It seems medieval and extremely cruel to get rid of an adversary with poison. It has become almost a business card of the Russia of Putin. Why does it choose this all too obvious fingerprint? Our columnist Mark Galeotti does a trace and track.

skripals in restaurant in salisburyYulia and Sergey Skripal in a restaurant in Salisbury, before they were poisoned with Novichok

by Mark Galeotti

One might be forgiven for thinking that the Russians - or at least those currently in power - have a perverse fascination for poison. While the two men accused of trying to use Novichok to poison turned spy Sergei Skripal protested their innocence, even if in surreal and unconvincing fashion, activist Petr Verzilov fell ill from what doctors in Germany think was poison.

Nor is this the first such case.  Notoriously, there was the radioactive Polonium-210 used to kill another former security officer, Alexander Litvinenko, in 2006. There was the sarin derivative used to kill Jordanian-born Chechen rebel leader Khattab in 2002. There was the poisoning of emigre anti-Kremlin activist Vladimir Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017. There was the poisoning of two fearless journalists: incapacitating Anna Politkovskaya in 2004, before she was shot, and killing Yuri Shchekochikin in 2003.

The list goes on. Businessmen, journalists, activists, defectors, whistle-blowers, even innocent passers-by. 

Of course, the bigger question is why the lives of those who threaten the status quo seem to matter so little. But why poison?

One of the reasons why this is a complex question, is because there is no one answer. It would be a mistake glibly to suggest these poisonings are all the Kremlin's direct responsibility. Some are, of course: it is almost unthinkable that what happened to Litvinenko and Skripal was not a government project, carried out by government agents, under orders from the very top of the government. The same is true of the dioxin attack in 2004 that left Ukrainian politician - and then president - Viktor Yushchenko savagely scarred. This was poison as statecraft, where the very use of such a means is in itself a message. Poison, even if perhaps neither as quick nor as definite as a bullet, creates a theatre of murder, demonstrates capability, ruthlessness, sadism even. 

That does not mean, though, that other, less politically sensitive operations might not be sanctioned at a lower level. Then, the convenience of poison is its deniability. This could be considered poisoning as administrative convenience.

Murderous ire

And then the rich and powerful of Russia are all too often willing and able to strike at those who threaten their interests, murderously if need be. It could be a business rival, like the banker Ivan Kivelidi, who died in 1995 after a rival painted poison on his telephone. Others may be journalists, especially in the regions. The brave men and women who investigate corruption and wrongdoing run a regular risk of intimidation, violence or even murder. Usually this is by gun or knife in the night, occasionally a bomb or a hit-and-run for variety. But like business rivals, they may also face poison if that seems the safest or more appropriate means. There is, alas, still a buoyant supply of specialists in all the various forms of murder for hire. Call this poison as self-defence.

The boundaries between these exist, but they are often unclear, permeable, mobile. Consider activist Verzilov's case. The notion that his connection with Pussy Riot, even his protests at the World Cup, would be enough to arouse the murderous ire of the Kremlin, is hard to credit. However, it subsequently emerged that he was involved in an investigation into the three journalists killed in the Central African Republic while looking into the activities of the Wagner mercenary company and the associated business of Evgeny Prigozhin. 

Prigozhin is at once a businessman - albeit one whose commercial success is arguably as much as anything else a byproduct of his political connections - and an agent of the state.

Inevitably, suspicions are being aired that Prigozhin may have been behind what happened. Could a man in his position arrange a poisoning? Could he have done so without an OK from the Kremlin? The answer to both is yes.

We don’t know, of course, what happened to Verzilov, but the tragedy is that it is neither unthinkable nor unusual for people who become inconvenient to become incapacitated. That said, the less secure the elite feel, the more vicious they become, and an uptick in personal or political attacks could be a useful, if macabre index of their mood.

Poisonings are thus just part of a wider issue, of the way that, under the apparent stability and safety that Putin did bring to Russia - at least in comparison with the lawless 1990s - murder is still deployed by those with money and power too easily, too often, and with too much impunity.