A former US ambassador, two journalists writing about Russia and an activist experienced symptoms of poisoning and surveillance. Two cases are investigated by the FBI

16 мая 2023

Over the past two years, at least four people have experienced symptoms of alleged poisonings or break-ins into their homes by unknown people who may be linked to Russian intelligence services, several sources told Agentstvo (translated as The Agency).

In detail. The last two such cases occurred in Europe in the spring of 2023. In early May, Natalya Arno, head of the Free Russia Foundation, became acutely ill in the Czech Republic, as two of her acquaintances told Agentstvo. She was holding meetings in Prague about the situation in Russia and started feeling numbness and pain in various parts of her body.

  • Shortly before the onset of her symptoms, Arno discovered that the door to her hotel room in Prague was open and there was a strange smell in the room, similar to «the scent of cheap perfume», a source told Agentstvo. An appeal to the hotel management about the open room led to no results. The next morning, Arno flew to the United States, where she has lived for about 10 years after being forced to leave Russia under pressure from the Kremlin.
  • Upon arrival in the U.S., her symptoms did not subside and, as far as Agentstvo is aware, Arno contacted a hospital as well as the authorities in the United States, where she is a citizen. According to a source, the FBI launched an investigation, interviewed Arno and took biological and physical samples, including clothing and other items that Arno had with her while travelling, for examination. Agentstvo’s sources are not aware of the results of the investigation. Arno declined to discuss the subject while not denying that the incident did take place. Agentstvo reached out to the FBI for comment, but had not received an answer by the time of the publication.
  • Arno flew to Prague from Berlin, where a meeting of Russian opposition activists organised by Mikhail Khodorkovsky was held on 29-30 April 2023. Two sources told Agentstvo that a Russian journalist who had recently left Russia (Agentstvo knows her name but does not disclose it for the ethical reasons), also experienced health problems on the days of the event. The journalist told Agentstvo that her symptoms may have started before the conference, but she refused to talk about their nature and subsequent treatment. According to an Agentstvo’s source, the journalist had to go to the Charité clinic in Berlin, where Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny was treated after being poisoned by Novichok (this poison was also used to poison former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in 2018).
  • These two incidents are among other similar cases identified by Agentstvo that have occurred over the past two years. Two other sources told Agentstvo that John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, now senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin, had experienced poisoning symptoms a few months before Russia invaded Ukraine. A source familiar with him told Agentstvo that the FBI launched an investigation into Herbst’s sudden decline in health back then. Another source of Agentstvo, who works for a lobbying organization in Washington, said that the Atlantic Council was aware of the situation. Agentstvo does not know about Herbst’s current state of health or the results of the investigation. Herbst declined to comment. Atlantic Council did not respond to Agentstvo’s request for comment sent on the 15th of May.
  • The latest incident — this time without an alleged poisoning — is connected to the investigative journalist of Bulgarian origin Christo Grozev, one of the lead investigators of Bellingcat. Grozev’s hotel room was broken into in his absence in Montenegro where he was attending the journalist conference dedicated to Russia in the summer of 2022, four acquaintances of the journalist and participants of the conference told Agentstvo. According to one of them, the intruders may have gained access to information stored in the journalist’s personal gadgets. Grozev confirmed that his phone was missing from the room; he declined further comments.
  • In early February 2023, Grozev told the Austrian newspaper Falter that he had decided not to return to Austria, where he had lived for many years, and would instead live in the US. «I had received several warnings from various European law enforcement agencies, and there is clear evidence that my life is in danger», the investigator told BBC with the interview in February, 2023.

Context. The Russian authorities have repeatedly used the poisonings to crack down on political opponents and those whom Moscow considers traitors. In 2006 in London former KGB and FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko who accused Russian intelligence services of illegal activities was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210.

  • According to British authorities, the Russian military intelligence GRU was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK in 2018.
  • The opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned, allegedly by FSB officers, in August 2020, after which he underwent long-term treatment and rehabilitation in Germany.
  • Politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. survived two assassination attempts, in 2015 and in 2017, when he was hospitalized with symptoms of severe poisoning. Pyotr Verzilov, a performance artist and publisher of independent Russian news outlet Mediazona, was hospitalized with the same symptoms in a serious condition in 2018, while Dmitry Bykov, a writer, was hospitalized in 2019.

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