Kremlin critics say Russia is targeting its foes abroad with killings, poisonings and harassment

AP – The military defector was killed in a hail of gunfire and then run over by a car in Spain. The opposition figure was struck repeatedly with a hammer in Lithuania. The journalist fell ill from a suspected poisoning in Germany.

Since President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, attacks and harassment of Russians — prominent or not — have been blamed on Moscow’s intelligence operatives across Europe and elsewhere.

Despite attempts by Western governments to dismantle Russian spy networks, experts say the Kremlin apparently is still able to pursue those it perceives as traitors abroad in an attempt to silence dissent. Opponents of Putin increasingly fear the long arm of Moscow’s security services, including in countries they once thought were safe.

“We just escaped Russia and had this illusion that we’ve escaped prison,” said journalist Irina Dolinina, who works for the independent outlet Important Stories, based in the Czech capital of Prague.

Dolinina and colleague Alesya Marokhovskaya were harassed in 2023, leading to fears they were under surveillance. They were sent threatening messages via comments on the media outlet’s website and told not to travel to a conference in Sweden. To underscore the point, the threat included their airline ticket numbers, seat locations and hotel booking.

“It was a mistake for us to think that here, we are safe,” Dolinina told The Associated Press.

The Kremlin, which routinely denies going after its opponents abroad, has been blamed for decades for such attacks.

The most famous cases include Soviet revolutionary-turned-exiled dissident Leon Trotsky, who was killed in 1940 in Mexico after being attacked with an ice ax by a Soviet agent, and Georgi Markov, a dissident working for the BBC’s Bulgarian language service, who died in 1978 in London after being jabbed with a poison-tipped umbrella.

Britain was the site of other poisonings blamed on Russian security services under Putin. Defector and former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006, and former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter fell gravely ill but recovered following an attack with a Soviet-era nerve agent in 2018. The Kremlin repeatedly denied involvement in the British cases.

Now, with a full-scale domestic crackdown underway inside Russia, most of the Kremlin’s political opponents, independent journalists and activists have moved abroad. There are strong suspicions, as well as accusations from officials, that Moscow is increasingly targeting them.

The breadth of those individuals pursued by Russia, “even if they look and sound completely insignificant,” is because Russian authorities believe they “might come back to the country and destroy it completely,” said security expert Andrei Soldatov.

There are multiple reports of exiles being persecuted not only in former Soviet countries with a large Russian diaspora but also in Europe and beyond.

Activists and independent journalists have reported symptoms that they suspect to be poisoning.

Investigative journalist Elena Kostyuchenko fell ill on a train from Munich to Berlin in 2022, and German prosecutors later said they were investigating it as an attempted killing.

Natalia Arno, the head of the U.S.-based Free Russia Foundation, told AP she still suffers from nerve damage after a suspected poisoning in Prague in May. She believes Russian security services tried to “silence” her because of her pro-democracy work.

In an especially brutal incident, the bullet-riddled body of pilot Maksim Kuzminov was found in La Cala, Spain, near the eastern port of Alicante, after being shot and run over with a car. Threats against him surfaced soon after he stole a Russian Mi-8 helicopter in August, flew it to Ukraine and defected.

Kuzminov, 33, became a “moral corpse” the moment he planned his “dirty and terrible crime,” said Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

In March, Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to the late opposition politician Alexei Navalny, had his arm broken in a hammer attack in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Lithuania’s security service said the assault was probably “Russian-organized and implemented.” On April 19, Polish police detained two people on suspicion of attacking Volkov on the orders of a foreign intelligence service.

In the decades Putin has held power, the Kremlin has denied multiple times that it is targeting its enemies at home and abroad. It has not commented on the suspected poisonings and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined comment on Volkov’s case, saying it was a matter for Lithuania’s Interior Ministry.

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