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News / Nation & World

Kremlin critics say Russia is targeting its foes abroad with killings, poisonings and harassment

By EMMA BURROWS, Associated Press
Published: May 3, 2024, 8:33am

The military defector was killed in a hail of gunfire and then run over by a car in Spain. The opposition figure was struck repeatedly with a hammer in Lithuania. The journalist fell ill from a suspected poisoning in Germany.

Since President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, attacks and harassment of Russians — prominent or not — have been blamed on Moscow’s intelligence operatives across Europe and elsewhere.

Despite attempts by Western governments to dismantle Russian spy networks, experts say the Kremlin apparently is still able to pursue those it perceives as traitors abroad in an attempt to silence dissent. Opponents of Putin increasingly fear the long arm of Moscow’s security services, including in countries they once thought were safe.

“We just escaped Russia and had this illusion that we’ve escaped prison,” said journalist Irina Dolinina, who works for the independent outlet Important Stories, based in the Czech capital of Prague.

Dolinina and colleague Alesya Marokhovskaya were harassed in 2023, leading to fears they were under surveillance. They were sent threatening messages via comments on the media outlet’s website and told not to travel to a conference in Sweden. To underscore the point, the threat included their airline ticket numbers, seat locations and hotel booking.

“It was a mistake for us to think that here, we are safe,” Dolinina told The Associated Press.

The Kremlin, which routinely denies going after its opponents abroad, has been blamed for decades for such attacks.

The most famous cases include Soviet revolutionary-turned-exiled dissident Leon Trotsky, who was killed in 1940 in Mexico after being attacked with an ice ax by a Soviet agent, and Georgi Markov, a dissident working for the BBC’s Bulgarian language service, who died in 1978 in London after being jabbed with a poison-tipped umbrella.

Britain was the site of other poisonings blamed on Russian security services under Putin. Defector and former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006, and former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter fell gravely ill but recovered following an attack with a Soviet-era nerve agent in 2018. The Kremlin repeatedly denied involvement in the British cases.

Now, with a full-scale domestic crackdown underway inside Russia, most of the Kremlin’s political opponents, independent journalists and activists have moved abroad. There are strong suspicions, as well as accusations from officials, that Moscow is increasingly targeting them.

The breadth of those individuals pursued by Russia, “even if they look and sound completely insignificant,” is because Russian authorities believe they “might come back to the country and destroy it completely,” said security expert Andrei Soldatov.

There are multiple reports of exiles being persecuted not only in former Soviet countries with a large Russian diaspora but also in Europe and beyond.

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Activists and independent journalists have reported symptoms that they suspect to be poisoning.

Investigative journalist Elena Kostyuchenko fell ill on a train from Munich to Berlin in 2022, and German prosecutors later said they were investigating it as an attempted killing.

Natalia Arno, the head of the U.S.-based Free Russia Foundation, told AP she still suffers from nerve damage after a suspected poisoning in Prague in May. She believes Russian security services tried to “silence” her because of her pro-democracy work.

In an especially brutal incident, the bullet-riddled body of pilot Maksim Kuzminov was found in La Cala, Spain, near the eastern port of Alicante, after being shot and run over with a car. Threats against him surfaced soon after he stole a Russian Mi-8 helicopter in August, flew it to Ukraine and defected.

Kuzminov, 33, became a “moral corpse” the moment he planned his “dirty and terrible crime,” said Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

In March, Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to the late opposition politician Alexei Navalny, had his arm broken in a hammer attack in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Lithuania’s security service said the assault was probably “Russian-organized and implemented.” On April 19, Polish police detained two people on suspicion of attacking Volkov on the orders of a foreign intelligence service.

In the decades Putin has held power, the Kremlin has denied multiple times that it is targeting its enemies at home and abroad. It has not commented on the suspected poisonings and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined comment on Volkov’s case, saying it was a matter for Lithuania’s Interior Ministry.

Even fledgling anti-war groups find themselves in Moscow’s sights.

Russians in Stockholm, Sweden, who in May 2022 formed one of the first organizations to support Ukraine and political prisoners, burned an effigy of Putin labeled “war criminal” outside the Russian Embassy.

Six months later, Russian authorities designated the group an undesirable organization, threatening members with fines and prison. Their relatives were visited at home in Russia by police, and their personal data was leaked, members told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears for their security.

The Russian Orthodox Tsargrad media outlet suggested the group’s members could be recruited by foreign intelligence services and dubbed them “terrorists.” The pro-Kremlin outlet warned them of a nasty surprise if they continued opposing the war.

Days later, while visiting relatives in St. Petersburg, a group member named Marina said a police car stopped right in front of her as she exited a shop. Three men got out, asked for her documents, forced her into the car and drove to a police station, siren blaring.

“It was really scary. How the hell did they know my exact location?” Marina told AP, declining to give her surname because she fears for her safety.

She was confronted with the leaked data and video of the embassy protest, and investigators demanded she identify other members of the group, reveal its funding source and asked her views on the war. One even questioned why she was leaving Russia before her father’s birthday -– making clear they knew the identity of her family.

She was charged with an administrative violation, usually punishable by a fine. As police prepared to drive her to her parents’ apartment, it was suggested she “cooperate” and become an informant if she wanted to see her family again without fear of detention, Marina said.

“It’s a known modus operandi for Russian intelligence and the Russian regime to follow opponents in the Russian diaspora in other countries and subject them to different types of harassment or intelligence work,” Fredrik Hultgren-Friberg, spokesperson for the Swedish Security Service, told AP.

Soldatov said the Kremlin is going after a wide range of opponents because it fears pro-Western uprisings like those in Georgia and Ukraine and wants to prevent the seeds of dissent from growing into “something new.”

Even though Western countries expelled hundreds of Russian spies in coordinated actions after the 2018 poisoning of the Skripals and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russians abroad say they are concerned Moscow still can reach them.

Marokhovskaya, the investigative journalist in Prague, received anonymous threats, including one indicating close surveillance that said, “We’ll find her wherever she walks her wheezing dog.”

She and Dolinina told AP they experienced such observation inside Russia, including after publishing award-winning investigations of corruption in Putin’s family.

After moving to Europe, Dolinina said she initially thought she was experiencing “constant paranoia.” When she got the anonymous threats and was followed on Prague’s streets, however, she realized the fears were well-founded.

Neither journalist has concrete proof that Russian security services targeted them, but they said they believe the personal data -– flight information, passport numbers and home addresses -– and physical surveillance were likely orchestrated by a state actor.

“I was really shocked that it’s happening in Europe,” Dolinina said.

Although the many incidents the West blames on the Kremlin fuel speculation that Moscow still can intimidate Russians abroad, not everyone has been silenced.

“This is not the reason to quit,” Marokhovskaya said. “It’s the reason to keep working.”

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