The Maastricht Diplomat

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  • Ethan Bergman

Political Poisoning – The Downfall of the Ultimate Silencer

“When poison becomes a habit, it ceases to injure”


Assassinations are as old as all human societies. Whether you wish to replace a victim’s role in society, or silence an oppositional leader for his knowledge of your dirty deeds, there will always be reasons for us to make one ‘sleep with the fishes’. Yet, what is the flawless method necessary to do the job? It seems that throughout the centuries poison has remained a consistent successful weapon of choice. From ancient Greeks, to modern Russians, poisoning has long been considered the most discreet and unchallenging method to assassinate due to the fact poison can be applied to clothing and that it can be consumed through liquids and food. Nowadays, the act of poisoning does not necessitate the requirement of death as the symbolic value is at times sufficient. Basically, modern governments act as sleazy gangsters delivering threatening messages. North Korea, and especially Russia, are among states that have recently dabbled in poisoning assassinations. However, poison does not even need to kill to deliver a message nowadays.


As recently as August 2020, Alexei Navalny was poisoned as the world’s fingers pointed at the Russian government as the perpetrator. The anti-corruption activist, and opposition leader, fortunately survived and slowly recovered several weeks afterwards. It should be mentioned that Russia has a long and complicated history involving the straightforward poisoning strategy and symbolism, only slightly adapting the chemical cocktail employed. Arguably, the will to use an array of chemicals as weapons has never been higher. Yet, the risks concerning its efficiency and culpability can completely shift the desired outcome. Should it still be considered as the ultimate political weapon, or, are we witnessing its downfall?


Prior to assessing poison’s effectiveness, it needs to be comprehended precisely what the modern nature of this weapon is. In the age of drone warfare, this weapon is obviously not the most clear-cut method of proving perility. Yet, it is the most unpredictable weapon which can pop up at any moment in any location. It is chaotic, slow and undetermined with the individual’s demise not being a requirement to consider the poisoning as successful. To illustrate the extent of poison’s usage, its utility from a governmental angle needs to be exposed, such as in the case of the Russian state’s infamous relationship with ‘taking down political opposition’ in the 21st century. As of 2021, the current Russian state has been accused of at least a dozen politically-motivated poisonings with four of them resulting in deaths. Most to all victims were well positioned in Russian society and had access to information which could damage the government’s legitimacy by exposing corruption or state secrets.


There are roughly four primary reasons why poison is still considered effective as a silencer in our modern era, with most of them stemming possessing a mysterious yet symbolic value. First, the poison can never be traced back directly to Putin, regardless of the world’s certainties. Establishing deniability in a mysterious case is just enough to make foreign states angry, but not to the point of raising sanctions. So, the shred of doubt makes it possible for Russia to avoid punishment whilst keeping its population docile due to the lack of absolute culpability.


Second, whilst outside actors may not be certain of all details relating to the victim and the assailant, symbolism is employed by Putin since he is taking credit without actually taking credit. Meaning, the materials employed in the poison were military-grade and most likely came from the Russian government. However, it can never be confirmed. Putin’s strong messages of denial quells domestic concerns, but potential targets are reminded in this way that fear lingers as the state may make a hit without large-scale consequences.


Thirdly, the threat of constantly being under threat of poisoning creates a paranoiac environment for Putin’s targets meant to terrorize and exhaust. Putin hopes that poison remains the last trick up his sleeve as to force the critic, or opposition, to forever remain silent. It is no secret that those priorly poisoned were long-term victims of Putin’s covert surveillance and long-term harassments. The threat of being poisoned is the ultimate nail in the coffin.


Lastly, getting shot by a foot-soldier, or being bombarded by a drone, is effectively painless and rapid. However, most of Putin’s poisoning victims have suffered extreme pain and loss of bodily functions for a number of weeks or months, such as Alexander Litvinenko. Navaly himself screamed in agony after his poisoning, fell into a coma, and had to learn how to walk again. Putin’s message is simple. He is not only silencing a critic, but also, making such a critic regret all of his prior actions.


Acknowledging these four benefits of poisoning, which can be universally applied for any state, it may appear that the strategy will undoubtedly still be used in the future. Yet, the current developments in Russia concerning Navaly’s poisoning illustrate that the magic trick fools less citizens than expected and that people eventually rise up due to a substantial spark. This spark came in the form of the poisoning victim not being afraid to accuse its government and actively calling for citizens to protest. A brave move which showed characters of solidarity and showed fearlessness of the potential personal consequences.

The state, which people suspected of employing poison for the last decade, has made the mistake of not applying a lethal dose to an outspoken activist. This permitted Navaly to deepen his anti-governmental messages of corruption and foul play.


The international community is fortunate that Navalny is alive and vocal, seeing that the investigation effort benefited immensely from his cooperation. He is arguably the most popular figure that Russia has poisoned. This presented an opportunity for other states to get acquainted with Navalny as the political opposition to a head of state who is past his due-date and who has caused a variety of international controversies.


The more relaxed and ambitious Russia has become with its selection of poisoning targets, proves the arguable downfall of the weapon and showed a significant blowback for Putin’s government. As is often the case, the international community analyzes the events, making it likely that political poisoning becomes a concept stuck in time. Poisoning is amongst the sneakiest and backwards acts a supposedly progressive, and democratic, state can do. It is widely regarded as a surprise that Russia kept getting away with poisonings for such a long time, yet, the current backlash experienced through countless fatigued protesters proved that the toxic magic trick eventually becomes old. In the age of militarized technology, and diplomatic strategies, it seems that the international community is concluding its stance on poisoning as illustrated with Navalny’s case as no rational government would dare defend the Russian government at the expense of their own reputation for justice and equality. It may be time for Russia to close its KGB playbook once and for all.


To conclude, here is a short quote Russia could learn from: “Never hold a grudge, as grudges may act as a slow poison on you, that you will never know until it is too late”.



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