Western countries are asleep when it comes to political poisonings.
That is the conclusion of my new report on 78 political poisoning cases, which I have just presented to Britain’s security minister, Tom Tugendhat MP.
I hope he and his officials read it carefully. The UK, along with Germany, is a hotspot for this kind of assassination, which all too often goes unpunished, and sometimes even uninvestigated. Lacking consequences for these deadly crimes does not just silence critical voices. It also intimidates others.
The numbers are rocketing, tripling compared to the annual average during the Cold War decades. In the past 12 months alone, we have witnessed the attempted murder by poisoning of two exiled Russians, the activist Natalia Arno in Prague and journalist Elena Kostyuchenko in Germany, and (in a case related to corruption) the South African energy chief André De Ruyter. Many more attacks never come to light.
Bullets, beatings, and explosions are hard to ignore. But poisonings, which may cause symptoms such as fever, unconsciousness, and vomiting, are easily misdiagnosed as natural illnesses. Medical professionals will rarely, if ever, have experience with these poisons. To take three British examples, they include nerve agents (such as the Novichok used against the Skripals and that killed Dawn Sturgess in Salisbury in 2018) or rare radioactive isotopes (such as the polonium used to kill Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2007) or plant-based poisons (such as the gelsemium probably used to kill the whistleblower Alexander Perepelichny in 2012, although this alleged case was never fully investigated).
As a result, antidotes are given too late, or never. Victims of political poisonings have a mere 47% recovery rate, far lower than in clinically presenting poison cases generally. The standard toxicology guidance within medical settings is to “treat the patient, not the toxin.” This is correct for everyday poisons, such as painkillers which are the most typical cause of poisoning.
But it does not work for the far more serious chemical or biological agents used by professional assassins: such as ricin, cyanide, and arsenic.
Medical shortcomings are compounded by failures in law enforcement. Poisoning cases are hard to investigate, especially when it comes to finding out who ordered the murder. In Kremlin-sponsored attacks, the identities of less than half of the Russian and Soviet agents involved have been established to date. Denials blunt criticism.
The European Court of Human Rights has found Russia responsible for the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, but the authorities in Moscow still shockingly deny any involvement today. (Open source investigators like Bellingcat have successfully pointed to Russian state involvement in the poisonings of Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, to the Kremlin’s fury.)
A third shortcoming is political. Western governments are embarrassed to admit that deterrence has failed and that extrajudicial killings can occur undetected. It is easier to let cases drop, or even hush them up. Yet conferring impunity on assassins hands them an additional victory.
My report recommends that governments treat state-sponsored poisoning as a national security threat, just like chemical weapons.
I also recommend that health professionals be trained to deal with poisoning, including multidisciplinary teams and decontamination advice. An example of best practice here is the Charité in Berlin, where five major victims of political poisoning have been treated, including Navalny.
At this hospital, medical professionals work alongside law enforcement, so that poison victims are taken seriously and treated properly. It also safeguards the public: poisons used in Britain such as polonium and Novichok endangered not just the intended targets but many others too.
Political poisoning cases are far more likely than other, more direct assassination methods today. Despite the mass expulsions of Russian intelligence officers following the all-out war against Ukraine, the Kremlin is believed to have significant agent networks in place across the West, with few if any links to embassies. The threat has not diminished.
As hostile state activity in the gray zone below full-scale military warfare grows, poisoning is often used as a form of political terrorism. It is high time we took it seriously.
Sophia Browder is a human rights activist, founder of PoisonReporting.org, and a student at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. She holds the 2023 Young Thought Leader award from The Henry Jackson Society, and is the author of a report ‘Investigating the Use of Poison as a Method of Transnational Repression.’ Sophia also created freekara-murza.org, to support the campaign for Vladimir Kara-Murza’s release from Russian prison. Sophia was a 2023 research scholar at the CEE Research Science Institute at MIT, US.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.