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Report: Russia may resort to assassinations as war drags on

By Sarah May on
 February 10, 2023

Despite early predictions of a relatively swift conclusion to the war in Ukraine, the conflict has – much to Russia's consternation – dragged on much longer than expected, and as such, observers believe that the Kremlin will only increase its use of assassination as a tactic to eliminate opposition, as Vice explains.

According to experts, assassins dispatched by President Vladimir Putin may even broaden their reach in the coming months to target foreigners who ventured abroad and volunteered to support the Ukrainian war effort.

“Sudden Russian Death Syndrome”

Evidence of Russia's willingness to use assassination as a viable method of settling scores and silencing critics can be found in the spate of seemingly suspicious deaths of wealthy oligarchs, a trend that gained particular steam throughout 2022.

As Elaine Godfrey pointed out in the Atlantic late last year, roughly “two dozen notable Russians have died in 2022 in mysterious ways, some gruesomely,” and that list included gas industry moguls, a well-known resort owner, real estate tycoons, energy executives, and leaders in other industries.

The outlet further noted that while the volume of high-profile deaths certainly seems shocking at first glance, the Kremlin does have something of a track record in this realm, as evidenced by the failed 2020 attempt on the life of outspoken Putin critic Alexei Navalny, the successful killing of defector Alexander Litvinenko, and the devastating poisoning of political opposition figure Viktor Yushchenko.

The goal of Russian assassinations, according to the Atlantic, is sometimes to send a message to others considering running afoul of Kremlin dictates, sometimes to simply remove an obstacle from the playing field.

Assassination fears grow

As Vice notes, with the war in Ukraine showing no immediate signs of slowing, there are growing concerns that Russia will increasingly turn to assassination as a means of flexing its muscle on a worldwide scale.

In support of that assertion, the outlet referenced not just the recent rise in oligarch deaths, but also a letter bomb campaign in Spain believed to be spearheaded by Russian actors, the attempted killing of a Putin foe in France, and the activities of Russian spies in Poland near the Ukraine border pretending to work as tourism professionals.

Vice cited an American intelligence source with knowledge of Russian spy operations who maintained that the Kremlin's reach when it comes to assassination operations is “vast and global,” and that sympathetic entities capable of deploying deadly missions stateside are already in place.

Even so, the source said, the Kremlin is likely aware that a sanctioned assassination attempt on America's shores would be viewed as massively escalatory, and Russia may not “have the bandwidth” at present for such action in the U.S. That said, however, the individual reiterated that instances of such plots across Europe remain on the table and are perhaps even likely.

Nuclear red herring

Intelligence experts who have studied Russia's use of assassination plots as part of a broader geopolitical strategy have suggested that such tactics are designed to provoke anxiety and uncertainty in the minds of enemies, and that is why they are favored by the likes of Putin.

Vice spoke to Colin Clarke, research director at intelligence consultancy the Soufan Group, and he believes that recent talk of possible nuclear hostilities emanating from the Kremlin could be a method of distracting from more insidious, localized endeavors.

“Common sense tells you, that's not what they're going to escalate to, because we've got nukes, too. But there's going to be steps that happen before that – that's tit for tat,” Clarke opined. “And so we're in the middle of that.”

Clark added that Russian partisan networks as well as Kremlin-allied mercenaries working under the Wagner Group umbrella are well-organized and operating across the globe – including in Ukraine – and are seeking assistance with attacks on new targets in the West.

Foreigners in crosshairs?

The reporting from Vice noted that Ukrainian officials are all too familiar with the brutal killing methods regularly employed by Russian assassins and the regularity with which they build lists of targets.

A source told the outlet that Ukrainian security services acknowledged Russia's ongoing covert assassination efforts inside the war-torn country, also seeking out its own defectors to thwart insurrections.

Alarmingly, the same source pointed to the distinct possibility that Russian assassination squads could ultimately turn their sights on volunteer fighters following their return home, as a means to “break the will of” Western countries that have pledged allegiance to and material support for Ukraine.

While that prospect is certainly worrisome, Chris Chivvis, a former American intelligence officer in Europe currently working with the Carnegie Endowment, cautioned against assigning too much weight to the Kremlin's reach in this regard, declaring, “They're not all-powerful. Their security services are robust, but not everywhere.”