A terrifyingly effective poisoning operation

Possible cases of so-called "soft poisoning" of civil activists and journalists, which are often overshadowed by high-profile murders, show that any Russian who criticizes Putin is in real danger of being declared an enemy of the state and becoming a potential target.

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A forensic team near the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found in Salisbury, Britain in 2018, Photo: Reuters
A forensic team near the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found in Salisbury, Britain in 2018, Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Natalija Arno settled in the hotel room when she smelled it. Disgustingly sweet, like a cheap drugstore perfume, only more sickening.

It was May 2, 2023, and Arno had arrived in Prague the night before as part of a European tour. The Russian activist and director of a non-profit organization met with donors and organizers looking for ways to strengthen democracy in Russia.

At the beginning of the tour, Arno felt tired like she was going to get sick. But now, after the meetings and the business dinner, she was back to full strength. She was going back to her room to change into jeans, before going out for drinks with her colleagues.

Arno, a small, warm-looking woman with a full face framed by dark straight hair, stayed at the Garden Court Hotel. As she walked down the hotel corridor to her room, she noticed that the door was open. She was tense. She slowly opened the door, bracing herself for a possible intruder, but there was no one in the room.

She began looking for listening devices - under the table, next to the bed, in the suitcase, inside the clothes - but found nothing.

The smell was intense, especially near the bed. She thought it was some awful flower perfume used by the maid. However, it seemed that the maid did not come in at all. The wastebasket was emptied, but the bed was not made. She put those thoughts aside and went to freshen up before going out.

On her way out, she stopped at the front desk and told the young man working there what had happened. He seemed upset, promising that the hotel would punish the maid responsible. "What was taken from the room," he asked.

"I'm not worried about the robbery," said the usually calm Arno. "I am worried about security".

He promised to investigate and Arno went to see her colleagues, Greg and Alexandra. Later, she returned to her room, answered a few emails, called her husband in Washington and watched videos on YouTube before turning off the light.

Three hours later, Arno woke up with a terrible pain in her mouth, almost unbearable.

She realized that she would no longer be able to attend the meetings. She booked the next flight to Washington and packed her suitcase. By the time she had to check in at the airport, she could no longer stand up straight. Her vision blurred, she knelt. Her mouth tasted like stone.

Natalia Arno
Natalia Arnophoto: 4freerussia.org

She started hallucinating on the plane. For the next nine and a half hours, a new kind of pain occurred every minute. She felt her arms tingle, then her legs. At one point, she began to slowly lose feeling from her neck all the way down her spine. Pain shot through her body. Her ears, her breasts, her eyes, her belly. However, the terrible pain in the mouth is almost gone.

She was texting Greg and another colleague about her condition. A colleague in Tbilisi was alarmed, noting that two Russian opposition journalists had recently become seriously ill and that some believed they were victims of poisoning. They wondered, could Arno be a new target?

There are many ways to incapacitate an enemy. However, historically speaking, rarely is it as attractive to the Soviet and Russian security services as poisoning. Ever since Vladimir Lenin founded the poison factory known as the "Special Room" more than a century ago, poisoning has been one of the Kremlin's favorite ways to eliminate, incapacitate or terrorize enemies and critics. Over the decades, they have become the greatest experts in the field.

During the Soviet period, the Kremlin had one of the largest biological and chemical weapons programs in the world, employing 25 to 32 people and over 20 military and civilian laboratories in addition to 10 employees in biological weapons laboratories run by the Ministry of Defense. said Boris Volodarsky, a former Russian intelligence officer and author of a book about the KGB poison factory.

The gruesome details of the Russian poison attacks have accumulated over the decades: ricin on top of an umbrella allegedly used to stab Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in the leg, who died a week later. Placing the radioactive isotope polonium 210 in the green tea drunk in 2006 by former Russian secret service agent and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko.

Applying one variant of Novichok, a deadly nerve agent, to the door of British double agent Sergei Skripal in 2018 and another to the underwear of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a hotel room in Siberia in 2020. Last Sunday, three and a half years after he was subjected to the suspected attack poisoning, Navalny died suddenly in a prison colony in the Arctic, although a few days before that he seemed healthy and stable.

The deaths of Navalny, Litvinenko and Markov cast a shadow over lower-profile cases, sometimes known as "mild poisonings". The day after Litvinenko's death, Yegor Gaidar, the former Russian prime minister who became the leader of the liberal opposition suddenly fell ill and poisoning was suspected. Some speculated that the goal was to divert attention from the Litvinenko case.

Litvinenko died of polonium poisoning
Litvinenko died of polonium poisoningphoto: Reuters

In recent months, analysts believe that the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere within Russia has lowered the criteria by which someone can be marked as a target.

Arno's case in Prague happened while there was talk of a number of other possible poisonings. In October 2022, Elena Kostyuchenko, a Russian journalist working for an independent media suddenly fell ill while returning to Berlin from Munich. That same month, Irina Babloyan, a journalist at an independent radio station, fell ill on her way from Tbilisi to Berlin via Armenia. Both had similar symptoms, sharp pain in the upper abdomen, swollen and painful palms, severe dizziness and exhaustion.

