Russian state TV has accused a leading Kremlin critic of being an agent for the British and US intelligence services. But its accusations are based on documents that are full of grammatical errors and have been branded as forgeries.
On Sunday night, official channel Rossiya 1 ran a 15-minute report alleging that anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny had been working for many years as an “agent” for MI6.
Controversial TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov described the allegations as “sensational” and stressed that some of Mr Navalny’s actions had been “criminal”.
Following his emergence as arguably President Vladimir Putin’s most formidable opponent, Mr Navalny has twice been convicted on charges of embezzlement in trials that he and his supporters say were politically motivated.
Two suspended prison sentences have left him sidelined from electoral politics.
- Putin opponent Navalny’s anti-corruption ‘video bomb’
- Russians unfazed by Panama Papers revelations
- US state department pokes fun at fake Russian letter
- UK admits spying on Russia with fake rock
The Rossiya 1 report suggested that Mr Navalny had been recruited to work for MI6 by UK hedge fund manager Bill Browder some time between 2006 and 2008.
The report went on to allege that he had been paid handsomely for his services via the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) human rights organisation.
His anti-corruption activities, including his recent allegations against the family of Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika, were also presented as being part of a CIA operation codenamed “Quake”.
Mr Navalny has dismissed the accusations as “fantasy” and “deliberate slander” and has said he will sue the state broadcaster.
MHG head Lyudmila Alekseyeva said the group had never given money to Mr Navalny.
As evidence for its accusations, Rossiya 1 reporter Yevgeny Popov quoted what he said was Skype correspondence between Mr Navalny and Mr Browder, as well as a number of purported MI6 and CIA internal documents, which were shown on screen with Russian translations.
The documents referred to Mr Navalny as agent “Freedom” and Mr Browder as “Solomon”.
Bill Browder was the inspiration behind the US Magnitsky Act, under which sanctions were imposed on Russian officials said to be complicit in the death of Sergei Magnitsky in Russian custody. Mr Magnitsky had been working for Mr Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital.
The TV report suggested Mr Browder had himself conspired with the CIA to bring about Mr Magnitsky’s death.
But the documents on which this and the other accusations are based have roused suspicion, not least because they contain mistakes in English commonly made by Russian speakers.
“Navalny is the most suitable candidate for the future political leader,” reads one.
Another says funds “will be transferred to our trustee from Moscow Helsinki Group until January 26th”. Such incorrect use of “until” instead of “by” is common among Russian speakers.
One reference to Mr Putin in January 2008 as the “acting president of the Russian Federation” appears to be another mistranslation from the Russian, where in English the word “serving” or “current” would be expected.
And it is not just the language at fault.
Some social media users pointed out that the name on the bottom of an alleged CIA document dated 2009 appears to be that of Valerie Plame, whose career in the service was over more than three years earlier.
This is not the first time Russian media have been apparently caught peddling fake documents. Last November, pro-Putin newspaper Izvestia printed a similarly error-strewn letter that it claimed was from a US state department official to a Russian LGBT activist.
Russian state TV has a long history of alleging links between Kremlin critics and foreign powers. The most famous was the so-called “spy rock” affair in 2006, which focused on the activities of alleged British secret agents.
Writing on liberal website Slon.ru, well-known journalist Oleg Kashin said Mr Popov’s report was based on an “indecent fake”.
He also suggested it was a product of the “information war” the Kremlin believed it was waging with the West.
The allegations against Navalny came exactly a week after the release of the Panama Papers, which appear to reveal suspicious offshore transactions involving members of the Russian president’s inner circle.
Russian state TV initially ignored these revelations, but later branded them part of a US-inspired plot to destabilise Mr Putin.
Rossiya 1 has said that it will air a fuller version of Mr Popov’s report in a late-night talk show on Wednesday.
But, despite the sensational nature of the allegations against Mr Navalny, pro-Kremlin media do not appear anxious to publicise them further.
They did not appear in any of the main TV bulletins on Monday evening. Nor did they feature in the Monday or Tuesday print editions of the top pro-Kremlin newspapers.