Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev: ‘Prigozhin will either be dead or there will be a second coup’


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Although the town sits at 8,000ft, it is a scorching afternoon in Aspen. Christo Grozev, lead Russia investigator at Bellingcat — the open-source investigative group that has exposed numerous Russian plots and assassinations — apologises for being about 20 minutes late, having just completed a five-hour drive up into the Rockies from Denver.

He says it has been the first “significant time” he has spent with his family since February, when he was forced to leave Vienna after Austria’s authorities told him they could no longer guarantee his safety. In spite of being Bulgarian, Grozev has been indicted by Vladimir Putin’s judicial system as a “foreign agent” — essentially an enemy of Russia with a target on his back. Having weighed up other European options, Grozev concluded that America was the safest place to be. His family remains based in Europe.

Dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and slacks, Grozev sports a mildly greying goatee that sits well with his 54 years. I ask him in which part of America he has settled.

“Let’s say I alternate between the west and east coasts,” he says. “You don’t know what the new rules of the game are. There were certain rules before, including that you [the Russians] don’t do anything on American soil, but one never knows whether it is significantly safer here. What is clear is that Europe isn’t safe. And I got that message from several European law-enforcement agencies, including in Austria. You have to understand it takes a lot for the Austrians to admit they can’t protect you, so it must be serious.”

We are seated at a garden table at the Jerome, the town’s grandest hotel, with a shimmering view of the peaks around us. Grozev, like me, is here to attend the Aspen Security Forum — a gathering of America’s national security establishment at which Putin’s Russia will be a big focus.

Exposing Putin’s methods has been Bellingcat’s forte. Grozev was part of the team that accepted an Oscar this year for Navalny, a documentary about the attempted murder of Russia’s now jailed leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. By exploiting Russia’s corruption, Grozev got hold of flight manifests, intelligence agency-issued fake passports and open-source data to prove that Navalny had been poisoned with novichok, almost certainly on Putin’s orders.

Bellingcat also investigated the killing of Boris Nemtsov, another Russian dissident, and exposed how GRU agents (Russian military intelligence) had tried in 2018 to kill Sergei Skripal, a former Russian agent, and his daughter at their home in Salisbury, UK, with the same nerve agent. Though he cannot be defined as a “traitor” — the most at-risk category of Russian nationals who almost invariably meet with painful ends — Moscow clearly sees Grozev as a menace.

He has twice returned to Austria under heavy protection. On the second visit in March, after his father had died, the police said it was too dangerous for him to go to the funeral. He was only briefly allowed to meet his family with a police chaperone in a Viennese safe house.

I tell him I feel guilty to be robbing him of time with his family now. “Don’t worry, they were so tired, they went to crash,” he says. “On the road trip from Denver we felt like we were in that great yet terrible movie RV. We played country music and sang to it. Family time.”

It also seems like a good time to order. Like everything else in Aspen, the menu’s prices are exorbitant. Grozev goes for two starters — spätzle, an Alpine egg noodle, and peas and carrots. I choose salmon with black rice and another side of peas and carrots. “I’m ordering spätzle because I miss Austria,” he says. We both order a glass of chilled sancerre. “I need it after that drive,” he says.

How does it feel, I ask, to be here in absentia? Grozev laughs. After the Russians indicted him “in absentia”, he posted a selfie video from Palm Beach, Florida, against a sunset backdrop. “I said, ‘If this is absentia, it’s a pretty great place to be.’”

Is Austria the least safe European country? “Yes,” he replies. “While we [Bellingcat] were investigating the Austrians, they were surveilling me and I wasn’t aware of that at the time. They were doing so explicitly at the request of the Russians. That is deep penetration.”

He says the Germans advised him not to settle in Germany. He last visited Germany in 2020 under heavy guard as a witness in the prosecution of a Russian who had assassinated a Chechen exile. “We are also investigating examples of Russian security services penetrating German political circles,” he says. “France, I would not trust them: they don’t even trust themselves. The only place in Europe I can come to safely nowadays is the UK.”