None of them suspected poisoning and did not seek medical help. However, Kostyuchenko gave a blood sample for testing and it was determined that her liver enzymes were elevated, research portals Belingket and Insider reported.

A non-fatal attack can serve as a warning to the target and the circle of people around it. Unusually, poisoning is harder to prove if the target survives, said Christopher Holsteg, a toxicologist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine who helped diagnose the dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. "It's one thing when you have the opportunity to do an autopsy on a large part of the tissue. You can make a lot of diagnoses," said Holsteg. However, a target that survives may not quickly seek clinical testing.

Over the past few years, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the severance of relations with the US have raised new fears. Western governments are having trouble containing the security threat. The universe of potentially toxic chemicals is limitless - and thanks to advances in technology, the number of ways the enemy can use them has also increased. "There are agents that are completely unknown to us... that's why it's very difficult to do an analysis," Holsteg said.

Analysts believe that the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere within Russia has lowered the criteria by which someone can be marked as a target

Most toxicology laboratories have no experience investigating state-ordered poisonings using unusual toxic agents, said Mark Michel Blum, a chemical weapons expert in Germany who headed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' laboratory during the 2018 Skripal poisoning investigation. because toxicology is a rather rare specialization. If you work in the toxicology department here in Berlin, what do you usually come across? With people who eat the wrong mushroom? A child who drinks a household chemical?... Even if you're a very good laboratory technician, you can miss it if you're not looking in the right direction”.

In October last year, I met with Arno in Berlin. She participated in the Boris Nemtsov forum, and before the meeting my husband half-jokingly warned me not to eat or drink anything. Others felt the same way. Arno said that they jokingly tell her: “Can I hug you? Are you toxic? Poisonous?

Thanks to her work, she managed to overcome paranoia. It reminded her of the period more than ten years ago, when she first realized she was under surveillance by agents of Russia's ruthless FSB service. At first it was hard for her to sleep because of the anxiety, but in the end she just learned to live with it. "People get used to everything," she said. "It's bad, but it's become normal."

Born in Buryatia on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, near Mongolia. Her mother was a distinguished academic who studied rare dialects. Arno followed the same path and moved to Moscow to get a doctorate in linguistics. While studying, she worked for the American International Republican Institute. Over time, she gave up her doctoral studies and worked full-time. She quickly progressed from being an assistant who ordered toilet paper to becoming the director for Russia.

Alexei Navalny's family believes he was killed by poison
Alexei Navalny's family believes he was killed by poisonphoto: Reuters

In 2008, she noticed that she was under surveillance. FSB agents first approached her and tried to recruit her, only to become more aggressive later. In December 2012, two men attacked her in her apartment, choking and threatening her, holding a gun pointed at her. They told her that they would charge her with treason if she did not cooperate with the security services. Fearing for her life and that of her son, she left Russia within 48 hours and went first to Lithuania and then to Poland. However, agents were everywhere and easy to spot.

In the spring of 2022, following the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, European governments began cracking down on suspected Russian spies, expelling dozens of diplomats for "participating in activities contrary to their diplomatic status." Over 400 Russian spies were expelled, however this only made counterintelligence efforts more difficult. "It used to be much easier," said one European intelligence official. "We knew which diplomats were agents, and we could follow them to find out who they were meeting with, who they were talking to on the phone. Now it is more difficult".

Late last year, I asked Roderich Kajwetter, a member of the German parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and a former colonel, about the threat posed by Russian agents. "We have to be very careful," he warned. "They are among us".

When Arno returned to the US from Prague, the first thing that came to her mind was the case of her friend Vladimir Kara Murza. This Russian opposition leader suddenly fell ill in 2015 when he was 33 years old, after which he fell into a coma. Two years later, the same thing happened to him again, and the doctors put him in an artificial coma. That's when his family decided to send blood, hair and tissue samples to the FBI.

As in other well-known cases of poisoning, the results were confusing. Kyle Parker, a US congressman who participated in efforts to establish a diagnosis, said that it was "a picture that did not look normal". It is as if two toxic substances were used, one that destroys the body and the other that conceals it.

Holsteg, a toxicologist at the University of Virginia, described known poison attacks in which multiple toxic agents were used. One that serves to distract doctors and set them on the wrong path and the other that causes harm. This was the case with Litvinenko, where doctors initially believed that the former spy had been attacked by thallium and not polonium. In fact, thallium was in Litvinenko's system, but it did not cause rapid deterioration.

The FBI took Kara Murza's samples but initially did not want to hand over the results to him. Only after he requested the documents in 2019 citing the Freedom of Information Article and sued the US Department of Justice the following year were the redacted documents released.

In those documents, the FBI announced that the investigation failed to determine the exact cause of Kara Murza's illness, but that "the team of doctors who treated Kara Murza in the US unequivocally believe that he was a victim of poisoning, whether accidental or criminal."

