In Depth

How Vladimir Putin’s enemies often end up dead

Russian President insists Salisbury poisoning suspects are just civilians and not criminals

Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed the two men suspected of poisoning Sergei Skripal in Salisbury are civilians and not criminals.

“We know who they are, we have found them,” he declared, at an economic forum in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok.

“I hope they will turn up themselves and tell everything. This would be best for everyone. There is nothing special there, nothing criminal, I assure you. We’ll see in the near future.”

Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia were hospitalised in March after coming into contact with the nerve agent novichok. Det Sgt Nick Bailey also became ill after responding to the incident, and the poison was linked to the death of a 44-year-old Wiltshire woman, Dawn Sturgess, in July.

Last week, UK police issued photographs of the two suspects and their names, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, although these are believed to be aliases. The UK assessment that they were from the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, and that the operation was “almost certainly approved at a senior government level” was backed by the US, Canada, Germany and France.

Putin appeared to deny the two men had any connection to the GRU today with his claim that “these are civilians”, says The Guardian. Russia has also accused the UK of “Russiaphobia” and “disgusting anti-Russian hysteria”.

Nevertheless, The New York Times notes that there have been “a series of attacks, many of them fatal, on outspoken foes of President Vladimir V. Putin, both inside Russia and beyond”...

Litvinenko

The Salisbury attack has drawn comparison to the 2006 murder of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko using radioactive polonium-210, thought to have been administered in a cup of tea during a meeting at a London hotel. The UK public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death said there was a “strong probability” that his killers, two Russian agents, were acting on behalf of their country’s FSB secret service.

In 2017, BuzzFeed News identified 14 deaths of Russians or Russian-linked individuals in Britain, and pointed to several further unsolved deaths in the US. Ukraine has also recorded multiple suspected assassinations in the past few years.

Russia’s ‘wetwork’

The Kremlin vehemently denies such attacks, although in 2010 Putin warned that “traitors will kick the bucket”.

Targeted killings have often been used to “undermine foreign countries and send important psychological messages to opponents and ‘traitors’”, says Dan Lomas, programme leader for the MA in intelligence and security studies at the University of Salford.

Writing on The Conversation, Lomas says: “Russia’s use of ‘wetwork’ (from the Russian mokroye delo, literally ‘wet affairs’, referring to the spilling of blood) has long been a part of Russian intelligence history.

“What began with the Cheka, the first Soviet security agency, continued to the NKVD, SMERSH (drawn from the phrase smert shpionam, meaning ‘death to spies’), the KGB, and its successors in the modern day FSB and SVR (the Russian foreign intelligence service).”

Unearthing the truth about the long list of suspicious deaths is “difficult in the extreme”, says Reuters, and it “might be simplistic to suggest Putin ordered all of the killings”.

The news site notes, however, that “despite Russia’s denials, it is unquestionably true that Kremlin enemies often end up dead”.

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