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For Russian intelligence, poison has long been a weapon of choice

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a protest in Moscow on July 20, 2019.
(Pavel Golovkin / Associated Press)

Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, is hardly the first foe of President Vladimir Putin to suddenly suffer a life-threatening medical emergency, or a lethal one, under suspicious circumstances.

The 44-year-old dissident — a target of a number of attacks over the years — was in intensive care after being stricken Wednesday while on a flight back to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. Allies believe he was poisoned; his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said that shortly before boarding, he had a cup of tea at an airport coffee shop.

Soon after, she recounted on Twitter, he was sweating, asking her to speak to him so he could focus on the sound of a voice, finally groaning in pain and staggering to the plane’s toilet. By the time the flight made an emergency landing in Omsk, another Siberian city, he had collapsed.

If proof emerges — and it may, because Navalny’s family and supporters were trying to get him to a toxicology unit in Europe for specialized treatment — his fate would be grimly reminiscent of a string of cases in which dissident figures ended up sickened or dead of apparent poisoning.

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Putin critics such as Bill Browder — the U.S.-British businessman who has spearheaded international Magnitsky Act legislation to help foreign governments target oligarchs after Russian whistleblower lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 under jailhouse torture — say the point of such attacks is not only to surreptitiously remove figures the Russian president finds nettlesome, but also to do so with a brazenness that lays down warnings to others and reveals a terrifying degree of impunity.

Navalny — who has likened Putin and his party to a gang of crooks and thieveswas well aware of the risks. Twice before, he had been doused in public by unknown assailants with a green-tinted antiseptic. After the first assault, he made a defiant appearance with his face painted green, calling on supporters to help him fight Kremlin-backed corruption. The second assault was more serious, leaving him with chemical burns.

Decades ago, Russian intelligence’s penchant for poisonings was the stuff of Cold War legend. In 1978, on London’s landmark Waterloo Bridge, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was jabbed in the leg with a toxin-tipped umbrella, dying days later. The intelligence services of the then-Soviet Union and Bulgaria were suspected.

Even Nobel laureates were not immune. In 1971, Russia’s most famous dissident author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who later found refuge in the United States, survived a suspected poisoning attempt at a department store candy counter.

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Here is a look at some high-profile poisonings in recent years in which Putin’s hand was suspected. In all cases, the Kremlin denied involvement.

Alexander Litvinenko in a hospital bed
A family photo shows Alexander Litvinenko in his hospital bed in November 2006. He died days later.

Alexander Litvinenko

Litvinenko was a onetime operative for Russia’s FSB security service who found shelter in Britain after blowing the whistle over alleged state-sponsored assassinations. He died an agonizing death in November 2006 after lingering for several weeks gravely ill in a London hospital. The fatal dose of polonium was administered in a cup of tea, investigators learned.

Photographs from Litvinenko’s final days showed him bald, wan and hollow-eyed, staring out from his hospital bed. While he could still speak and communicate, Litvinenko, who had worked as a consultant to British intelligence, laid the blame for his death on Putin. A British inquiry eventually concluded that the Russian president had most likely personally ordered the poisoning.

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Just two weeks before his poisoning, Litvinenko tried to warn another potential target: journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose assassination he said had been ordered by the Russian leader.

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya
Russian human rights advocate and journalist Anna Politkovskaya in March 2005. She was killed in Moscow in October 2006.
(Jens Schlueter / AFP/Getty Images)

Anna Politkovskaya

The writer and activist aroused Putin’s ire with her journalistic coverage of the bloody conflict in Chechnya, including internationally acclaimed investigations of Russian human rights abuses. She was shot to death in 2006 in an elevator at her apartment block, but before that, she had been the victim of an apparent poisoning attempt.

Politkovskaya fell ill on a flight to the western city of Rostov to cover the 2004 Beslan school siege in Russia’s North Ossetia republic, a horrific episode in which at least 330 people, including 186 children, were killed after Chechen rebels seized hostages and a standoff with Russian forces ensued.

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In an account for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, she offered a description of her poisoning that was chillingly similar to what would befall Navalny 16 years later.

“The plane takes off. I ask for a tea,” she wrote. “At 21:50 I drink it. At 22:00 I realize that I have to call the air stewardess, as I am rapidly losing consciousness.”

She eventually recovered, but her assassination was a scant two years later.

Vladimir Kara-Murza

In May 2015, Kara-Murza, a journalist turned opposition leader, fell abruptly and dramatically ill while meeting with fellow dissidents in Moscow, slipping into a coma from which he emerged a week later. Doctors told him his symptoms were consistent with poisoning, but they were unable to identify the toxin.

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The same symptoms struck again in February 2017, sending him into organ failure, and this time, the team treating him — the same as during his earlier bout — placed him in a medically induced coma. Once again he survived. His lawyer tried, without success, to force the opening of a criminal case into his alleged poisoning.

Kara-Murza was a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who became a fierce Putin critic and an icon of dissent. He was gunned down in 2015 just outside the walls of the Kremlin.

Sergei Skripal

The former spy was imprisoned at home in Russia as a double agent, but eventually traded to Britain in a prisoner exchange. He made a peaceful life for himself in the English cathedral town of Salisbury, making the unusual decision to live under his own name. He seemingly believed himself safe, but former spymaster Putin was reported to take betrayals such as his very personally.

Along with his daughter Yulia, Skripal was nearly killed in 2018 by exposure to a military-grade nerve agent. Father and daughter eventually recovered.

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And although British authorities painstakingly reconstructed the movements of his alleged assailants, identifying them as Russian intelligence operatives and naming them, Moscow never relented in its insistence that the pair were innocent tourists taking in the sights of Salisbury.


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