The Kremlin, on the other hand, attributed Kara Murza's health problems to alcohol.

Arno also contacted the FBI, and after all natural causes of her condition were ruled out, FBI agents visited her to conduct a search for chemical and biological weapons.

Novichok is off. A neurologist diagnosed Arno with polyneuropathy, the same condition that Kara Murza has after the alleged attacks. However, that is not the answer, Holsteg points out. "There are many toxins that can cause peripheral neuropathies. There are many medical conditions that can cause peripheral neuropathies."

There were other unanswered questions. Five days after Arno returned from Prague, her husband began to experience some of the same nervous problems that Arno had suffered. As for her symptoms, some were getting better while others were getting worse. Although the analgesics she was prescribed relieved the headache, blurred vision and some other symptoms, she soon began to experience numbness in her face. During one visit to her home, investigators told Arno that they had almost finished their work and would be in touch again soon. She never got the results.

Irina Babloyan
Irina Babloyanphoto: Tiktok/screenshot

Last fall, I met Irina Babloyan in a restaurant in Berlin. This 37-year-old woman showed me a rash on her joints that has been going on for a year. However, she said there was no evidence or way to know for sure if she had been poisoned.

In December 2022, two months after the alleged poisoning, Elena Kostyuchenko filed a criminal complaint with the police in Berlin, which was a prerequisite for testing at the hospital where Navalny was once treated. By May 2023, the German prosecutor's office informed her that they were closing the case.

Bablojan was also tested at the same hospital a few months after the first symptoms. The clinic allegedly lost her tests. She submitted samples for new ones but never heard back.

Kristo Grozev, a Bulgarian investigative journalist who works for Bellingket, said that it is impossible to find "solid evidence" in the cases of Kostyuchenko and Babloyan. However, he said that in both cases there is a lot of circumstantial evidence indicating that both were victims of "targeted poisoning".

But what if the circumstantial evidence is just that - if there was no poisoning at all? "It makes no sense," said Volodarsky, a former Russian intelligence officer. He points out that poisoning operations "are very complicated and are prepared for months" and are organized against specific persons.

"Novichok is not something you just take off the shelf," he said. "They are not worth such an expensive and complex operation... Arno, she is nobody. Why would anyone bother poisoning her?”.

However, in the telephone conversation, Grozev was not convinced by the arguments that these were not high-profile victims. "Talking to people from the security services, it's clear that the term 'traitor' is much easier to assign today than before," he said. "Any Russian who opposes the war or criticizes Putin is now a potential victim."

Andrey Soldatov, an expert for the Russian security services, said that of these three incidents, the Arno case is the clearest and added that there are always unclear cases. "I think that's exactly why the Russian security services use poison, because they can always compromise the victim. I can always pretend it's an attention seeker or mentally unstable.

Elena Kostyuchenko
Elena Kostyuchenkophoto: Tiktok/Screenshot

The FBI declined to comment on the Arno case, but former FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, who was fired after his inflammatory messages about Donald Trump were published, said there are several reasons why the FBI does not want to release the results.

Hypothetically, if the FBI did not find something in Arno's blood, it could confirm to Russia that American technology cannot detect the poison. There are other possibilities. "If you want to announce that the Russian government is targeting American citizens or permanent residents in order to kill them, that is a very serious accusation," he said. "Then you have to have very, very strong evidence."

I think Russian security services use poison because they can always compromise the victim. They can always pretend that it's a person who wants attention or is mentally unstable, said Andrey Soldatov, an expert on Russian security services.

When we spoke in the fall, Arno said that it annoys her that Putin's critics at home are not getting the attention they once had from the West. "We are the first victims of Putin's regime. We were the first to warn of the dangers, of how Russian propaganda does not stop at Russia's borders, how aggression does not stop at Russia's borders," she said. "It's really frustrating that we are not judged based on our values, but based on citizenship and ethnicity."

What worries her now is that Western governments have begun to view the Russian opposition as another intractable problem in an impossible relationship. "We are trying to say to Europe, we are not your headache... we are your advantage".

When we spoke on the phone after Navalny's death, Arno said she was surprised by her disbelief — despite the fact that she and many others predicted it would happen. "It still seems unreal," she said. “Brutality and all. You can never get used to it. Every time you are shocked by their coolness and boldness".

Arno said that at first she did not want to make her case of poisoning public, but later changed her mind. That episode is important for the Russian dissident community abroad. She taught them that as a community they need to be more disciplined, not only regarding digital security, but also physical security.

"Those who are in the USA and Europe thought they were completely safe - we are in democratic countries and everything is fine. But it's not, the tentacles reach everywhere".

At the same time, these events also show something else: if these three women were indeed targets of the Russian state, perhaps this is a sign that at a time when there is not much hope for their movement and its leaders, their work is significant enough to provoke a reaction from Moscow.

This is perhaps more important than the precise response to each of these poisoning cases.

The text is taken from "Financial Times"

Prepared by: N. Bogetić

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