Russian poisoning plots: From Navalny to Litvinenko

Kremlin repeatedly accused of attempting to assassinate its enemies

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 29 March 2022 16:23 BST
Roman Abramovich ‘suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning’ after peace talks

Russian oligarch and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich was poisoned while taking part in peace talks intended to stop his country’s war in Ukraine, it has been alleged.

The investigative website Bellingcat said on Monday that it had evidence Mr Abramovich, 55, who has been heavily sanctioned by the UK government over Vladimir Putin’s invasion, had “experienced symptoms consistent with poisoning with chemical weapons” as he served as a go-between in talks in Kyiv on 3 March.

The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported that Mr Abramovich and at least two members of the Ukrainian delegation were taken ill after the meeting in question and suffered from loss of sight, inflamed, tearing eyes and peeling skin on their hands and faces in an attack that lasted until the following morning.

The billionaire reportedly subsequently received medical treatment at a clinic in Turkey after the group arrived there via Poland to continue negotiations.

Experts cited by Bellingcat speculated that the symptoms described were consistent with variants of porphyrin, organophosphates or bicyclic substances but could not be more precise without access to the victims and specialised laboratory conditions.

Others have suggested the men could have been subjected to an attack by electromagnetic-radiation, according to The WSJ. Others, including the Kremlin and some officials in Ukraine have denied any attack took place.

The trio are understood to have consumed only chocolate and water during the peace talks and the intention behind the poisoning, if that is what took place, appears to have been to scare the victims rather than cause life-threatening harm in the opinion of Bellingcat’s experts, suggesting that Russian hard-liners opposed to bringing the Ukraine conflict to a close were behind the plot.

“It was not intended to kill, it was just a warning,” said Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev.

Mr Abramovich was back behind the negotiating table in Istanbul on Tuesday as peace talks mediated by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan resumed and the Kremlin moved quickly to dismiss the story as the latest skirmish in the “information war” surrounding the conflict.

Ukraine has also downplayed the incident, with a spokesperson for Volodymyr Zelensky saying he had no information on the matter and negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak warning against listening to “speculation” and “conspiracy theories”.

However, foreign secretary Dmytro Kuleba offered a rather more wry response in a TV interview, remarking: “I advise anyone going for negotiations with Russia not to eat or drink anything, [and] preferably avoid touching surfaces.”

As Mr Kuleba so darkly suggests, Russia is no stranger to allegations of poisoning.

Here are some of the most recent examples of individuals who appear to have been targeted with harmful toxins by Kremlin agents.

Alexei Navalny

The Russian opposition leader, an outspoken critic of Mr Putin, was taken ill on a flight between Tomsk in Siberia and Moscow on 20 August 2020.

After an emergency landing and treatment in a hospital in Omsk, he was medically evacuated to Berlin for treatment, where a military laboratory subsequently concluded that he had been exposed to Novichok, a dangerous nerve agent.

Alexei Navalny
Alexei Navalny (AP)

Mr Navalny was placed in a medically-induced coma while an antidote was administered and duly recovered, blaming FSB agents working for Mr Putin for the attack.

He returned to Russia on 21 January 2021 and was immediately detained, accused of parole violation during his recuperation time in Germany – a requirement following his conviction for embezzlement in 2014 – and subsequently imprisoned, his term behind bars extended by an additional nine years just last week.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal

The former KGB officer (a double agent working for Britain in the 1990s and 2000s) and his visiting daughter were taken ill in Salisbury, Wiltshire, on 4 March 2018 and left fighting for their lives after Novichok (again) was smeared on the door handle of Mr Skripal’s home, a brazen assassination attempt on foreign soil.

Then-British prime minister Theresa May said on 14 March that Russia was responsible and announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation.

Ms Skripal gradually recovered and was found to be no longer in a critical condition on 29 March, her father recovering a week later on 7 April and finally discharged from Salisbury District Hospital on 18 May.

Emergency services personnel in biohazard suits investigate the Salisbury poisonings
Emergency services personnel in biohazard suits investigate the Salisbury poisonings (AFP/Getty)

Local woman Dawn Sturgess was not so lucky and died in hospital on 8 July that year after coming into contact with the substance while her partner, Charlie Rowley, and investigating police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, both became seriously ill.

Three suspected Russian spies – Alexander Mishkin, Anatoliy Chepiga and Denis Sergeev – now believed to be back in their homeland, were charged in absentia on several counts including attempted murder.

Alexander Litvinenko

Another former Russian agent and defector, Mr Litvinenko earned the enmity of the Kremlin in 1998 when he accused his superiors of ordering the assassination of the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Fleeing to Britain in 2000 and seeking asylum, he continued to be a thorn in Mr Putin’s side, writing a book accusing Russia of staging the apartment bombings in Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk it blamed on Chechen guerillas as a pretext for bringing him to power and accused the president of ordering the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Alexander Litvinenko in hospital in London in November 2006
Alexander Litvinenko in hospital in London in November 2006 (Getty)

Mr Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006, three weeks after being served a cup of tea laced with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, at a London hotel.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2021 that Russia was responsible for his killing and ordered the Kremlin to pay damages.

Viktor Yushchenko

An ex-president of Ukraine, Mr Yushchenko was left disfigured after he was targeted with TCCD dioxin while campaigning on a pro-western platform in September 2004 against Kremlin favourite Viktor Yanukovich.

Like Mr Navalny, he was evacuated for treatment, in this case to Vienna, where the poisoning diagnosis was made that December.

Mr Yushchenko said in September 2009 that he believed he had been poisoned at a dinner for security officials and knew who was responsible, declining to name names but saying they were currently in Russia.

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