“Instead to kill they make you ill.” Former OPCW lab head on the new wave of poisonings of Russian activists and journalists abroad
Александр Бородихин|Оля Ромашова
“Instead to kill they make you ill.” Former OPCW lab head on the new wave of poisonings of Russian activists and journalists abroad
16 August 2023, 17:01

Marc-Michael Blum. Photo: Mathias Corvinus Collegium

On August 15, two independent Russian outlets, The Insider and Meduza, reported on an attempted poisoning of journalist Elena Kostyuchenko. She had written several reports from cities on the Ukrainian front line at the beginning of the war. Kostyuchenko fell ill on October 18, 2022, in Munich. The German police urged her to seek treatment at the Berlin Charité clinic, where opposition leader Alexei Navalny was treated in 2020, and Mediazona publisher Petr Verzilov was treated in 2018 after both were poisoned in Russia. However, so much time had passed that the medics were unable to find traces of poison in Kostyuchenko’s blood. She is the third allegation of a Russian poisoned abroad in the past year, joining journalist Irina Babloyan and civil rights activist Natalya Arno, the head of the Free Russia Foundation.

Mediazona asked Dr. Marc-Michael Blum, a former senior scientist and laboratory chief within the verification division of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, to comment the recent events. In 2018, Dr. Blum oversaw the investigation of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England.

How have attacks against anti-government Russians abroad evolved after the poisoning of Alexei Navalny? Are you aware of new substances that might be applied selectively, without endangering others, unlike Novichok or VX?

To my knowledge there is no definite analytical proof of other chemicals but it appears that possible candidates do not come from the group of «traditional» chemical warfare agents. While nerve agents like VX and Novichok are definitely used to kill and not to harm it appears that these new cases point to the use of substances that will not necessarily kill but inflict severe impact on the health of the individual. Instead to kill they make you ill. Moving away from traditional agents also has an impact on how a response might look.

Are the law enforcement and healthcare systems of the EU and Germany preparing and coordinating to respond to such attacks? Is there ongoing collaboration with the OPCW and other international organizations regarding this matter?

In case of Kim Jong-Nam (VX) and the Skripals (Novichok) both cases were subject to debate and actions by the OPCW mainly because military nerve agents were used. If we now see the use of substances that do not come from the military spectrum it makes it more difficult to move these cases on the international stage at the OPCW. It’s still relevant from a law enforcement perspective (just like any other poisoning), but rather not from a chemical warfare treaty perspective. Also if you just harm people in a way that is difficult to nail down to a specific substance the police investigation probably looks a bit different from a murder investigation.

Has international pressure or sanctions played a role in limiting Russian agents» ability to conduct such operations within the EU?

Given that only small amounts of chemicals are required I think the sanctions play no role. Might be more difficult to bring it over borders but again its small amounts so probably still very doable.

How can journalists and activists prepare for such threats?

Be alert, notice and document unusual things. Try to keep control over where your food and drink is coming from (poison needs to get into your body — eating and drinking is the easiest way to achieve this), but also keep other things that get in contact with your body controlled (toothpaste, mouthwash, creams and lotions). And if something happens try to secure evidence (have a blood sample taken quickly, keep and do not wash the clothes you were wearing when it happened [in a closed bag] etc.).

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

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