Abramovich's Suspected Poisoning Matches Russia's Modus Operandi for Dissidents

The Kremlin has, however, dismissed the reports as being "part of the information panic."

5 min read
Abramovich's Suspected Poisoning Matches Russia's Modus Operandi for Dissidents

Intelligence agencies and officers use different means to target dissidents and spies. Some make it look like an accident, some use guns, while some employ poison.

Russia is infamous for the latter, and conversations around its use have been reignited after the suspected poisoning of Chelsea Football Club owner and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Monday, 28 March.

The WSJ claimed that "Roman Abramovich and Ukrainian peace negotiators suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning after a meeting in Kyiv earlier this month," with "symptoms that included red eyes, constant and painful tearing, and peeling skin on their faces and hands."

Their lives, however, are out of danger.

What is interesting is that the alleged poison attack seems to have been a warning, and not an assassination attempt, according to Christo Grozev, an investigator with Bellingcat, an open-source investigative journalism group that had also claimed that the Kremlin had poisoned Alexei Navalny (discussed subsequently).

The victims blamed agents in Moscow who were trying to sabotage the talks that could end the war in Ukraine.

However, the claim that this was a poisoning attempt has been denied by the Kremlin, whose spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday dismissed the reports as being "part of the information panic".

But if Abramovich and the peace negotiators were indeed targeted with poison, then it wouldn't be the first time such a tactic has been employed. The Kremlin or the Federal Security Service (FSB) have, in numerous instances, used poison to target dissidents, critics, and anti-Moscow spies.

Some of the victims include Alexander Litvinenko (deceased), Sergei Skripal, and Alexei Navalny.


A Cup of Tea: Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-FSB spy, was killed in London in November 2006 after a meeting with ex-KGB contacts (KGB was the intel agency preceding the FSB).

Litvinenko had quit the FSB after tensions arose between him and senior officials due his investigation on possible links between Russian law enforcement agencies and the Russian mafia.

He fled to London, and became not only a fierce critic of the Kremlin, but also an agent for British intelligence (MI6), investigating the Russian mafia's links in Spain.

Litvinenko had to testify before a Spanish prosecutor regarding those links. One week before the testimony, at a central London hotel on 1 November 2006, he drank tea with two Russian ex-agents. He fell sick soon afterward.

Despite being transferred to University College Hospital in London for treatment, Litvinenko died on 23 November.

After investigation by the British police, Andrey Lugovoy emerged to be the key suspect, but Russia denied his extradition as Russian law forbids the extradition of its own citizens.


A Door Handle: Sergei and Yulia Skripal

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and a double agent for MI6, was targeted on 4 March 2018 along with and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in Salisbury, England.

They were poisoned using Novichok, a nerve agent that was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

The investigation revealed that two Russian intel officers Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga were behind the attack; they contaminated the front door of Skripal's house, where the highest concentration of Novichok was found.

Both survived the attack but it is likely that Skripal was targeted because of his defection to the UK. According to the Financial Times, the most plausible theory regarding his assassination attempt is that he was attacked in retaliation for handing over Russian secrets to MI6.

The UK government accused the Kremlin for being behind the attack, and expelled 153 Russian diplomats by the end of March 2018.

Russia denied any wrongdoing and expelled British diplomats in retaliation, and even ordered the closure of the British consulate in Saint Petersburg and the British Council office in Moscow.

The episode has a tragic aftermath. Four months after the attack, a British couple in Amesbury (11 kilometres from Salisbury) found the perfume bottle that was allegedly used to transport Novichok.

After coming in contact with whatever poison was left, the woman lost her life, and the man lost his eyesight.


Another Cup of Tea: Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny is a famous man. He was recently sentenced to nine years in prison (replacing his earlier jail term) after a Russian court found him guilty of embezzlement and contempt of court.

But his rise to fame was when he was poisoned with Novichok during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. A local DJ, Pavel Lebedev, who was travelling in the same flight, claimed that Navalny was screaming in the plane after drinking a cup of tea.

He was eventually hospitalised and treated in Berlin after being put into a medically-induced coma.

Agnès Callamard, who at the time was the UN Human Rights Council's Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, concluded that Navalny had been poisoned for his ferocious opposition to Putin.

"It is our conclusion that Russia is responsible for the attempted arbitrary killing of Mr Navalny" in order to send a "clear, sinister warning" to anyone who wants to be critical of the Putin regime.

Navalny survived the assassination attempt, but has been thrown in jail for his opposition to Putin. He isn't getting out anytime soon.


Soviet Era Poisonings 

The use of poison to target dissidents is not a post-Soviet era practice. In 1921, the Soviet Union's "poison factory" started to weaponise biological and chemical agents.

It came to known simply as the Kamera or "the Chamber" during Stalin's tenure, and was used to target political enemies across the Soviet Union.

One famous story is of Georgi Markov, Bulgarian writer who had defected to the UK. In 1978, his leg was punctured by an umbrella in London, the tip of which carried a metallic pellet containing ricin that was let into his bloodstream, killing him.

Another Soviet era story is that of Nikolai Khokhlov, a KGB agent who defected to the US in 1953 and was fatally targeted with thallium in Germany in 1957.

 'Part of the Information Panic', Says the Kremlin

Coming back to Abramovich, the samples were (conveniently) provided to German toxicologists too late for them to assess the role of any external actors.

Officials from all sides have playing down the incident. A US official anonymously told Reuters said that "environmental" reasons had caused the illness of Abramovich and the peace negotiators, "not poisoning".

On the Ukrainian side, Mykhailo Podolyak, a negotiator, said that there were lots of conspiracy theories going around while another negotiator named Rustem Umerov requested people to not fall for "unverified information".

Finally, Peskov told reporters on the phone that the whole episode "is part of the information panic, part of the information sabotage, information war", as quoted by The Guardian.

"These reports are not true…it is necessary to strongly filter the flow of information", he added.

The Wall Street Journal and Bellingcat, however, are still sticking to the claims they made.

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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