. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Probing the Plot to Poison Yushchenko

APYushchenko showing his candidate's certificate in July, two months before he fell ill.
It was a clear September night when Yevhen Chervonenko left presidential hopeful Viktor Yushchenko healthy and in good spirits ahead of a secret meeting at a dacha near Kiev.

Chervonenko, at the time Yushchenko's head of security and now Ukraine's new transportation minister, said he usually went everywhere with Yushchenko and even tasted his food. But that night was an exception. Yushchenko was going to the dacha to dine with Ukrainian Security Service chief Ihor Smeshko and his deputy, Volodymyr Satsyuk.

"I was told that I was not required that night because the organizers wanted the meeting to be confidential," Chervonenko said in an interview.

Yushchenko's bodyguards also were not allowed to accompany him, he said. The only member of his team who went along was his campaign manager, David Zhvania. Yushchenko, who was already leading Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in the polls, had requested the Sept. 5 meeting to discuss the election campaign and death threats he had begun receiving in July. The men sat down for a meal of boiled crayfish, a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and corn and beer, followed by cold meats washed down with vodka and cognac.

The next day, Yushchenko fell seriously ill and his body was racked with pain, Chervonenko said. Slowly, a mask of bumps and cysts crept across his once-handsome face -- symptoms that he had ingested a dose of pure TCDD, the most hazardous dioxin, Vienna doctors later determined.

Now that Yushchenko is Ukraine's president, difficult questions are being raised about who could have wanted him out of the race so badly that they were willing to kill him. Interviews with members of Yushchenko's camp and former KGB officers suggest a shadowy Ukrainian-Russian plot most likely involving members of the security services of both countries and quite possibly members of the former Ukrainian government or organized crime figures that feared losing wealth and influence.

Both President Leonid Kuchma and President Vladimir Putin had placed their bets on Yanukovych, who also had the support of powerful oligarchic business clans based primarily in eastern Ukraine, who feared that Yushchenko would launch an assault on their business empires.

At least one other attempt was made on Yushchenko's life during the campaign, when a car bomb was found outside his campaign headquarters on the eve of the Nov. 21 runoff vote.

Two Russian citizens from the Moscow region were arrested in connection with the planned car bombing. Radio Liberty, citing police records, identified them as Mikhail Shugai, 35, and Marat Moskvitin, 33. A third man, identified only as Surguchyov, contacted Shugai in Moscow and promised the two men $50,000 to organize the bombing, according to investigators.

Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating both cases but have said little.

Complicating the investigations are the apparent suicides of two men close to Yanukovych and Kuchma's chief of staff, which occurred as it became clear that Yanukovych's victory in the fraudulent Nov. 21 vote would not be allowed to stand.

Yushchenko has refused to discuss the attempts on his life while the investigations are ongoing. But in an interview with CNN last week, he said he had "no doubt" that his "opponents in the government" had had the most to gain from his death. Pressed over whether he was poisoned at the Sept. 5 dinner, he replied, "Most likely."

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun, who was in Vienna to investigate the dioxin poisoning, said medical records support the suspicions that Yushchenko was poisoned around the time of the dinner, Reuters reported.

"There is no doubt that this was a planned act, in which several people from the government were probably involved," Piskun said in an interview with the Austrian paper Der Standard released Wednesday, ahead of publication Thursday, Reuters reported.

A former KGB agent familiar with the Yushchenko poisoning case said suspicion had fallen on Satsyuk, the former deputy security service chief and the host of the Sept. 5 dinner. The former agent, who asked not to be identified for fear of potential repercussions, said two people with knowledge of the poisoning were willing to testify against Satsyuk.

The former agent said he firmly believed that the dioxin TCDD was cooked up in a former KGB laboratory in Russia. "They produced poisons that killed a person in such a way that the death seemed natural," he said. "This lab was kept secret, and it existed only in Moscow, not in Ukraine. For this reason it would have been impossible for the Ukrainians to get the poison in their country. They needed Russia's cooperation." TCDD is a chemical that laboratories in only a few countries, including Russia and the United States, are able to produce.