Hotel Jerome
330 East Main Street, Aspen, Colorado 81611, US

Spätzle $28
Peas and carrots x2 $56
Ora salmon $52
Glasses of sancerre x3 $57
Double espresso $10
Total (incl tax and tip) $270.69

He is still angry, however, at London’s Metropolitan Police for cancelling his and his family’s attendance at the Bafta film awards this year. “Hearing it through the grapevine was offensive,” he says. “If there is also a risk to my family, they should tell me directly.”

Both Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which is teeming with Russians, are off-limits, he adds. “Dubai is Vienna on the Gulf,” he says. “I have heard this warning from both the Emirates and Turkey — ‘Do not come here. We will try to protect you. We will never extradite you [to Russia]. But we can’t guarantee your safety.’”

It strikes me that Grozev is potentially in a Salman Rushdie-type dilemma. He will never know for sure when it is safe to return to normal life. What kind of precautions does he take?

“I know when I’m being surveilled, but I’m not going to go into details,” he replies. “What helps me is my unpredictability: I don’t have a set agenda for any given day. That makes life difficult for people in the surveillance business.”

Although he is trying to be responsive, Grozev is clearly not keen to speculate on this topic. I sense it is time to widen the aperture. He also seems to be at odds with the spätzle. As the waiter observes, Grozev is now “working” solely on the peas and carrots. “Now I remember why I hated spätzle,” he says. “I was just being nostalgic.” I insist he should order something else. He declines more food but requests another glass of sancerre.

I ask him how he feels about Elon Musk, the capricious billionaire who recently described Bellingcat as a “psyop” — a term that implies it is a propaganda outlet for western spy agencies. Russia, along with its western sympathisers, has accused the non-profit Bellingcat of being a cypher for western intelligence agencies because it took grants from government-affiliated sources, including Washington’s National Endowment for Democracy.

Bellingcat has since refused any government money but strongly denies having any relationship with western intelligence. It says its detractors are weaponising the outfit’s transparency against it. “The Russians are spreading legends and narratives about me that we are CIA because the alternative would make them look so weak — that they are being beaten by journalists,” he says. “That’s not acceptable to their pride.”

Russia’s slant on the world appears to have penetrated Musk’s mind and he is by far Bellingcat’s most famous detractor. Bellingcat’s Twitter account has periodically disappeared from site searches and Musk himself often retweets conspiracy theories about the group.

“My problem with Musk is that he’s just not smart enough — he reads all this propaganda and is taking it at face value,” Grozev says. “He’s an avid retweeter and reader of @ZeroHedge [a conspiratorial account that Grozev alleges has close ties to RT, formerly Russia Today, a state news network. ZeroHedge denies it has any such ties and says it is rather Bellingcat that publishes “conspiratorial falsehoods”].

“Musk is not very eloquent. He’s so random and you can’t argue with randomness. So fine — it’s petty. We’re joking about it. But Musk is extremely influential. He has a cult following and he’s purveying falsehoods. Because of his image among his followers as someone who knows the truth that others can’t see, he is more dangerous than a Trump.”

I observe that Bellingcat has been a target of the far right and the far left, which seem to have a near-identical scepticism about the west’s support for Ukraine.

“The Kremlin discovered a long time ago they could exploit this ‘horseshoe coalition’ [where the extremes meet] by obfuscating the fact that Moscow has a far-right government and there is zero socialism in Russia,” Grozev says. “Socialists around the world seem to be oblivious to that. So they are available for free. We only need to bribe the far right in the west because the left is free. They are still our useful idiots.”

I ask Grozev whether he thinks Russia would have the means to influence next year’s US presidential election. He replies without pause: “Putin’s strategy in the Ukraine war is clearly to delay any military outcome until the US elections. He hopes western support will be throttled by a Trump victory.”

I press him, a little sceptically, on whether Putin can sway the 2024 outcome. “The risk comes from the engagement of AI [artificial intelligence] in election interference, which is the first time we will see it,” Grozev says.

“The problem is that AI is in the hands of people like Elon Musk. What they say is correlated with Russia’s interests but their actions so far have not been. Both he and Peter Thiel are supporting Ukraine even though they are unconvinced that they should be. Their ideological brethren are criticising Ukraine. I am afraid of the moment when they will start supporting the other side — ‘Let’s give some of our unpublished AI tools to the Russians as well.’ That’s my fear.”

