Why Russia Keeps Poisoning People

With a wink and a nod, the Kremlin sends a chilling message to its foes.

Military personnel wearing protective suits remove a police car and other vehicles from a public car park as they continue investigations into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, England, on March 11, 2018.
Military personnel wearing protective suits remove a police car and other vehicles from a public car park as they continue investigations into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, England, on March 11, 2018. Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

On Sunday morning, a leading Russian opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, was taken to the hospital after developing an allergic reaction that one of his doctors said could have been caused by an unknown chemical substance.

The news caused instant alarm in a country with a long history of poisoning dissidents and defectors. The fact that people were so quick to point their fingers at the Russian authorities is testament to the sheer number of Kremlin critics who have fallen ill, and even died, after coming into contact with mysterious chemical substances. And it raised more than a few questions about what the Kremlin is really up to, if it indeed is behind all these incidents.

Why does this keep happening?

One possible explanation is that poisoning leaves the Kremlin a veneer of plausible deniability, even as it makes a great impact on public sensibilities, said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “One of poison’s great virtues for the politically minded murderer is their capacity to combine easy deniability and vicious theatricality. Even while the murderer denies any role, perhaps with a sly wink, the victim dies a horrific and often lengthy death. A message in a poison bottle,” he said. 

The effects of suspected Russian poisonings have varied radically, from Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned to death with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210, to the permanent facial disfigurement of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. The question of who ordered or carried out the poisoning of Yushchenko, a pro-Western politician, has never been fully answered, but suspicion immediately fell on the Ukrainian and Russian security services. (His opponents claimed that he had a bad reaction to eating sushi.) Others have lived to tell the tale, such as the Russian democracy campaigner Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has survived two suspected poisonings. But Kara-Murza said his doctor told him he likely wouldn’t survive a third. 

“The Kremlin has a long, ugly history of intimidating and killing those who they see as a threat to the state,” said John Sipher, who spent 28 years with the CIA, serving in Moscow in the 1990s and later running the agency’s Russia operations. “Journalists, opposition figures, vocal Russians abroad, and others always have to remain aware that the Kremlin doesn’t see them as free citizens.”

Beyond the grisly chilling effect, the amorphous nature of poisonings gives Moscow a veneer of deniability, which has become the cornerstone of Russian malfeasance in recent years. From interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to the war in eastern Ukraine, the Russian authorities have been careful to launder their intentions through networks of proxy players: rebel groups, Kremlin-aligned businessmen, and useful idiots. Although their ties to these players have eventually been exposed, it delays investigations and sows confusion and leaves Western democracies scrambling as to how to respond in the absence of smoking-gun evidence. 

It took more than eight years and tireless campaigning by his widow before the British authorities opened an inquiry into the poisoning of Litvinenko, which in 2016 ultimately concluded that his killing was “probably” personally approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Another reason for the poisonings might be simpler: experience. The Kremlin has always had this array of tools at hand, Galeotti said. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested heavily in the development of poisons as a way of taking out enemies, research that experts believe may be continuing to this day. Laboratory No. 12 on the outskirts of Moscow was established on the order of Vladimir Lenin in 1921 and went on to research and manufacture poisons, drugs, and psychotropic substances. 

Tested on human subjects, the poisons were deployed against dissenting voices throughout the Cold War. Perhaps no incident is more infamous than the murder of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who died after he was pricked by the poisoned tip of an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in London. 

If you have poisons, you’ll be tempted to use them,” Galeotti said.

Does the Navalny case fit the pattern?

Navalny would certainly fit the bill of someone the Kremlin wanted to intimidate, if not kill. He was arrested last week and sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment for calling on people to attend anti-government protests in Moscow. Thousands took to the streets on Saturday to protest the decision of the electoral authorities not to allow independent candidates to run in city council elections in September. More than 1,000 people were arrested, sometimes violently, in one of the biggest crackdowns in years. 

With his condition improved by Monday, Navalny was returned to his jail cell. In a blog post published that evening, he accused the Russian authorities of poisoning him. “Are they such idiots as to poison you in a place where suspicions can only point to them?” he wrote, before listing off names of other dissenting Russians who have allegedly been poisoned. “The guys in power in Russia are really stupid and foolish,” he said.

No conclusive explanation has been given for the hives and facial swelling that led to his hospitalization. His personal doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, who treated the opposition leader after he was attacked with a green chemical substance in 2017, leaving him temporarily blind in one eye, said she had sent samples of his hair and clothing for independent testing. 

Galeotti, who studies Russian organized crime and the security services, said that for him, the jury was still out on Navalny’s case, noting that the chemicals used to wash down Russian police vehicles and prison cells can be extremely harsh. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Tag: Russia

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