A former captain with Russia's special forces told Insider that the suspected poisoning of billionaire Roman Abramovich was a 'distraction' from the gruesome war
insider.com: It was just hours after clandestine negotiations between Russia and Ukrainian peace negotiators on March 3 when participants began reporting symptoms of toxic poisoning, including painful tearing, temporary blindness, and skin peeling from their faces.
Among the participants was Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who reportedly asked doctors if he was dying after the suspected poisoning.
Boris Volodarsky is an independent intelligence analyst and formerly a captain in Russia's special forces, the GRU Spetsnaz. He is now an intelligence historian and a fellow at the Royal Historical Society in London.
He told Insider that reports of the poisoning of members of the Ukrainian government delegation as well as Roman Abramovich during secret wartime negotiations in Kyiv boded well for the Kremlin. He claimed that the media attention helped to "cause some pity and sympathy for Abramovich, a person close to the Kremlin, as an innocent victim — and at the same time divert attention from more important political issues of the day."
Volodarsky has written several books detailing the history of Russian intelligence including, "The KGB's Poison Factory: From Lenin to Litvinenko" (2009), "Stalin's Agent: The Life and Death of Alexander Orlov" (2014), and "Assassins: The KGB's Poison Factory Ten Years On" (2019). He has also published numerous scholarly articles on the history of Russian intelligence and Soviet-era poisonings and consulted British police during their investigation of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210.
Recently, he's written about western misconceptions about Kremlin intelligence given Russia's bungled invasion of Ukraine, and Volodarsky has also worked with media outlets like ITV and GQ (US Edition) to investigate the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, UK, in 2018, when Moscow tried to assassinate a British double agent and his daughter.
Volodarsky explained that modern chemical weapons include nerve agents, vesicants, cyanide, pulmonary and riot-control agents that can be inhaled, ingested, or placed on the skin. Some, like nerve agents, are generally absorbed by eye contact and inhalation and produce rapid, systemic effects.
Insider spoke to Volodarsky about today's operational methods of Russian intelligence services including their use of poisons, and about the Kremlin's ongoing war in Ukraine.
In several recent cases like the poisoning of the Skripals or an attempt on Alexey Navalny's life, Russia has been caught using nerve agents banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. In the Litvinenko case another very unusual — radioactive poison — was used. How do you explain these tactics on behalf of the Kremlin?
Since the days of the Bolshevik revolution, terminations, that is, attempts of eliminating enemies of the Kremlin abroad never stopped fascinating Soviet and Russian leaders from Lenin to Putin. Two basic principles that lie behind the use of poisons are delayed action and deniability. Such secret operations must at best remain covert, in other words, they must be planned and executed in such a manner that the identity of the agency (or agents) who carried out the operation as well as that of the government behind it remains unknown. It worked rather well in all recent cases including even the poisoning of Navalny where the Russian leaders categorically deny their involvement.
Do you think they may try to poison (or in any other way eliminate) Navalny again?
In today's situation, this cannot be excluded. At a critical time, the regime may wish to get rid of him.
The FSB is Russia's Federal Security Service, the country's main security agency which was created in 1994 as a successor to the KGB. How much would Putin be involved in decisions to eliminate a foe, and what would be the role of such agencies as the FSB in such secret operations?
The FSB is only one of several Russian secret agencies authorized by the Kremlin to operate abroad. As a rule, the FSB will be actively involved in the cases inside the former Soviet Union where they also act in accord with the friendly local services. They are rarely and only to a certain extent get involved in operations in Europe and practically never in Great Britain and the United States. When we talk about prominent international figures like Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Berezovsky, Boris Nemtsov, or Alexey Navalny, Putin's personal sanction is required. The same concerns his personal enemies like Sasha Litvinenko. In all other cases, he is by all means informed through the presidential administration's responsible official. In any case, his consent for what is known as a termination operation is required. In what concerns special ops — that is, assassinations or terrorist acts abroad — there are several secret units in Russia that are capable of carrying out such activities. Or they may hire former officers, contract killers, or amateur operators courtesy of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader.
