Natalia Arno, the U.S.-based chief of the Free Russia Foundation, says there are suspicions she may have been poisoned, “possibly by some nerve agent,” after falling ill during a recent trip to Europe, amid a report that at least two other Kremlin critics have experienced similar episodes since 2020.
Arno, who previously kept silent about what she experienced during a trip to Prague in early May, wrote about the ordeal on Facebook on May 16 after the website Agentsvo published a story on the spate of critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin who have left the country.
“There is a suspicion that during my recent trip to Europe I was poisoned, possibly by some nerve agent, investigated by one [or maybe more] Western intelligence agency, I still have neuropathy symptoms but overall I feel much better,” Arno wrote on Facebook.
Agentstvo reported that two journalists who write about Russia, a former U.S. ambassador, and an activist have experienced similar symptoms or have found signs that their residences have been entered by “unknown persons who may be associated with Russian special services” over the past two years.
Arno said she found her hotel room door open after returning from meetings and that she encountered a “foreign and sharp” smell as she entered. That night, she said she felt “strange” symptoms that she chalked up to jet leg, but the illness gained strength and left her in “acute” pain that prompted her to move up her plane ticket home.
Upon arrival in the United States, Arno said that doctors couldn’t find a cause of the illness, even though the symptoms were intensifying.
Two weeks later, the illness subsided but has yet to disappear, she said, with “a Western special service” now investigating the ordeal.
“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 tentacles, that there is the possibility of being exposed to danger outside of Russia, so we must always remain vigilant,” Arno wrote.
According to Agentstvo, the former U.S. ambassador who also suffered a similar illness is John Herbst. Once the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine and Uzbekistan, he is currently the senior director of Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
He experienced possible poisoning symptoms several months before Russia launched its unprovoked ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Sources told Agentstvo that an investigation was launched into his situation as well, while Herbst declined to comment.
Agentstvo also reported from sources that a self-exiled Russian journalist, whose identity was not disclosed, experienced possible poisoning symptoms while attending a conference of exiled Russian opposition politicians and activists in Berlin in April. The journalist confirmed experiencing the illness but did not elaborate further.
Agentstvo noted that unknown intruders unlocked a hotel room of Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian investigative journalist with the Bellingcat group, in Montenegro in 2022 and stole his phone. Grozev confirmed the incident to Agentsvo but declined to give more details.
The Kremlin has steadfastly denied any links to several suspicious poisonings involving Putin’s critics, such as opposition politicians Aleksei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza — both of whom are currently in prison.
Navalny fell violently ill on an airplane in Siberia before eventually being transported to Germany to be treated for what European labs defined as a poisoning using a Novichok nerve agent in 2020.
Kara-Murza fell deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow — once in 2015 and again in 2017 — with symptoms consistent with poisoning. Tissue samples smuggled out of Russia by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated his case as one of “intentional poisoning.”
U.S. government laboratories also conducted extensive tests on the samples, but documents released by the Justice Department suggest they were unable to reach a conclusive finding.
In 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England, in an attack believed to have been carried out by Russian military intelligence operatives.
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