The former agent said the one thing that puzzled him is whether Russia or Ukraine had come up with the idea first. "But there is no doubt that the Ukrainians asked Moscow for the poison and for instructions on how to use it," he said.

Serhiy Shevchuk, a Ukrainian lawmaker and the deputy head of a parliamentary commission investigating the poisoning, said he had looked into where the poison could have been produced.

"I have talked to experts who, sometimes speaking off the record, said that such a lab existed on Russian soil. But I don't think that Russia is the only country that has them," Shevchuk said.

Some suspicion has been cast on Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin spin doctor, who opened a "Russian Club" in Kiev during the election campaign. Ostensibly a nongovernmental forum to discuss bilateral relations, the club was widely seen as a means for Moscow to influence the outcome of the election.

In late December, a courier left an envelope with an unsigned letter and a computer disc at the offices of Ukraine's independent Channel 5 television. On the disc were excerpts of a telephone conversation between a man in Moscow and a man in Kiev that suggested the poisoning was Pavlovsky's idea. The man from Moscow said Pavlovsky did not want to kill Yushchenko but just "spoil the messiah's appearance and put the seal of Satan on him."

The disc's authenticity has yet to be confirmed, but Volodymyr Ariev, the Channel 5 journalist who looked into the case, believes it is a key piece of evidence. He said that through extensive research he had been able to identify the two men and that they had confirmed to him that they had had the conversation. Ariev said he could not identify the men for their own safety but described them as "a well-informed person who lives in Kiev" and a man who "works for the analytical department at the presidential administration in Moscow."

Ariev appeared to be referring to the expert department. The Kremlin press service said it did not know how many people worked in the department or have its telephone number.

"The man in Moscow belongs to a faction in the Kremlin that opposed what Pavlovsky's people were doing in Kiev," Ariev said by telephone from Kiev. The Kiev man is helping prosecutors investigate the case, he said.

Ariev said the men told him that security service officers carried out the poisoning and the car bomb attempt but did not say whether they were Russians or Ukrainians.

Pavlovsky rejected repeated requests to comment for this article.

Three former KGB officers said they strongly doubt that Pavlovsky had anything to do with the poisoning. "Only someone with a KGB mind could come up with such an idea. This is not Pavlovsky's case," said Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a retired KGB lieutenant colonel who lives in Washington.

Oleg Gordiyevsky, a former KGB officer living in London, and Yury Shvets, a former KGB operative who lives in the United States, agreed. Both said the computer disc could not be trusted and that they could not imagine someone like Pavlovsky organizing the poisoning.

All three, however, said the Kremlin most likely gave the Ukrainians a hand in organizing the poisoning. "The whole history of the Soviet Union is filled with poisonings. The KGB did that for 80 years," Gordiyevsky said, noting the case of Bulgarian defector Georgy Markov, who died in London in 1978 after a pellet containing ricin was injected into his thigh.

In Soviet times, every republic had its own KGB department, but the most important one -- the Central Department -- was located in Moscow. Regional departments carried out investigative operations, while only the Central Department specialized in "gadgets" such as poisoning, Gordiyevsky said. So even though Ukraine had the biggest KGB department outside of Moscow, it still did not possess the technology to make poisons, he and Preobrazhensky said.

Preobrazhensky said the KGB had to get approval from the Soviet leadership to poison someone, but its Russian successor, the Federal Security Service, is "without control -- they don't have to ask anyone for permission now."

Alternatively, the dioxin could have been delivered by former KGB agents who now work in the private sector and offer their services for a fee, said independent security analyst Anton Surikov.

The FSB declined comment this week, asking that questions be faxed for possible response in one to three weeks.

Igor Tabakov / MT

Yushchenko speaking in Moscow on Jan. 24, the day after he was sworn into office.

Preobrazhensky said he believed Moscow and Kiev worked together to poison a candidate they feared they could not "maneuver." Putin is trying to build a strong state and needs Ukraine as part of the plan, while Ukrainian oligarchs sought someone able to guarantee their corrupt business interests, he said, and Yanukovych was the candidate who fitted both needs.

