How the Kremlin poisons itself (Op-Ed)
Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the two men the UK accuses of being Russian military intelligence agents sent to poison ex-spy Sergey Skripal in March are “civilians” who did not. “Nothing special or criminal,” another case of possible poisoning landed in his knees. Pyotr Verzilov, an anti-Putin activist and producer of political punk group Pussy Riot, was hospitalized in Moscow with suspicious symptoms.
Even though poisons, both chemical and biological, have long been used by intelligence agencies around the world to attack all kinds of enemies – hostile state leaders, terrorists, deserters, dissidents – what is happening now with a plethora of proven and suspicious Russian cases means the Putin regime has pushed the practice beyond all reasonable limits. It does more damage to Russia‘s reputation and international reputation than critics and enemies of the regime ever could.
Verzilov, 30, is the editor of the anti-regime website Mediazona and a daring action artist; in July, he and a group of women, all dressed in police uniforms, rushed onto the pitch during the FIFA World Cup final in Moscow, before being trained. It is not yet possible to say for sure whether Verzilov was poisoned. Symptoms, as described by his girlfriend Veronika Nikulshina, included loss of sight, the ability to walk upright and speak coherently; she suspects a criminal act. At the time of this writing, Verzilov was in the hospital in serious condition.
Deliberate intoxication has never been definitively proven in a number of other important cases. Anti-Putin activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who recently carried a coffin at the funeral of Senator John McCain, came down with the same symptoms – vomiting and heart palpitations, then a coma – twice, in 2015 and 2017.
Doctors diagnosed poisoning but could not identify the cause. An unknown compound possibly related to gelsemium, a rare plant poison, has been found in the body of Russian whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny, who deceased of a heart attack while jogging in the UK in 2012. Friends of Badri Patarkatsishvili, a business partner of Putin’s nemesis Boris Berezovsky, who died of a heart attack in the UK in 2008, suspect also for a long time poisoning; they recently demanded that his body be exhumed.
At this point, clear evidence – and a finding from a British judge to back it up – only exists in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian counterintelligence officer. poisoned with polonium in London in 2006. Andrei Lugovoy, who, Judge Robert Owen concluded, poisoned Litvinenko, is now a member of the Russian parliament. In a 2009 article on the use of chemical and biological weapons in assassinations, Shlomo Shpiro, an intelligence expert at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, pointed out that denial as one of the perceived benefits of technical.
“Chemical and biological weapons were used for assassinations because of their invisibility, both in the ease of application on the target and in the difficulty of establishing the cause of death,” Shpiro wrote.
Litvinenko’s murder established that the current Russian government continued the series of poisonings that apparently began in 1957 with the Munich murder of exiled Ukrainian Lev Rebet, which KGB agent Bogdan Stashinsky killed with a device. special that sprayed vaporized prussic acid (Stashinsky later defected and told the story).
Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was poisoned with the sharp tip of an umbrella in 1978 – an operation his chief planner, General Oleg Kalugin, later wrote in his memoir. The chain continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2003, investigative journalist Yury Schekochikhin died of poisoning, apparently with thallium, a highly toxic heavy metal, and the following year, his colleague Anna Politkovskaya survived poisoning after drinking a cup of tea; she was shot in 2006.
An argument for poisonings is plausible deniability, but the Litvinenko case has ruled out that. And after the Skripal poisonings, government foul play is the default assumption; hence a rapid and worried reaction to the Verzilov affair in the media and on social networks.
While it is possible that the deviousness of the methods, like the use of a fake bottle of Nina Ricci perfume in the Skripal case, and the prolonged suffering suffered by known and suspected assassination targets, could be aimed at instill fear in the regime’s enemies, Putin’s opponents are already suspicious.
They know anything can happen to them, from arbitrary imprisonment to a hail of bullets like the one that mowed down former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in 2015.
Poisonings also carry a high risk of failure – victims often survive, or assassins have doubts, as in the 1954 case of KGB officer Nikolai Khokhlov, who was sent to Frankfurt to kill a dissident but s rather is handed over to the authorities. Scandals and failures are, according to Shpiro, the biggest downside to using poison in assassinations.
“Chemical and biological weapons do not offer sufficient substantial advantages in intelligence work to offset the considerable political risk associated with their use,” Shpiro wrote.
In the West and in Israel, poisonings seem to have been abandoned for a long time. The British attempt to kill Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser with poisoned chocolates, the United States plans to eliminate Cuban leader Fidel Castro by putting thallium cream on his shoes or putting a bothulinum toxin in his cigars, a French plot to use thallium against Cameroonian insurgent Felix-Roland Mounie – all of this took place in the 1950s and early 1960s. The United States has not been known to engage in such techniques for years 1970. Israel’s failure to kill Hamas operative Khaled Mashal in Jordan by spraying him with a poisonous substance from a soda can dates back to 1997.
The fact that Putin’s Russia has apparently not given up on the risky and politically messy way of trying to get rid of its enemies is an embarrassing anachronism. The poisonings are dangerous beyond the risk they involve for opponents of Putin. They will weigh on Russia’s international reputation long after Putin leaves, unless his successors have the courage to go to confession and divulge information about the assassinations.
As Shpiro warned in his article, they also encourage terrorists to copy methods used by intelligence services, especially as the Russian government has emerged as the prime suspect in poisoning cases. While Putin will never admit the Kremlin’s involvement, the evil streak must end: it fuels the growing international perception of Russia as a terrorist state.
On the contrary, Putin’s intelligence services should protect opponents of the regime from any further damage that might suggest the use of chemical or biological weapons.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg opinion columnist covering European politics and affairs. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru. The views and opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.
The opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of the Moscow Times.