If Putin was involved in the poisoning of the Ukrainian negotiators, which also included Abramovich, what end effect did they expect?
Putin was quite certainly not "involved" but possibly informed afterwards, which is generally not important. What is important and must be understood – like in other similar cases take, for example, the poisoning of the then-Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar in Dublin only a day after the death of Litvinenko – the effect was to distract attention (this old KGB trick is officially known as "distraction"), diverting it from something more important.
In the Gaidar operation, the whole world media immediately stopped writing about Litvinenko – an object of unprecedented attention of newspapers, television channels, and information agencies from Washington to Sydney and Cape Town – and concentrated their attention on a more prominent political figure. Abramovich is not a political figure and even not part of any negotiation team, either from Moscow or Kyiv, but he is known for his former big yacht, former beautiful girlfriend, and former British football team. Thus, even Insider is still asking questions and writing about Abramovich so the effect was reached, albeit short-termed.
In your expert opinion, do you think Russia may attempt to use chemical weapons (CW) or just any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Ukraine?
We already see that Putin is psychologically unstable and acts illogically. We may also conclude that he is not properly informed. What he has already done to his own country is worse than any NATO attack because he has destroyed its economy, finances, and everyday lives of his citizens, who trust him, for many years ahead. Putin, Lavrov, Shoigu, Patrushev, and General Gerasimov are war criminals and the Nuremberg Tribunal is awaiting them, especially after the world learned what they did in Bucha and other places in Ukraine. No one can categorically exclude that in their last convulsions they do not come to the idea of using WMD against Ukraine or any other country like Poland, for example.
Has Putin been more brazen in using nerve agents and other dangerous compounds against his opponents?
Putin is certainly no more "brazen" than Lenin and Stalin in eliminating his enemies whom they have considered and still consider enemies of the Kremlin. They pretend that those are also enemies of the Russian people. As a matter of fact, very few people in history can be compared to Stalin who is personally responsible for the death of millions of innocent victims. What is the poisoning of a person, even very important, in comparison with the daily killings of soldiers, civilians, and children in the war?
When we talk about the Russian army and Russian secret services, which of them must be blamed for strategic and tactical mistakes in this war?
First of all, Putin and his submissive brainless National Security Council – all its members – are responsible for this mad decision and its great flop. At the next level of responsibility are the Fifth Service of the FSB in charge of the clandestine operation in Ukraine and the GU (main directorate) of the army headquarters who must provide reliable intelligence before any action takes place. Honestly, I did not expect anything else because since Putin came to power in 2000 all people who surround him are drunk, corrupt, lecherous, and imbecile. Those who are not, left the country long time ago.
What do you think Western media is missing in our Ukraine coverage?
Western media, and I mean Western media not Russian media in Russia or outside it, should to my mind speak much more often with the experts, including Russian experts, like economist Sergey Guriev, former KGB officer in Washington station Yuri Shvets, Bellingcat researcher Christo Grozev, political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, military analysts like Pavel Felgenhauer and Alexander Golts, former FSB colonel Mikhail Trepashkin, and so on, not to mention Western experts. It makes little sense to question so-called politologists, journalists, and opposition figures. I also believe Western media should use members of the former staff of the TV Rain (Dozhd) as presenters in their programs, like Tikhon Dzyadko and Yekaterina Kotrikadze.
You mentioned Abramovich was sent to "listen and report." How long do you believe he has performed this function for Putin's regime? And could the regime turn on him too?
This seems to be a new role for Abramovich related to the war in Ukraine. No, I do not think Putin and others in the Kremlin bunker can turn on him because his name controls plenty of hidden treasures.
Do you believe that the Ukrainian negotiators are at risk of a more serious attack?
All members of the Ukrainian presidential administration, including first of all President Zelenskyy and his family, are in permanent and real danger of attack on their lives.
In your opinion, how should the international community effectively respond to the war in Ukraine?
There is no recipe of how "the international community should respond" – this is a state-sponsored murder, a war crime, and crime against humanity and the reaction must be accordingly to the crimes committed. One thing can be stated without any doubt: where there is a crime, punishment is inevitable.