Moreover, he said, poisoning has been a preferred political tool to silence foes since Putin assumed power five years ago. One of the most prominent cases was that of Yury Shchekochikhin, a liberal State Duma deputy and journalist who fought corruption and died in July 2003 after suffering a severe allergic reaction. Colleagues in the Yabloko party and at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper believe he was poisoned. A prominent Chechen rebel, Lecha Islamov, died in a Volgograd prison hospital in April, also after suffering a severe allergic reaction. His relatives called it a case of deliberate food poisoning. More recently, Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya Gazeta reporter known for her reports about Chechnya, accused the FSB of poisoning her after she fell seriously ill on a flight to cover the Beslan school hostage-taking in September.

Shevchuk, the Ukrainian lawmaker, said many questions remained about the poisoning, including whether a single chemical or a combination of chemicals was used. Doctors found only dioxin after months of research, but other agents might have been used that disappeared within a few hours, he said.

Shevchuk said there were two plausible theories about how Yushchenko was poisoned: that he was slipped a large dose at the Sept. 5 dinner or that he was poisoned on the campaign trail and then given a large dose at the dinner. "If different agents were used, it is possible that he was given a larger, final dose that evening, but if a single agent was used, it is possible that he was given it weeks before that," Shevchuk said.

Arnold Schecter, one of only a handful of dioxin specialists in the world, said it usually took several days before a person contaminated with dioxin felt sick. "It would be very unusual that someone feels sick soon after he was given the dioxin -- unless the dose was very huge or the person is very sensitive. It could be possible, but it never happens," he said.

However, if Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin earlier and then was slipped a dose of another chemical at the dinner, he would feel sick immediately, Schecter said.

Ukrainians newspapers reported that Smeshko, the security service chief, said Yushchenko had felt ill before the dinner and had postponed the meeting at least once because of his health. But Chervonenko, Yushchenko's head of security, said his boss did not complain of any illness before the dinner. "The last time I saw him healthy was when he got into Satsyuk's car to be driven to the meeting," Chervonenko said.

Smeshko did not appear to be aware of the poison plot.

The former KGB agent who asked not to be identified said the two people ready to testify against Satsyuk were being held by Yushchenko's team. He would not identify the two.

The Australian newspaper The Age reported last month that the cook and waiter who had worked at the Sept. 5 dinner were spirited out of the country by Yushchenko's team and had admitted their involvement in the poisoning.

Satsyuk, who was fired by Kuchma in mid-December, has denied any involvement in the poisoning.

An additional unanswered question is whether those who poisoned Yushchenko wanted to kill him or just ruin his appearance. Shvets said the line between killing and disfiguring someone is too thin. "They usually consider both outcomes -- assassination and/or disfigurement. This is because the medical condition of each person varies drastically, and it is almost impossible to predict that for this particular person, this particular poison and this amount of poison will be enough to just disfigure him," he said.

Surikov, the security analyst, said the security services of the former Soviet republics were so unprofessional these days that "if they wanted to kill him, they would have disfigured him, but if they planned to disfigure him, they would have killed him."

When it became clear that Yushchenko had a good chance of winning the election, two people who supported Yanukovych died, while others left the country. Yuriy Liakh, a close ally of Kuchma's chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk, and chairman of Ukrkreditbank, died on Dec. 3 in an apparent suicide. Ukrainian news reports said his bank was suspected of having laundered money for Yanukovych's election campaign, which reportedly spent $600 million.

It was on Dec. 3 that the Ukrainian Supreme Court overturned the Nov. 21 vote and set a repeat runoff for Dec. 26, which Yushchenko won easily.

On Dec. 27, Transportation Minister Heorhiy Kirpa also died in an apparent suicide. Yushchenko supporters had accused him of siphoning off government funds for the Yanukovych campaign and of providing trains to carry Yanukovych supporters to vote with multiple absentee ballots in the Nov. 21 runoff.

According to media reports, Yanukovych has fled to Russia.

On Feb. 2, Ukraine's parliament asked the Prosecutor General's Office to initiate a criminal case against Kuchma and take him into custody on suspicion of corruption and wrongdoing. No charges have been filed to date.