The diplomatic war in which the UK and Russia were embroiled just two months ago seems to have been lost in the fog of the 2018 World Cup. Around the time in which Harry Maguire’s header against Sweden had English fans thinking of nothing but vindaloo and vandalising an IKEA, news emerged that Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley of Salisbury had fallen ill with symptoms of Novichok poisoning. While UK newspaper front pages focused on Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat, anti-Russian sentiment in the country had faded, despite the tense period of ambassador-expulsions which had preceded the tournament. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had even compared the Russian World Cup to Nazi Germany’s 1936 Olympics. This perhaps isn’t so surprising, given that it fits neatly within a trend of Russian-linked UK deaths, all of which have served as the news story of the month before interest in the case, is lost. Below, we detail some of the more bizarre of those incidents.
Alexander Litvinenko – November 2006
Alexander Litvinenko was a successful FSB Lieutenant Colonel and vocal opponent of Russian state corruption. Arrested in 1998 while investigating plots to assassinate media tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Litvinenko soon became an active opponent of Russian authority.
Upon his release from prison in 1999, he released Russia: Terror from Within, which claimed that FSB agents had been involved in a terror-attack on Russian apartment blocks used as a pretext for the Russian invasion of Chechnya.
Having moved to the UK for security, Litvinenko became a British citizen in 2006. Understood to have been on the payroll of both MI6 and fellow exile Berezovsky, Litvinenko remained a vocal opponent of Putin’s Russia. He had been investigating Spanish links to the Russian Mafia as well as the murder of Anna Politkovskaya when he reported extreme ill-health.
It is almost certain that Litvinenko had been administered a radioactive compound called polonium-210 via tea. The prime suspect is Andrei Lugovoi, who he had been in contact with regarding the Spanish investigations. Litvinenko is said to have blamed Putin for everything while on his deathbed.
Gareth Williams – August 2010
Gareth Williams was a cipher expert working for the Secret Intelligence Service when he was found dead inside a North Face sports bag. After failing to turn up to work for several days, colleagues had alerted the authorities, and police entered his Pimlico flat to find Williams dead in his bathroom. The bag had been locked from the outside, and the key placed under his body.
Despite it being summer, the flat’s heating was on, hastening Williams’ decomposition. The investigation into Williams’ death was hindered by mistakes including the accidental contamination of the crime scene by forensics, as well as the failure to report his absence sooner.
While it was determined that the likely cause of death was murder, namely because it is generally considered impossible that Williams could have locked himself into the bag from the outside, there has never been a definite verdict on the matter. There was no sign of forced entry at the flat, nor any second-party DNA around the body. Williams’ family maintain that the true findings of the investigation have been withheld from the public.
A child mathematics prodigy from Anglesey, Williams had been recruited by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) while studying at Cambridge University. Success at GCHQ led to his recruitment by MI6, as well as co-operation with the US National Security Agency and the FBI. A known recluse, Williams was understood to have resented the London-lifestyle and wished to return to the countryside to pursue his hobbies of walking and cycling.
The Russian link to the Williams case came in 2015, when former KGB Major Boris Karpichkov claimed Russian hitmen had been ordered to assassinate the Welsh agent. Karpichkov claimed that Williams had befriended a Russian mole within GCHQ, and a third party had tried to recruit him for the Russian intelligence services. Williams reluctance led to attempted blackmail.
Rumours had persisted surrounding Williams’ sexuality prior to his death, including his apparent ownership of substantial amounts of female clothing, to the extent that some claimed that his death may have been part of a bondage-type sex act. These claims have never been substantiated. Karpichkov claimed that Williams was drugged while on a night out, and then photographed explicitly. Threats to circulate the images should he not comply led Williams to threaten to expose the Russian GCHQ mole. The Russians, according to Karpichkov’s claims, decided this wasn’t acceptable and dispatched of Williams via the insertion of an untraceable poison into the ear.
Alexander Perepilichnyy– November 2012
Alexander Perepilichnyy was a Russian financier, found dead in Weybridge, Surrey after going out jogging. Pereplichnyy had moved to the UK in 2009, and was understood to have been in contact with western authorities regarding the theft of over $200 million from the Russian Treasury through investment fund Hermitage Capital Management. Documents handed to Swiss authorities are understood to have revealed the involvement of senior Russian officials in the fraud scandal.
Despite having no significant health problems at the time of his death, Perepilichnyy’s collapse was considered a mystery. This persisted until 2014, when an autopsy encountered Gelsemium, a rare Chinese poison nicknamed ‘Heartbreak Grass’ and known to trigger cardiac arrest, within his stomach. Surrey Police have maintained that no toxin was identified on the body.
Boris Berezovsky – March 2013
The death of Boris Berezovsky, billionaire media tycoon and former confidant of Boris Yeltsin, is perhaps the most high profile of all Russia-linked deaths on British soil. Berezovsky was a successful Jewish business, and had made his fortune importing and selling second hand German cars. His wealth and influence expanded through the purchasing of shares in Aeroflot, as well as gaining control of Russian Channel One.
