Vladimir Putin has arguably paid a substantial if not sufficient price for two of the three prongs of his malign foreign interventions. He incurred economic sanctions for his cyberattacks on Western democracies, including meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and his military adventures in Ukraine and Syria have cost him more sanctions, as well as Russian lives and treasure.
Curiously, though, Putin has suffered little pain for the most sinister of his international operations: the murders of defecting spies and other exiled opponents. By some counts, more than a dozen people have been assassinated by Kremlin agents since 2004, while a number of others barely survived attacks.
Two of those actual or attempted murders, of former spies Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, took place in Britain, where they appropriately provoked controversies and the expulsion of scores of Russian diplomats from London and other Western capitals. But a more typical case is the murder last August in Berlin of an exiled Chechen militant. Though authorities captured the hit man and have positively identified him as a Russian agent, the only consequence imposed by the German government so far has been the expulsion of two diplomats.
Even a couple of other hits in Britain, and perhaps one or two in the United States, have failed to provoke much reaction. That’s partly because of their craft: While some assassinations have been by shooting (as in Berlin) or even car bomb, the majority have relied on the use of exotic poisons, a Russian technique that dates back to the Cold War. The KGB tried to kill writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with ricin; more recently, its successor agency, the FSB, and the military GRU have been caught using dioxin, gelsemium, cadmium, polonium and the nerve agents sarin and Novichok.
In some instances, the nature of the poison has never been determined, allowing Moscow to cast doubt on whether the untimely death of a dissident was its work. In that respect, no case is more intriguing — or, perhaps, more pressing — than that of the activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, a former top aide to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Kara-Murza, who contributes opinion columns to The Post, is a permanent U.S. resident who divides his time between Moscow and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, where his family lives.
He has been poisoned twice while in Moscow, in May 2015 and in February 2017. In both cases, he suffered multiple organ failures and only barely survived. Each time Russian doctors said he suffered from “acute poisoning by an unidentified substance.” Yet in neither case was that poison identified, nor were there any consequences for those who carried out the attacks.
That wasn’t for lack of trying. Following the 2017 poisoning, Kara-Murza’s wife, Evgenia, hand-carried a sample of his blood to Washington, where she was greeted at the airport by FBI agents. The FBI took custody of the blood sample and conducted tests. According to Vladimir Kara-Murza, an FBI agent met him in late 2017 and reported that some indications of poisoning had been found in his blood, and that the full results would be delivered soon.
Then came a curious delay: A few weeks later, Kara-Murza says, the FBI agent called him to say that “there were some inconsistencies between the different tests, and that the results would be delayed.” Then, silence. The agency did not respond to Kara-Murza’s subsequent requests for the results, or letters from multiple members of Congress asking for them. In July 2018, Kara-Murza filed appeals under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act. Again, no answer.
The dissident wonders whether the bureau’s failure to report has something to do with a meeting between senior Russian and U.S. intelligence officials in Washington in January 2018. Kara-Murza says the FBI agent had told him a report on his poisoning would be given to the visiting directors of the FSB and GRU.
Or maybe the FBI’s silence is the result of mundane bureaucratic delays. Either way, U.S. officials are sitting on test results that may show how the Putin regime twice tried to kill a peaceful opponent whose close ties to the United States, and columns for The Post, are reminiscent of Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist.
Last week, lawyers working pro bono for Kara-Murza filed a lawsuit in a U.S. district court in Washington seeking the release of the test records. The activist himself was back in Moscow for commemorations of the fifth anniversary of Nemtsov’s murder. The test results, he emailed me, could be “a small measure of protection against repeated attacks on my life.”
Granted, the Trump administration is not much for defending dissidents, or holding Putin to account. But this doesn’t seem like much to ask.