22 June, 2020
by Hamish Cruickshank – Research Assistant
In late April, the Czech paper Respekt broke the news of a Russian plot to poison three Prague municipal officials. The investigative paper stated that a Russian diplomat, later named as Andrei Konchakov, flew into the Czech Republic from Moscow carrying a suitcase, which according to Czech security services contained the poison ricin. The poison was said to have been intended for three Prague officials who have angered the Kremlin in recent months: The mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib and two district mayors, Pavel Novotny and Ondrej Kolar.
Hrib had angered Moscow by supporting the renaming of the square in front of the Russian embassy after the murdered Putin-critic Boris Nemtsov; Novoty approved plans for a monument in Prague commemorating the Vlasov Army – a band of Soviet defectors who fought alongside the Nazis but are acknowledged to have played a significant role in the liberation of Prague; and Kolar had called for the removal of a Soviet statue in his district dedicated to Marshall Ivan Konev who led the Red Army forces that liberated Prague in 1945. The targeted officials were swiftly put under police protection, and while they have been restricted from discussing the case by the Czech security information service BIS, Onrej Kolar told Prima TV that the protection was “ordered on the basis of certain facts … that there is a Russian here who was given an assignment to liquidate me.”
The Russians staunchly denied everything. Andrei Konchakov stated that there had been a mistake and that his suitcase contained “candies and disinfectant”, while Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that the story looked like “yet another canard.” And in the end, the plot indeed turned out to be a hoax. Internal quarrelling at the Russian embassy in Prague prompted one member of staff to provide false information to BIS about a potential attack on three Prague officials. Two staff members at the embassy have since been declared personae non-grata by Czech authorities and will be expelled from the Czech Republic.
While the plot may have turned out to be a complete fabrication, the fear and panic inspired by the initial reports serve as a reminder that mokroye delo – wet affairs or “wetwork” in the West – has become an intrinsic facet of Russian state policy under Vladimir Putin. Wetwork, a euphemism for assassinations and murder, was utilised by the Soviet secret police in Stalin’s era to eliminate enemies of the state. A tactic that had been used infrequently in the first years of Soviet rule became commonplace under Stalin and enemies of the Bolsheviks were subsequently hunted down across the globe. In 1938, for example, Yevhen Konovalets, a Ukrainian nationalist, was blown up in Rotterdam by a bomb disguised as a box of chocolates, while Yevgeny Miller, a White Army general during the Russian Civil War, was abducted in Paris by agents of the NKVD and transported back to Moscow where he was executed in 1939. Perhaps the most high-profile casualty of Soviet wetwork was Leon Trotsky who was assassinated in Mexico in 1940 by Ramón Mercader.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, however, Soviet wetwork lessened in frequency. In 1959, the KGB orchestrated assassination of leading Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera turned into a fiasco when the assassin defected to the West and informed German authorities that the assassination had been sanctioned by the Kremlin elite. After this debacle, the KGB largely dropped wetwork altogether and instead provided assistance to other states’ clandestine assassinations. One of the few examples of this was the infamous 1978 assassination of Georgi Markov in London. Markov, a Bulgarian emigre working for the BBC, was assassinated with a ‘poison-tipped umbrella’ after the Bulgarian secret police had requested the KGB’s help in organising the murder.
However, while the Soviets shied away from wetwork in the later decades of the Cold War, the grisly practice has seen a resurgence under Vladimir Putin. Ever since Putin became President of Russia in 1999, an increasing number of Kremlin opponents have been eliminated both in Russia and abroad. Numerous Chechen militants were assassinated in and around Russia during the early years of Putin’s rule by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and the GRU, while Putin’s political opponents and Russian dissidents have also increasingly been targeted. High profile cases include the murder of the Russian journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya in her apartment block in 2006; lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who was murdered while in police custody after his role in the uncovering of a massive fraud committed by Russian tax officials and police officers; and liberal politician and Putin critic Boris Nemtsov who was gunned down outside the Kremlin in 2015 shortly after giving a speech against Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 25 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1999 with many more subjected to physical attacks.
Wetwork in Russian foreign policy
In Putin’s Russia, just like in the Stalin era, the killings also have a growingly international dimension. Putin famously spoke about hunting Chechen militants wherever they hid (“even in the outhouse”) and Chechens have subsequently been killed across the globe with assassinations taking place in Austria, Turkey, Germany and even Qatar. While Russia has denied any involvement in these murders, authorities in these countries have accused Moscow of orchestrating events.
Moreover, a significant number of Putin critics and Russian dissidents have died in the West in the 21st century. Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the FSB turned Russian defector, was poisoned with polonium-210 in London in 2006 after he had launched numerous accusations against the Kremlin of sponsoring foreign and domestic terrorism. A British Home Office investigation found sufficient evidence that Litveneko had been poisoned by two Russian agents and that “the FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin”. In 2017 a former Russian lawmaker, Denis Voronenkov, and critic of Putin was gunned down in Kiev in what former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko labelled an act of “state terrorism”. And in 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former double agent convicted in Russia of spying for Britain, and his daughter were the victims of an attempted assassination in Salisbury, England. They were poisoned with the Russian nerve agent ‘Novichok’ and the British government formally accused the Kremlin of perpetrating the attempted murder.
Aside from these cases, a host of other deaths and poisonings in the West have been linked to Russia. In 2004, the pro-Western candidate in the Ukrainian presidential election Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with a ‘near fatal dose’ of Dioxin in what many suspect was a Kremlin sponsored assassination attempt, while U.S. intelligence also suspects that a number of people who died in ‘uncertain circumstances’ such as Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian oligarch, and Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian businessman and whistleblower, were actually assassinated in Britain and the U.S. by Russian agents.
These plots, poisonings and deaths have become an important propaganda tool for the Russian state under Putin. They emphatically demonstrate the power of the Russian state and they also send a message to dissidents, critics and enemies of the Kremlin that the state can reach them anywhere. On another level they also serve as a stark warning to Western states not to cross the Russian state. The nerve agent novichok used in the Skripal poisonings is well known to have originated from Russia and the incident could therefore easily be traced back to Moscow. Russian wetwork therefore sends a clear message that the Russian state is not bound by traditional Western norms and is willing to violate international law when it deems necessary.
Despite being a hoax, the panic and fear generated by the Prague poison plot is indicative of the threat posed by modern Russian wetwork. While the Kremlin has more brazenly utilised other destabilising tactics in recent years such as provokatsiya (provocation) and dezinformatsiya (disinformation), wetwork remains an important facet of Moscow’s foreign policy. Containing such a threat is a difficult matter given the Kremlin’s persistent denial of responsibility and Putin’s ability to twist a strong response in his favour. However, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky has said, “no democracy can allow this” and the international community must take a stronger stance against these inconspicuous violations of international law to prevent more lives being lost in the future.