Russian Hit Team Feared in Suspected Poisoning of U.S. Citizens

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The head of a U.S.-based nonprofit that fights against Russian repression, the Free Russia Foundation, says she was possibly poisoned by “some nerve agent” while on a recent trip to Europe, in a possible sign that Russia's poison team is targeting critics again.

“There is a suspicion that during my recent trip to Europe I was poisoned, possibly by some nerve agent, investigated by one… Western intelligence agency, I still have neuropathy symptoms, but overall I feel much better,” Natalia Arno, who has lived in the U.S. for a decade, said in a social media post.

Arno’s symptoms set in while she was on a trip to the Czech Republic early this month, according to independent Russian news outlet Agentsvo, which described the founder as a U.S. citizen. Arno did not respond to a comment request from The Daily Beast by the time of publication.

She doesn't appear to be alone. At least two other Kremlin critics have reportedly been targeted in suspected poisoning attacks since 2020, including former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, according to Agentsvo.

Herbst fell ill in April 2021 and came down with symptoms that could be consistent with poisoning, but testing was inconclusive, according to a statement from the Atlantic Council, where Herbst works now.

“In April 2021 he grew ill and experienced symptoms that could have been consistent with poisoning, including elevated levels of toxins in his blood. Medical professionals treated Ambassador Herbst effectively at the time but could not definitively conclude there was poisoning involved,” the statement says. “The Atlantic Council worked with federal law enforcement on this matter, who later also took a blood sample from Ambassador Herbst, and the lab results failed to detect toxic compounds.”

Herbst declined to share more details with The Daily Beast about how he came down with symptoms.

‘Litvinenko’: The Harrowing Story of the Russian Defector Who Says He Was Poisoned by Putin

In Arno's case, she said that she returned to an open hotel room door on the day of the suspected attack. She checked the room for bugs or listening devices and did not find any. But she did notice her room was filled with a strange smell similar to the aroma of “cheap perfumes,” she said.

“In the second city, after a busy day of discussions and meetings, I returned to my hotel in the evening and found the door to my room slightly open. First thought—is Comrade Major really waiting inside?” Arno said, adding that she later “woke up at 5am in acute pain” with “strange symptoms.”

Then she flew to the United States to contact the authorities and to seek medical attention while suffering from what she described as “vivid numbness.” Emergency room tests showed no traces of anything—not even alcohol—she said, which seemed bizarre given that she had just come from what she described as “one of the beer capitals of the world.”

A Russian journalist reportedly informed the Agentsvo that she developed likely poisoning symptoms as well.

Other suspicious intimidation tactics have reportedly cropped up in recent months. Christo Grozev, an executive of Bellingcat, which has previously investigated Russian poisoning schemes, was the target of a hotel room break-in, according to Agentsvo.

Four of his acquaintances told the outlet that his hotel room in Montenegro was broken into just two months after the war in Ukraine began. Grozev did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.

Russia has long conducted poisoning operations targeting its critics. The USSR created Lab X, a department aimed at poisoning enemies of the Soviet Union, in 1921, but experts say it still exists in some form today.

In 2018, Russian operatives in the U.K. targeted Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence agent, with the nerve agent Novichok. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, nearly died after the exposure, which killed a bystander. World leaders from the United States, France, Germany, and the U.K. said Russia was behind the attack.

In 2020, the FSB likely used Novichok to poison Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, according to the State Department. Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB and FSB officer, was killed in 2006 after drinking a radioactive cup of tea in London. Viktor Yushchenko, an anti-Russian Ukrainian presidential candidate, was poisoned with dioxin chemicals in 2004.

Russian critics need to be on alert that they might be targeted for intimidation and repression operations, including via threats and poisonings, Arno warned.

“Moral: Russians who had to leave Putin's Russia, but who abroad continue to fight firmly and decisively against the war, against Putin's regime and for a free and democratic Russia, need to understand that the enemy has long legs, there is the possibility to expose us to danger outside Russia, so we must always be vigilant,” Arno said.

“It's terrible to think that you can be poisoned at any moment, but everything that Putin's regime does is horrible, abnormal and criminal: from bombs dropping on peaceful cities of neighboring countries to such cases of transnational repression,” Arno said. “The enemy is dangerous, aggressive and criminal, we know it very well.”

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