Vladimir Putin poisons his critics so often – but is this plot all it seems? MARK ALMOND analyses whether Roman Abramovich has pulled off an extraordinary double-bluff… or someone in Russia is trying to sabotage hopes of peace in Ukraine
Russia’s sinister war against Ukraine gets more menacing by the day. News of peace talks earlier this month had raised the faint hope of a ceasefire soon.
But now it emerges that the mediators themselves; Roman Abramovich, another Russian entrepreneur and Ukrainian MP Rustem Umerov, were poisoned during those very talks.
Assuming that this is not some extraordinary double-bluff by Abramovich himself – who after all might well benefit from being seen as distanced from the Kremlin – does this mean that someone in Russia is trying to sabotage hopes of peace?
Assuming that this is not some extraordinary double-bluff by Abramovich himself – does this mean that someone in Russia is trying to sabotage hopes of peace?
It is certainly possible – in the murky world of post-Soviet assassination, the Kremlin’s intelligence services have form as long as their reach.
It wouldn’t be the first time a Ukrainian politician has been the target of Russian poisoning.
Ukraine’s pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, suffered horrific disfigurement after he ingested dioxin – a chemical found in the herbicide Agent Orange – while eating dinner with the head of Ukraine’s security service in 2004. He maintains it was the Kremlin’s doing.
And Britain, of course, has seen two confirmed cases of poisoning by Russian agents. Back in 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a defector given asylum here, was poisoned with radioactive polonium and died an agonising, slow death.
A dozen years later, Sergei Skripal, a Russian spy turned by MI6, was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury along with his daughter and three others.
In Russia, the leading Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, suffered the agonising effects of a Novichok dose two years ago.
He survived but is kept in a strict-regime prison camp to see if its rigours cure him of his anti-Putin attitudes.
It has been suggested that the chemicals used in the most recent alleged attack on Abramovich may have been porphyrin, organophosphates, or bicyclic substances – all toxic compounds.
But experts believe the dosage said to have been used against the envoys was deliberately low. So this doesn’t appear to be a murder attempt, rather a bid to threaten ceasefire negotiators.
Whatever the motive, the finger of suspicion points at the man who occupies Stalin’s office in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s opponents, great and small, have a habit of falling suddenly ill with peculiar symptoms. Stalin’s did, too. Already in the 1920s, Stalin employed a team of secret police chemists across Red Square to prepare deadly potions for his rivals at home and abroad.
Just because the bad guys in the early Bond films belonged to SMERSH, don’t think it was a figment of Ian Fleming’s imagination.
SMERSH, a portmanteau of the Russian phrase ‘Death to traitors and spies’, was Stalin’s own Murder Inc. and many of its veterans rose to high places in the Communist hierarchy.
Vladimir Putin’s own KGB service was not quite as noteworthy, but he has never disguised his admiration for its killer ‘heroes’, the villains in Western Cold War history. It seems natural for President Putin to use some of Stalin’s most sinister ‘special measures’ to silence or frighten his opponents.
Giving Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich a nasty dose of something might seem odd since he was apparently acting as Moscow’s man in these talks. But the oligarch has enemies.
Vladimir Putin’s own KGB service was not quite as noteworthy, but he has never disguised his admiration for its killer ‘heroes’
Even if Putin himself did not target him, hardliners in Russia’s secret services could want to stymie any compromise deal brokered by him.
The intelligence war is a world of mirrors, and it could be that the obvious suspect in the Kremlin is not behind this strange episode.
But Russia’s track record of political poisonings is hard to ignore, and a half-baked but cynical plot by Putin to scupper peace in the same way is worryingly plausible. Who’ll want to deal with him next?
Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford