Roman Abramovich, a West-leaning Russian oligarch best known for owning the English football club Chelsea, and peace negotiators from Ukraine were likely poisoned during a meeting in Kyiv at the beginning of March, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.
The negotiators, who had met with Russian counterparts in hopes of charting a path away from war, later experienced debilitating symptoms including “red eyes, constant and painful tearing, and peeling skin on their faces and hands,” the report says. (Abramovich was briefly blinded, though his eyesight has since returned, according to a separate report in the Financial Times.)
Pro-war hardliners in Moscow are reportedly suspected in the attack, which Christo Grozev, part of the renowned investigations team for Bellingcat, characterized as a shot-across-the-bow: “It was not intended to kill,” he told the Journal, “it was just a warning.”
In a tweet from Bellingcat the investigative group said it could confirm that “three members of the delegation attending the peace talks between Ukraine and Russia” including Abramovich, “experienced symptoms consistent with poisoning with chemical weapons.”
This suspected toxic attack on peace negotiators fits a long pattern stretching back to Soviet days. Indeed, Russia has a dark history of using poison as a blunt instrument of both internal politics and international relations. (It can be noted here that, while Russia has been a dreadful actor, particularly lately, the U.S. once also developed its own poison weapons arsenal and tried to kill Fidel Castro with a box of poisoned cigars.)
What follows is a partial, modern history of political poisonings linked to Moscow.
1957 – Thallium
Nikolay Khokhlov was a trained Soviet assassin who defected to the West rather than carrying out his missions there. But the KGB would take revenge for his disloyalty. Khokhlov was poisoned in at an anti-communist meeting Frankfurt, Germany in the fall of 1957, after drinking coffee poisoned by thallium, a highly toxic, nearly tasteless poison.
The poisoning, and Khokhlov’s painful recovery, coincided with the historic launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. “I, too, was an exhibit of the achievements of Soviet science,” Khokhlov recalled in his memoir, detailing the physical effects of his attack, which left him “totally bald” and “so disfigured by scars and spots that those who had known me did not at first recognize me.” But Khokhlov also took pride in his survival calling himself “living proof that Soviet science, the science of killing, is not omnipotent.”
1978 – Ricin
In an incident seemingly pulled from a Cold War thriller, dissident activist and broadcaster Georgi Markov — a native of Bulgaria, then behind the Iron Curtain of Soviet communism — was living in exile in London. He was pricked in the leg with an umbrella on a busy bridge, while waiting to board a bus. The attack, believed to be supported by the KBG, was subtle and deadly. It injected a tiny pellet of ricin poison into his leg, which killed Markov four days later.
2004 – Dioxin
In an incident with direct relevance to the current war between Moscow and Kyiv, pro-European leader Viktor Yushchenko was vying for the presidency of Ukraine against the Putin-backed Viktor Yanukovych in 2004.
The reformer Yushchenko was poisoned with a dioxin, a highly toxic ingredient found in Agent Orange, over dinner, when the poison was allegedly slipped into his rice. Yuschenko narrowly survived the assassination attempt but was permanently disfigured, with with terrible scarring and blotches on his face and body. Despite the poisoning, Yuschenko then prevailed over Yanukovych during a court-ordered re-vote of their runoff election, in what’s remembered as the Orange Revolution.
(As the tug of war between Russia and the West over Ukraine continued, Yanukovych took power in 2010, only to be overthrown in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, which prompted the Russian invasion of Crimea, and set the stage for the current confict.)
2004 – Unknown
Muckraking Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was a fierce critic of the regime in Moscow and author of Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy.
In 2004, Politkovskaya was travelling by plane to cover the Russian conflict with separatists in Chechnya when she drank a cup of tea she claimed was poisoned by Russian intelligence agents. The journalist survived that attack and wrote about the experience in the Guardian. But Politkovskaya remained a marked woman. She was assassinated in 2006, shot dead in her apartment’s elevator on Putin’s birthday.
2006 – Polonium
Alexander Litvinenko was a member of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) who clashed with Putin’s government in Moscow after decrying widespread corruption, and was granted asylum to live in London.
But his flight to the U.K. did not put him beyond the long arm of Putin’s poisonous regime. Livitenko was attacked at the Millennium hotel in central London in 2006 where his killers spiked his tea with polonium, an unstable, radioactive metal. Livitenko died weeks later.
British authorities identified a pair of Russians they believed were responsible for the assassination, but Putin refused to permit their extradition to the U.K., denying any Russian involvement. One of the alleged attackers went on to serve in the Russian Duma.
2018 – Novichok
Sergei Skripal is a former double agent, who spied for the U.K. while serving in the Russian intelligence service. He was caught and imprisoned in Russia in the early 2000s, but later shipped to the U.K. as part of a spy swap.
In 2019 Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in the historic English town of Salsbury with what was later discovered to be a Soviet-era nerve agent called Novichok. The pair ultimately survived. Then-Prime Minister Theresa May denounced the poisoning in no uncertain terms. “Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country,” she said in an address to the House of Commons, “or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” (Skripal is now reportedly living in with a new identity in New Zealand.)
2018 – Novichok
Alexei Navalny is one of the top opposition figures in Russian politics. The popular lawyer and anticorruption activist rose to prominence by running for mayor of Moscow and organizing mass protests against Putin in the early part of last decade.
Navalny has also tried to run for president, despite court orders calling him ineligible. In 2017, he was attacked on the street by assailants who sprayed him with a noxious green dye that left him partially blind in one eye. And in 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok — recovering only after being airlifted to a German hospital.
Navalny directly blamed Putin for the attack. The U.S. government levied sanctions on Russian officials for the attack, denouncing “Navalny’s poisoning” as a “shocking violation of international norms against the use of chemical weapons” and was part of a “campaign to silence voices of dissent in Russia.”
Navalny returned to Russia last year, where he was promptly jailed. This month, as Putin waged war on Ukraine, the opposition leader was sentenced to an additional nine year sentence on trumped up charges. The pugnacious 45-year-old quoted an award-winning American television show upon learning of his sentence, tweeting: “9 years. Well, as the characters of my favorite TV series ‘The Wire’ used to say: ‘You only do two days. That’s the day you go in and the day you come out.'”