Vladimir Kara-Murza: The Kremlin’s Poisonous Tactics
As the goal of destroying ISIS is tempting the United States to increase cooperation with Russia in Syria, it’s important to keep in mind who this would-be ally really is—and who it will be in a future with or without ISIS.
The warning signs are there for all to see. After the Sarin gas attack in April came speculation about the Kremlin’s foreknowledge of the actions of its Damascus ally. The international community expressed outrage at the political cover provided to Bashar al-Assad from Moscow. Yet the Russian authorities themselves have been no strangers to using poisonous substances against their opponents—not in the indiscriminate manner of Assad, but by individually targeting those they deem to be a threat to their interests.
This has been a pattern of behavior since Soviet days. In 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian émigré playwright, was jabbed with a ricin pellet from the point of an assassin’s umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in London, dying four days later. The ricin was provided to Communist Bulgaria’s security service by the KGB. This was not the only time a dissident from the east was murdered in London. In November 2006, former FSB officer turned political exile Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210 slipped into his tea at a Mayfair hotel. A subsequent British public inquiry concluded that “the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by… President Putin.”
Then-British Home Secretary (now Prime Minister) Theresa May called it a “blatant and unacceptable” breach of international law. A new inquest into another Russian death on British soil is due to begin next month. Alexander Perepelichny, a former banker who had been assisting in a money-laundering investigation and providing evidence against people linked to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison, dropped dead while jogging near his home in Surrey in November 2012. A pre-inquest hearing last year was told that traces of gelsemium poison had been found in Perepelichny’s stomach. In every instance, Kremlin authorities denied any role in these poisonings.
In Russia itself, political poisonings have become commonplace. In July 2003, Yuri Shchekochikhin, deputy editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta and an opposition member of parliament who specialized in anti-corruption investigations died after a mysterious 16-day illness.
“Within a week, we saw all of his skin peel off,” recalled his colleague Dmitri Muratov. “Within one week, he turned from a youthful man into a frail, old person with no hair on his head and at one-third of his normal weight.” Shchekochikhin’s medical records were classified; his family was denied access to the autopsy report. The cause of death was officially stated as Lyell’s Syndrome, a mucocutaneous disease that affects about one in a million people.
In September 2004, Shchekochikhin’s colleague at Nozaya Gazeta, Anna Politkovskaya, drank a poisoned cup of tea on the plane on her way to cover the Beslan terrorist siege. She survived, but was gunned down in her apartment hallway in Moscow two years later. On the same week of Politkovskaya’s 2004 poisoning, Roman Tsepov, a former Putin associate from his St. Petersburg days, had a cup of tea at a local FSB office.
He fell violently ill and died days later. The autopsy found radioactive materials in his body.
Sometimes there are near-misses. Twice in the past two years—in May 2015 and in February 2017, both times in Moscow—I experienced a sudden onset of symptoms consistent with poisoning that led to multiple organ failure and left me in a coma and on life-support. The doctors’ diagnosis was “toxic action by an undefined substance.” Both times, they assessed my chances of survival at 5%, so I am very fortunate to be writing this piece. And again, the Kremlin denied involvement.
The aim of poisoning is not always to kill. In 2004, in the midst of Ukraine’s presidential campaign, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko—the main rival of the country’s pro-Kremlin prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych—was disfigured as a result of a dioxin poisoning. He spent months undergoing treatment; the effects are visible to this day.
Then there is Alexei Pichugin, a former midlevel executive at the Yukos Oil Company, who was arrested in June 2003 and became the first victim in the Kremlin’s campaign to punish the company’s CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had the tenacity to expose government corruption and support opposition parties (Khodorkovsky himself would spend a decade in prison before being released in 2013.) One day in July 2003, Pichugin was taken from his cell for an interrogation. When he was brought back, he did not seem his normal self. “He looked down and was unfocused,” recalled Pichugin’s cellmate Igor Sutyagin. “He was not moving normally. It was as if his arms and legs were not bending.” It would take Pichugin two days to feel normal again. He did not remember the interrogation—only the investigator offering him coffee. Pichugin remains behind bars, now recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center as the longest-serving among Russia’s 115 political prisoners.
Whether dropped on entire villages or injected in a targeted fashion, the deliberate use of poisons on human beings is an unacceptable practice that cannot be tolerated—in Syria, in Russia, or anywhere else. Countries that assert human rights and the rule of law as the basis of their systems of government and their actions on the international stage cannot turn a blind eye to this practice. The message should be clear: this is a red line that cannot be crossed.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is vice chairman of Open Russia, a pro-democracy movement.