Control of Channel One was achieved thanks to a close partnership with Boris Yeltsin, to whom he would contribute £140 million toward a successful 1996 re-election campaign. Berezovsky was then made Deputy Secretary of the Chechen Republic, overseeing the economic reconstruction of the region following the Chechen Wars.
Despite initially helping to fund Unity, Vladimir Putin’s original parliamentary base, Berezovsky and the new president quickly fell out. After going into opposition, Putin ordered investigations into Berezosky’s estate. Berezovsky was also accused of plotting to murder the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzkhov.
In 2000, the oligarch fled to the UK where he was granted political asylum. This led to a freeze in UK-Russia relations, which had been successfully thawing in the optimistic period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While in the UK Berezovsky orchestrated a network of anti-Putin exiles including Alexander Litvinenko, as well as Akhmed Zakayev, a former Chechen rebel leader.
In 2010 Berezosky lost a High Court battle against Roman Abramovich over ownership of the Sibneft Oil Company. Abramovich and Berezovsky had founded the company together, and the latter sought £3 billion. In March 2013 Berezosky was found hanging in his ex-wife’s Berkshire mansion. The case was declared an open verdict. He had allegedly owed the UK taxman £46 million upon his death.
Scot Young – December 2014
Scotsman Scot Young was found impaled on railings below his fourth floor Pimlico flat. A successful property developer, Young is understood to have been worth around £4 billion. Ties to Russia are understood to have began when Young invested heavily in the failed ‘Project Moscow’, a planned redevelopment of a large industrial area of the Russian capital.
Young was widely reported on in the tabloids owing to a high-profile divorce case, during which he had claimed to have lost a significant amount of money. An investigation prompted by his ex-wife found that he had significant assets hidden in Panama-based firms. Russian involvement in the Young case is tenuous aside from the Project Moscow affair, as well as an apparent link to Boris Berezovsky.
Nikolai Glushkov – March 2018
Nikolai Glushkov was a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin, and close associate of Boris Berexovsky. A former businessman, Glushkov had served as deputy director for state-owned Russian airline Aeroflot.
After openly criticising Putin, as well as claiming that Aeroflot was being used as a “cash cow” for the Russian secret services, Glushkov was imprisoned on money laundering charges. He was granted political asylum by the UK in 2010, and remained critical of the Putin regime. Moscow brought charges of stealing over $100 million from Aeroflot while director of the company against Glushkov, and had him convicted in absentia. Britain refused to extradite him.
He had been due in court over a $99 million compensation claim by Aeroflot on the day he was found dead at his house in New Malden. The death was initially branded unexplained, however subsequent autopsies have claimed that the body showed clear signs of strangulation.
Sergei & Yulia Skripal/Dawn Sturgess & Charlie Rowley – March/July 2018
In March 2018, former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury. Tests revealed that both had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union known as Novichok.
The British Government quickly and directly blamed Russia for the attack, sending a number of Russian Ambassadors home and convincing a number of western nations to do the same. The Kremlin denied any involvement, but requested access to the Skripals.
The attack seems to have been one too many Moscow-linked attacks on British soil for Downing Street. While the British had previously been keen to allow similar incidents to fade into obscurity, a string of high-profile political attacks upon Russia followed the breaking of the story. This included former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson comparing Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup to Nazi Germany’s hosting of the 1938 Summer Olympics. Despite British conviction of Russian guilt the source of the poisoning has not been clarified, nor have details of direct Russian involvement.
Sergei Skripal was a former Russian military intelligence colonel and British double agent. Sentenced to 13 years for spying in 2006, Sergei was part of a 2010 swap deal which saw Russian trade western spies for members of the Illegals Program spy ring, including Anna Chapman.
Having settled in Salisbury, he remained active in training western countries and potential NATO allies in Russian spying techniques. Russian involvement therefore makes sense, although despite traces of the nerve agent being found at a pub, restaurant, and Skripal’s house, no clear link has been established. Both of the Skripal’s eventually recovered.
The case was given fresh impetus in July 2018, when Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley of Salisbury fell ill with Novichok poisoning. It is thought the couple had come into contact with the discarded Novichok vessel. Dawn Sturgess eventually passed away.
It’s hard to tell the extent to which the Kremlin is directly responsible for all the curious deaths listed above. While there is clear evidence of Russian involvement in affairs overseas, particularly when involving exiled Russians, all powerful nations operate out of their borders to an extent. Russia has been portrayed as the enemy within western media for over half-a-century. Despite the Cold War officially ending nearly thirty years ago, Russia remains the Ivan Drago to the west’s Rocky. While the nation which Churchill famously called an enigma is perhaps an easy scapegoat for unexplained deaths in western nations, he also claimed that the key to that enigma was the nation’s self-interest. Would engineering the deaths of men like Berezovsky, Litvinenko, and Williams serve this interest? Given that as of July 2018, Putin is the Russian state, and it could be argued the actions of these men threatened the cult of Putin, it is not hard to see how the cases could be linked back to the man in the Kremlin.