The Russia connectionName your poison: Exotic toxins fell Kremlin foes

Published 7 March 2018

The sudden illness in Britain of a Russian former spy has drawn comparisons with another poisoning in the United Kingdom – the 2006 assassination by Vladimir Putin’s agents of Russian former-spy-turned-Kremlin-critic Aleksandr Litvinenko. In using various poisons – some of them esoteric — to have his critics and adversaries killed inside Russia and abroad, Putin is continuing a storied KGB tradition. Here is a closer, if brief, look at some of the poisons Russian government agents have used on their lethal missions.

The sudden illness in Britain of a Russian man convicted of spying for London has drawn comparisons with another poisoning in the United Kingdom — the assassination in 2006 of Russian former-spy-turned-Kremlin-critic Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was found by a British public enquiry to have been poisoned by Russian state agents [see “The man who knew too much,” HSNW, 23 January 2018; “Litvinenko murder “ordered from the top”: Gordon Brown,” HSNW 2 June 2016; and “Kremlin behind London killing of Putin critic: Inquiry commission,” HSNW, 21 January 2016).

Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former Russian Army colonel, and his 33-year old daughter Yulia Skripal, were critically ill at a Salisbury hospital on March 6 — two days after they collapsed unconscious on a bench in Salisbury from what British authorities described as “suspected exposure to an unknown substance.”

While radiation and toxicology experts worked on March 6 to determine the substance they were exposed to, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Roley told the BBC that authorities “have to be alive to the fact of state threats as illustrated by the Litvinenko case.”

Skripal was convicted in 2006 by a Russian court for “high treason in the form of espionage” on charges that he had given the names of Russian agents in Europe to Britain’s MI6 intelligence agents during the 1990s.

Skripal’s hospitalization is the latest of numerous cases in which Kremlin opponents and critics have fallen ill from poisoning over the years, sometimes fatally, in circumstances that have raised suspicions of KGB-style assassinations.

Here is a closer look at various poisons thought to have been involved in prominent cases.

Fentanyl and carfentanyl
Initial reports in British media said authorities suspected Skripal and his daughter were exposed to fentanyl, a synthetic opiate painkiller that is at least 50 times more powerful than morphine.

A related synthetic opioid, carfentanyl, is 100 times as potent as fentanyl and as much as 10,000 times as potent as morphine.