Rylee Boyd is an incoming MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the University of Aberdeen. Her areas of focus are Russia, CBRN weapons, and human security. She can be found on twitter @_RyleeBoyd. Divergent Option’s content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Use of Poisons as the Weapon of Choice in Putin’s Russia
Date Originally Written: November 3, 2020.
Date Originally Published: December 28, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that the use of poison as an assassination weapon is a strategic choice by Russian President Vladimir Putin due to several different factors beyond just the goal of inflicting death on political enemies. Understanding these choices is important to countries hoping to respond with consequences for Russia when such poisonings do occur.
Summary: Poison is the weapon of choice in Putin’s Russia as it makes attack attribution challenging. This attribution challenge is especially true for Putin, as even if he did not order a poisoning, these attacks certainly don’t get carried out without his approval or at least his passive acceptance. Both of these factors make it difficult to leverage sanctions or other consequences against the perpetrators of the attacks. The availability of poison also makes it a keen choice for use.
Text: Russia’s chemical weapons program dates back to the early 20th century when it created a laboratory solely dedicated to creating different poisons. During the time of the Soviet Union, the government commonly used poison on political prisoners. Though Russia claims that the poison program was dissolved along with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 21st century poisonings certainly raise questions about the credibility of that claim. Moscow made news on August 20th when Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Putin and someone who exposed corruption within the Russian government, had to be transported to a hospital in Omsk due to a suspected poisoning. It has now been confirmed that Navalny has been poisoned with Novichok, a chemical nerve agent from the Soviet-era chemical weapons program, that was also used in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in 2018. Navalny is the latest victim in a long line of poisonings of Putin critics and supposed threats to the Kremlin, which brings about the recurring question of why poison seems to be a common weapon of choice.
The use of poison by Moscow is a strategic decision that results in the ability to feign ignorance by Putin and the difficulty in attributing the attack to anyone specific. Because poisons are only detectable in one’s system for a certain amount of time, Moscow uses its ability to prevent victims from leaving Russia for a period of time after the attack in order to prevent detection. In the case of the Activist Pyotr Verzilov who fell ill in 2018, he was kept in a Russian intensive care ward for a few days before being allowed to be released to Berlin. German doctors suspected that Verzilov was poisoned, but they were not able to find a trace of it, and Verzilov blamed the Russian authorities for the attack and keeping him quarantined in Russia for a period of time. This delay tactic can also be exemplified through the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny, when Russia initially refused to allow him to be transferred to Berlin for treatment. Russia eventually ceded to the request to move to Germany, and thankfully by the time Navalny got to Berlin doctors were still able to find traces of Novichok in his system.
The fact that the poison cannot always be detected by the time of hospital admittance in another country, and that it can be difficult to determine how the victim came into contact with the poison, makes attack attribution extremely difficult. This attribution challenge in turn makes it difficult to leverage consequences against the perpetrators of the attacks. This attribution challenge has not stopped many countries though, for the use of diplomatic expulsions and sanctions have been used to bring ramifications against specific members of the Kremlin apparatus.
Another reason for the use of poisons is the ease with which they seem to be accessed. While the use of any chemical weapon, especially poison, requires precise expertise and intricate devising, the history of the Soviet chemical weapons program and recent poisonings make it clear that Russia still has quite the stockpile of poisons. The experience of using poison against people both in and outside of Russia also has a history dating back to Soviet times. Even though Russia is a member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which bans the use of any toxic agents as chemical weapons, over seven poisonings in the past two decades suggest that Russia clearly still has some store of chemical weapons. Poisons are not easy to make from scratch, and the manner of poisonings and frequency of the attacks suggest that the security services are invariably involved in such onslaughts.
The use of poison is also to make a symbolic point. Poison usage shows that Putin or someone else high up in the Kremlin apparatus can more or less get away with poisoning critics without any serious consequences. And while these attacks do not always result in death, they still serve as a success for Russia, as the attack may likely scare the victim enough to prevent them from continuing any work or activism against Putin and his cronies. However, it is notable that evidence suggests that poison as a deterrence is not always successful. Navalny has already stated that he plans to return to Moscow, even though he has to know that he is at quite a risk now. The poisoning of Anna Politkovskaya in 2004 occurred as she was making her way to report on the hostage situation of a school in Beslan. She survived the poisoning and continued her work as a journalist reporting honestly on issues of corruption and human rights, but was later shot in her apartment building elevator two years later.
The use of poison as the weapon of choice against Moscow’s political enemies is a strategic choice as a weapon that causes more than just death or serious illness. While denying Russia its stores of chemical weapon stores and ensuring poison attacks can be attributed and followed by consequences, is an obvious solution, this is easier said than done.
 Herman, E. (2018, June 23). Inside Russia’s long history of poisoning political enemies. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://nypost.com/2018/06/23/inside-russias-long-history-of-poisoning-political-enemies
 Chappell, B., & Schmitz, R. (2020, August 24). Navalny Was Poisoned, But His Life Isn’t in Danger, German Hospital Says. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2020/08/24/905423648/navalny-was-poisoned-but-his-life-isnt-in-danger-german-hospital-says
 Halasz, S., Jones, B., & Mezzofiore, G. (2020, September 03). Novichok nerve agent used in Alexey Navalny poisoning, says German government. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/02/europe/alexey-navalny-novichok-intl/index.html
 Groch, S. (2020, August 30). Beware the tea: Why do Russians keep being poisoned? Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/beware-the-tea-why-do-russians-keep-being-poisoned-20200827-p55poy.html
 Miriam Berger, A. (2020, August 30). Why poison is the weapon of choice in Putin’s Russia. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/08/21/why-poison-is-weapon-choice-putins-russia
 Chappell, B., & Schmitz, R.
 Shesgreen, D. (2018, August 09). Trump administration to impose new sanctions on Russia for attempted assassination of ex-Russian spy. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/08/08/russia-sanctions-trump-team-responds-poisoning-sergei-skripal/938147002
 Factbox: From polonium to a poisoned umbrella – mysterious fates of Kremlin foes. (2018, March 06). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-russia-factbox/factbox-from-polonium-to-a-poisoned-umbrella-mysterious-fates-of-kremlin-foes-idUSKCN1GI2IG
 Arms Control Today. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-11/news/novichok-used-russia-opcw-finds
 Bennhold, K., & Schwirtz, M. (2020, September 14). Navalny, Awake and Alert, Plans to Return to Russia, German Official Says. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/14/world/europe/navalny-novichok.html
 Anna Politkovskaya. (2018, October 23). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://pen.org/advocacy-case/anna-politkovskaya