Political Murder in Russia

“Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has made no secret of his ambition to restore his country to what he sees as its rightful place among the world’s leading nations,” writes New York Times columnist Andrew Kramer. “Indeed, Putin has invested considerable money and energy into building an image of a strong and morally superior Russia.”

“Morally superior,” however, is far from the image many Western nations have of the former U.S.S.R. Under Putin, the Russian government has treated muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, and government whistle-blowers with disdain and worse, imprisoning them on trumped-up charges and smearing their names in the news media at every opportunity.

More alarming, Putin and his government have decided to re-implement the tactic of political murder, which played a distinct role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy during the Soviet era. Now, instead of simply imprisoning or chastising those who threaten Putin’s carefully crafted image of the Russian state, the Russian government is killing these individuals with increasing frequency.

Political murders, and particularly those accomplished with poisons, are nothing new in Russia: they have been a favorite tool of Russian intelligence for more than a century. Beginning in 1928, a biochemist named Grigory Mairanovski worked in secret for the K.G.B. to develop tasteless, colorless and odorless poisons. Since then, the K.G.B. and other government agencies have developed an arsenal of lethal, hard-to-trace poisons, which are still in use today.

In 1995, for instance, Russian banker Ivan K. Kivelidi died after coming into contact with cadmium. In 2008, Karinna Moskalenko, a Russian lawyer specializing in taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights, fell ill in Strasbourg, France, from mercury found in her car.

While typically not traceable to any individuals and denied by government officials, poisonings leave little doubt of the state’s involvement, according to experts. “Outside of popular culture, there are no highly skilled hit men for hire,” explains Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an authority on the Russian security services. “If it’s a skilled job, that means it’s [done by] a state asset.” Former member of parliament and onetime lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B. Gennadi V. Gudkov corroborated Galeotti’s claim when he admitted in an interview that “the government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies.”

This past summer, another whistle-blower, Yulia Stepanova, who’s hiding with her husband in the United States, was forced to move amid fears that hackers had found her location. “If something happens to us,” she said, “then you should know that it is not an accident.”

While other countries, notably Israel and the United States, pursue targeted killings, it is only in a strict counterterrorism context. No other major power employs murder systematically and ruthlessly, as Russia does against those seen as betraying its interests at home and abroad. Certainly, this tendency toward murder is no mark of moral superiority.