I suggest another possibility is that Putin will not last that long. The recent attempted coup by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s former caterer, whose business empire included the Wagner mercenary group, was predicted by Grozev. “I said last January that Prigozhin would turn on Putin within six months — and it just fit within my time frame,” he says.

Grozev suspected the June 23 coup attempt was coming the night before because, he says, there was an explosion of telephone traffic between Russia’s senior military — a trove of data that Bellingcat sometimes procures through payment (although Grozev insists it always requires a second corroborative source).

Having so far apparently let Prigozhin off the hook, doesn’t Putin now look weak? “Putin went on TV and called Prigozhin a traitor,” Grozev replies. “Everyone knows what they do with ‘traitors’ and Putin hasn’t done that. He wants to see him dead. He can’t do that yet. In six months Prigozhin will either be dead or there will be a second coup. I’m agnostic between the two but I can’t see neither of these happening.”

Is Grozev predicting one or the other will happen? “Yes, you can hold me to it,” he replies.

Since Grozev speaks fluent Russian and talks to Russian sources every day, I am curious where he thinks the next coup attempt would come from. “I don’t think any part of the elite, except in the military industrial complex, sees any sense for them in this war,” he says. “But they’re not speaking out because it’s a prisoner’s dilemma. They don’t want to be the first ones to move or the only ones.” He mentions a Russian general, Ivan Popov, who recently criticised Putin’s “special military operation” and has since disappeared. “I am really concerned for his wellbeing,” Grozev says.

But what could the catalyst be for the next attempt to eject Putin? “It could go one of two ways,” he says. “Either the prisoner’s dilemma can be broken, or they will just get rid of him through a better co-ordinated coup. You don’t have that yet among the oligarchs, or with any of the ministers, or the FSB [Russia’s security service]. But it is unpalatable for the rest of the elite to live in a North Korea 2.1 with their bank accounts frozen. Other triggers could happen. Say a reversal of fortunes on the frontline.”

I wonder what other investigations Grozev has in the works. There are usually 50 or so at any one time, he says. Among Bellingcat’s more exotic stories was the exposure of a Russian agent who was tracked down via her cat. She was, in his words, a “hot jeweller” living near Nato’s office in Naples and very active in a charity for underprivileged children next to the Nato building. Many of the wives of senior generals joined. As did their husbands with whom she had many affairs.

Grozev was eventually able to track her down via her cat’s microchip inserted by an Italian vet. Having tracked down its unique ID from Italian registries, Grozev then cross-referenced the cat’s name to her Russian social media account. “You need one fixed object: without the cat we would never have found her,” he says. “She spread her affections widely but her only true love was the cat.”

I ask: what next? Grozev says he has several upcoming stories on Russian “illegals” — long-term sleepers based in the west. “We have found sleepers in Europe and the Americas,” he says. Have you ever seen The Americans, I ask — a multi-season TV drama about a Russian spy couple who settle in Washington DC during the cold war? Grozev looks at me as though I have six heads. “Oh come on!” he replies. “Absolutely!”

I feel I might have stumbled on a key to Grozev’s inexhaustible drive. In addition to his passion for public-interest journalism, he clearly loves the game. “The Americans was very good,” he says. “The only unrealistic aspect was that the sleepers carried out assassinations. The Russians would never risk long-term assets in which they had invested so much time and money. The sleepers would set up the killings, but they would be carried out by short-term illegals.”

Having cleared that up, we agree it is time to head to the conference, which is a few minutes away by foot. After settling the eye-popping bill, I ask Grozev a final question: what is it that motivates him to press on with such a hazardous existence?

After a moment’s reflection, Grozev returns to Putin’s fragile prospects. “Proving that the Russian model is finite and will implode would scare a lot of other wannabe dictators and make them rethink — ‘I was living a good life not being a dictator; now let me revert to that’.” As I am digesting his ambitions, Grozev adds: “At least that is what I am hoping will happen.”

Edward Luce is the FT’s US national editor

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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