High-profile critics and rivals of Russian President Vladimir Putin have a tendency to die from poison, something that conveys a specific message.
- Russia's most prominent political opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, became violently ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on Thursday after drinking a cup of tea.
- High-profile critics and rivals of Russian President Vladimir Putin have a tendency to die, often from poison.
- Poison is slow, messy, and uncertain. It can be as dangerous for the killers who carry it as it is for their victims. So why do those suspected of operating on behalf of Putin use it so frequently?
- Because poison creates a subtle, pervasive atmosphere of constant threat that mere bullets alone do not, security experts tell Insider.
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When Russia's most prominent political opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, became violently ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on Thursday after drinking a cup of tea, it immediately set off speculation he had been targeted with poison by the Putin regime. The concern was quickly echoed by his staff, with one staff member tweeting that the 44-year-old had been immediately hospitalized and put on a ventilator.
Navalny, who is said to be comatose and critically ill, runs the Anti-Corruption Fund, a watchdog group. He attempted to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin in the 2018 elections and has frequently drawn intense official and unofficial harassment and assaults, including arrests, interrogations, jailings, and even a previously suspected poisoning in 2019 from which he recovered.
High-profile critics and rivals of Putin have a tendency to die. One of them, the disgraced oligarch Boris Berezovsky, died mysteriously in 2013 after reports of multiple assassination attempts.
Another was the former media minister Mikhail Lesin. He died of blunt-force trauma to his head while alone in a locked hotel room in Washington, DC, where some reports indicated he was supposed to meet with the FBI. The case has never been conclusively determined to be a Russian government assassination.
Other incidents have been easier to trace. The 2006 murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya (shot by Chechens) and the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin (also shot by Chechens) are among several.
But it is poison that appears to play a disproportionate role in suspected Kremlin assassinations.
Poison is the weapon of choice for a literary villain in the late 1800s, not the drone age
Poison is slow, messy, and uncertain. It can be as dangerous for the killers who carry it as it is for their victims. It's also incredibly old-fashioned: Poison is the weapon of choice for a literary villain in the late 1800s, not the drone age.
And yet poison has been used to target a slew of Putin's critics and enemies:
- Alexander Litvinenko, a defected intelligence agent, died in London in 2006 after drinking a cup of tea laced with radioactive material during a meeting with Russian officials. The UK later determined it was most likely a Russian government operation directed by Moscow.
- Sergei Skripal, another intelligence officer who defected, and his daughter, were both exposed to a deadly nerve agent in 2018 along with a responding police officer in Salisbury, England. All three recovered, but a bystander who later found the bottle thought to have transported the nerve agent — and later traced to two Russian military-intelligence officers who had entered the UK under false passports — died from exposure.
- Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms dealer who had reportedly run afoul of Russian intelligence, was also targeted by the same nerve agent and the same military-intelligence unit in 2015. Both he and his son recovered.
- Viktor Yushchenko, when running for the presidency of Ukraine in 2004, was poisoned with dioxin and recovered but not before suffering terrible scarring and lingering pain.
But why, given the difficulty in administering it, use poison? And why target Navalny now?
According to Mark Galeotti, a longtime political analyst and expert on Russian government corruption who gave an interview with Euronews after the Navalny story broke, it was probably less his role as an opposition figure than his direct work on corruption that would make him a target.
Navalny has become "a catalyst for Russians' own discontent," Galeotti said. He continued: "No matter who you are in Russia, every Russian will have had experiences with corruption — an issue Navalny has set out to eradicate for almost 20 years. It is an 'Achilles heel of the Kremlin.'"
So it's possible that with Belarus in the throes of a popular revolt and much of eastern Russia discontent about heavy-handed treatment of local officials by what they see as a corrupt and indifferent government in Moscow, Putin's willingness to somewhat tolerate Navalny's constant attacks might have dissipated.
Poison adds to the uncertainty that Putin thrives on
The use of poison in this case would very much add to the elements of uncertainty that Putin's leadership sometimes thrives on. In multiple conversations over the years with current and retired security officials around the world — none of whom were available or willing to immediately speak about the latest Navalny situation — there has been a consistent set of theories used to explain how Putin decides to eliminate an opponent and why poison is thought to be used regularly.
- Deniability. Even in cases such as those involving the Skripals and Litvinenko, in which the trail of the attackers could literally be chemically traced to Moscow, Putin is left with just enough room to reject his government's involvement. That few in the West believe the denials hardly matters. Putin has long stopped fearing American and European retaliation or sanctions over the incidents. The shred of doubt is just enough to keep the domestic political narrative harmless to his rule.
- Taking credit without taking credit. Everyone thinks Putin had Litvinenko and the Skripals poisoned, as the materials used — military-grade radioactive agents and nerve agents — could not have come from anyone else. He wants to use overt denials to avoid domestic concerns, but he also needs anyone opposing him to be afraid he might poison them with nerve gas. To truly maintain that fear, he needs to periodically do it.
- Terror and exhaustion. Both Navalny and Nemtsov have (or had) experienced long-term harassment via assaults, beatings, arrests, overt and covert surveillance, and the constant threat that things might escalate further into outright assassination. Living under such threats requires enormous caution and care. It constantly drains energy that could be better spent confronting Putin. Adding the threat of dying from merely sipping tea or touching a door handle (as in the case of the Skripals) can overwhelm both opponents and their security teams' ability to stay focused on their political work.
- Pain. Nemtsov was shot in the head and died immediately. But Litvinenko lingered for days, in horrible pain, with no chance of recovery. The episode was widely covered in the international media. Opponents of Putin who do not fear being shot in the head were reminded that there are much worse ways to die — and that if Putin's involvement is suspected, such a death will be viewed around the world.
Skripal's survival was less important than the message
This is widely considered Putin's approach. Killing people can be an effective tool. But it's less effective than all of his enemies worrying constantly that they might be killed at any time, perhaps by their own food.
Moscow's GRU assassins could easily have just shot Skripal and still escaped. But Skripal's survival — or not — was less important than the message: I am willing to use nerve gas on my enemies in the UK.
That's a message that bullets alone can never deliver.