Spy games: Is 'heart disease' really killing Russian diplomats?

Spy games: Is 'heart disease' really killing Russian diplomats?
7 min read
12 Oct, 2017
Comment: Heart attacks, brief illnesses, and accidental falls. A disturbing number of high-ranking Russian officials have recently been found dead in murky circumstances, writes Sam Fouad.
Senators Whitehouse and Graham at a subcommittee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 election[Getty]
In a curious series of events over the past 10 months, at least twelve Russian diplomats, lawyers and businessmen have been found dead.

Some have been found with gunshot wounds, while others have allegedly succumbed to "heart attacks". These claims are met with scepticism because there has been a rash of Russian figures who were found dead with trauma wounds to the head and a cause of death listed as a heart attack or due to a drunken fall.

In one specific case, Mikhail Lesin's body was discovered in a Dupont Circle hotel room in Washington DC, with blunt-force injuries to his head, neck and torso. The death was officially attributed to a series of drunken stumbles "after days of excessive consumption of alcohol".

His death was ruled an "accident" and the case was closed. Afterwards, two FBI agents and a third US intelligence agent claimed that Lesin was, in fact, bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat.

In several of these cases, people have turned up dead shortly before they were due to testify against the Kremlin or Russian bureaucrats. Lesin was due to meet with the US Department of Justice the following day to discuss the inner workings of RT, the news network that Lesin had founded.

In another bizarre case, British police found the body of Dr Matthew Puncher, a government radiation scientist, in a pool of blood in his home in Oxfordshire. Dr Puncher had played a key role in solving one of the largest cases of Russian assassination on British soil; that of Alexander Litvinenko.

Litvinenko had been a defector from the Russian security services who had fled to London and who had been found to be killed by a fatal dose of polonium 210 – a rare nuclear isotope that Dr Puncher had discovered in Litvinenko's system.

In another bizarre case, British police found the body of Dr Matthew Puncher, a government radiation scientist, in a pool of blood in his home in Oxfordshire

This discovery had put the Kremlin at the centre of the ongoing investigation into Litvinenko's death. It was after this finding that Dr Puncher was funded by a US federal contract, through Public Health England, to go to Russia and measure the risks of radiation exposure at a chemical lab.

Soon after Dr Puncher's return to England with his findings, he was found with severe knife wounds in his neck, arms and stomach. His death was ruled a suicide by slashing from two knives, and the case was closed.  

Another flurry of bizarre cases has only added more questions surrounding foul play, motives, potential perpetrators, and Russian tactics around diplomacy. On 23 August, Russia's ambassador to Sudan was found dead in the swimming pool of his home in Khartoum.

Mirgayas Shirinsky was fluent in both Arabic and Russian, and his premature death came shortly before Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was due to visit Russia. On 23 March, former Russian politician Denis Voronenkov was shot three or four times in the head in broad daylight outside of a hotel in Kiev.

Read more:  Even under Trump, warmer relations with Russia are impossible

Although there remains questions over whether he was killed by the Kremlin or a Ukrainian right-wing extremist, or somebody else entirely, the facts are that Voronenkov was a former member of Russia's Communist Party and was forced to flee to Ukraine amid a corruption investigation against him. He had became a vocal critic of Putin in exile.

Voronenkov was supposedly planning to give evidence against Ukraine's former president, the Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych, and his alleged role in providing cover for Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

Former Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations,
Vitaly Churkin was found dead in his New York office in 
February 2017 [Getty]

On 21 March, Nikolai Gorokhov was left for dead after he plummeted 50 feet from his balcony in Moscow.

Gorokhov was a lawyer who had found evidence in a $230 million corruption scandal involving high-ranking Russian state officials and was due to testify regarding the case of Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow and in Manhattan in a case filed by Preet Bharara, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The Magnitsky Act had been passed as a US law, after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who had uncovered tax fraud and graft, was tortured and killed in a Russian prison. Gorokhov was representing Magnitsky’s family in court when he fell from his balcony. He says he remembers nothing from the incident, but he did suffer severe head injuries and was found near death.

On 20 February, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, was found dead in his New York office after an apparent heart attack. He had been Russia's envoy to the UN since 2006 and was greatly respected by his peers, including those with whom he consistently disagreed, such as the former American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power.

While Russian state television praised his career, details regarding the circumstances of his death have not been made publicly available because "diplomatic immunity survives his death". The NYC Law Department instructed the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner not to disclose the cause and manner of his death, in what seems to be a cover-up orchestrated in a joint effort between Russian and American officials.  

From December 2016 to January 2017, six other high-ranking Russian officials were found dead in mysterious circumstances. On 19 December, Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, was shot dead on live television while speaking at an art exhibit by a Turkish police officer.

Karlov had been working to ease tensions over Russia's role in Syria when the 22-year-old officer shot him and yelled "Don't forget about Aleppo! Don't forget about Syria!". Hours before Karlov was killed in Turkey, Petr Polshikov was found shot dead in his home in Moscow, with a bullet wound to his head. He was serving as the chief adviser to their Latin American affairs department and had previously served in the Russian embassy in Bolivia.

While the Kremlin claims that Sergun died of a heart attack in Moscow, other sources claim that he was killed in Beirut while on a secret mission

On 26 December, ex-KGB chief Oleg Erovinkin was found dead in his Lexus in Moscow. In addition to being the chief of staff to Russian oil tycoon Igor Sechin, he was also suspected of helping former MI6 agent Christopher Steele complete his infamous dossier tying President Trump's campaign to Russian officials.

On 2 January, Igor Sergun died under more mysterious circumstances than most. He was the head of Russian military intelligence and was placed on an EU sanctions list following Russia's annexation of Crimea. Sergun had supposedly been sent to Syria to ask Assad to step down – a claim that is strongly refuted by the Kremlin.

While the Kremlin claims that Sergun died of a heart attack in Moscow, other sources claim that he was killed in Beirut while on a secret mission. On 9 January, Andrey Malanin was found dead in his bedroom in Athens. He was serving as the head of the consular department at Russia's embassy in Greece, when he supposedly died of natural causes.

On 26 January, Alexander Kadakin, the Russian ambassador to India, died at a hospital following a "brief illness".  

On 8 November, 2016, the morning President Trump won the general election, Sergei Krivov was found dead at the Russian consulate in New York City. His death was first reported as being caused by a plunge from the roof of the consulate, but was later attributed to a heart attack.

Will the true nature of relations continue to be hidden under a smokescreen, while political discourse controls the narrative?

In what analysts have described as another cover-up, Krivov's body had identified head wounds. Krivov had helped transmit codebreaker cables in and out of the consulate building in New York, which has also been a premiere spying hotspot between the US and Russia.  

Stepping into this shadowy series of events is the new American ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman.

Having previously been the governor of Utah, and ambassador to Singapore and China, he has declared that there is "no question" that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. He takes up the post as publicly, American-Russian relations have hit quite a low point, with the United States temporarily shutting down Russian consulates and embassies, and Russia expelling many American diplomats.

At the same time, meetings have taken place between the two governments, aimed at resolving differences and finding areas of cooperation.

Given the murky circumstances surrounding the deaths of high-level Russians and the continuing fallout from alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, will newly appointed ambassador Jon Huntsman change the course of apparent collusion in covering up these deaths?

Or will the true nature of relations continue to be hidden under a smokescreen, while political discourse controls the narrative?

Sam Fouad is a political consultant and a global affairs analyst based in Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @_saf155

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.