charges are related to his and Borogan’s reporting on infighting in the Russian FSB, a successor to the KGB intelligence agency operating under the Kremlin. Although the FSB is a domestic intelligence agency, Soldatov and Borogan reported that Putin had assigned one of his branches – 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 run-up to the war that led Putin to conclude that the invasion of Ukraine would be a walkover, Soldatov said. After that evidence went wrong, the pair reported a purge in the FSB ranks, in which a Fifth Service leader was sent to an infamous prison.

Soldatov said documents in the lawsuit revealed that the FSB’s internal security department had begun investigating him, with an agent from the department signing the first report against him. “Looks like they got really unhappy that we messed with them” [internal] case,” he said.

The complaints about the National Guard were a late cover story, Soldatov said. “They realized that based on this story they cannot file a case against me because then they would have to talk about the problems with the FSB,” he added. The Kremlin has denied reports of purges in the FSB.

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

Soldatov is also concerned about travel: he has not yet been able to find out whether Russia has issued him a “red warning” through Interpol, a common tactic now used by authoritarian governments to harass dissidents abroad.

Foreign governments aggressively target dissidents on US soil

It is not clear how many other Russian journalists are in the same position as Soldatov. One, Ivan Safronov, was tried for treason. Two other journalists, Michael Nacke and Ruslan Leviev, are accused in absentia of “fake news”. Soldatov noted that the serial numbers on his court documents seem to suggest hundreds of open cases.

Although Borogan appears to have escaped prosecution, perhaps because she did not appear in Popular Politics’ March 11 video, Soldatov said he had no way of knowing if she would face any other charges.

During our conversation, Soldatov noted that the first time he was questioned by the FSB was in 2002, after he reported the failed response to a hostage crisis in a Moscow theater that killed 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’s always changed for the worse, never for the better.”

Leave a Comment