Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been labeled as an enemy of the world, an evil and ruthless aggressor, and even — as President Joe Biden put it — a war criminal.
However, the assault on Ukraine is far from the first time since Putin rose to power that the Russian regime has been accused of leveraging violence to protect and expand its axis of influence and control.
On August 20, 2020, the leading political opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny, suddenly fell seriously and mysteriously ill while on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. After an emergency landing, Navalny was rushed to a hospital and put into a coma. Two days later, he was evacuated to a hospital in Germany.
There, five certified labs from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that a nerve agent had been used to poison Navalny.
“The presence of this poison was discovered without any doubt,” Germany’s Angela Merkel announced at the time. “Therefore, it is now certain that Alexei Navalny is the victim of a crime. The attempt was to silence him, and I condemn this.”
Unfortunately for so many, Navalny is far from the only person to fall victim after standing up in some way or another to the Russian regime. In many ways, Putin’s leading political opponent is lucky, since he lived to tell his story.
Who is Vladimir Putin?
Born in 1952, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was raised during a period of change in the Soviet Union known as de-Stalinization. As a young adult, he joined the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, and quickly rose through the ranks. He served in various roles, which may have included monitoring foreign government officials in Leningrad, spying in New Zealand, and later working as an undercover agent in East Germany.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin returned to Russia, and resigned from the KGB on the second day of a coup against then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, with Putin saying that he immediately decided which side he was on.
It just so happened that Putin chose the side that was going to win…
Putin then pivoted to a career in politics, quickly rising to the position of deputy chief of the Presidential Staff under President Boris Yeltsin in just seven years. This meteoric rise continued, and he was eventually appointed as one of several deputy prime ministers. Yeltsin soon appointed Putin as acting prime minister of the Russian Federation, and stated that he wanted Putin to be his successor. Just a few months later, Yeltsin suddenly and unexpectedly resigned, and Putin became Acting President of the Russian Federation — before winning the election the following March.
Putin has been in control of Russia ever since, as president from 2000 to 2008, as prime minister from 2008 to 2012, and as president again from 2012 until the present day.
And how has Putin exerted unwavering control over Russia for more than twenty years? Some believe that part of the answer to that question is a decades-long trail of violence that begins and ends in the Kremlin.
Journalists and their allies
In a similar fashion to the Soviet Union, under the Putin regime, dozens of journalists or political dissidents have been found dead. In fact, so many journalists have died in Russia — either in the field or from other causes — that an official day of remembrance — the Remembrance Day of Journalists Killed in the Line of Duty — is observed on December 15 every year.
One of these journalists is a woman called Anna Politkovskaya. She wrote a book called “Putin’s Russia,” in which she criticized the Putin regime, and Putin personally, for turning Russia into a police state. In what was found to be a contract killing for $150,000, she was shot at point-blank range outside her apartment. Five men were convicted of her murder, but it was never revealed who paid for the hit.
Putin spoke at her funeral, where he condemned Politkovskaya’s killing — as well as her reporting.
Another journalist in this growing list is Natalia Estemirova. She sometimes worked alongside Politkovskaya, and was found in the woods near her home. She had been abducted and shot in the head. No one was ever convicted in her death.
Yet another victim of a contract killing was Paul Klebnikov, who was the chief editor of the Russian edition of Forbes. He investigated corruption in Russia — especially among the wealthy elite. He was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Political dissidents and Putin rivals
Boris Nemtsov — another former deputy prime minister of Russia under Yeltsin — was an outspoken critic of Putin, accusing Putin of, among many things, being in the pocket of wealthy Russian oligarchs.
He was shot four times in the back in the shadows of the Kremlin. Putin took personal control of the investigation, with one theory being that this was the result of Islamic extremism. The killer — or killers — were never found.
Another politician, Sergey Yushenkov, was assassinated just hours after registering his political party, Liberal Russia, to run for office in the parliamentary elections in late 2003.
Four people were convicted, one of them being a former co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party, who denied his involvement and later attempted suicide in prison.
Meanwhile, other deaths are as violent as they are mysterious.
First, there’s Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch, nicknamed “Rasputin,” who assisted Putin in his rise to power. He fled to the United Kingdom after his relationship with Putin deteriorated. He later threatened to bring down Putin and his regime by force — or at least by a bloodless revolution — and openly accused Putin of having his opponents murdered.
He previously survived multiple assassination attempts, including a bombing that decapitated his chauffeur. He was found dead in his home in England in what appeared to be a suicide.
The coroner who investigated returned an open verdict, following two days of “contradictory” evidence. He said that he couldn’t prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Berezovsky killed himself, or was killed by someone else.
According to one expert who specializes in hanging and asphyxiation cases, the marks on Berezovsky’s neck could not come from hanging, and they were “far away from the typical inverse ‘V’ shape” we usually see. He believed that Berezovsky was instead strangled, and then hung from the shower rail to mimic suicide.
Next, there’s Yuri Shchekochikhin, yet another journalist who investigated corruption and organized crime in the Soviet Union and Russia. He died suddenly from a mysterious illness just days before he was due to travel to the United States to meet with the FBI. His medical records were apparently either lost or destroyed, but his symptoms appeared to match other cases of radioactive poisoning, similar to Roman Tsepov, an earlier confidant to Putin, who died after he had a cup of tea at a local FSB office.
Soon after, Tsepov was hospitalized after experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, and a drop in white blood cell count. He died 13 days later in Saint Petersburg.
And then there’s perhaps the most famous case of suspected radioactive poisoning of all: the 2006 case involving Alexander Litvinenko.
It was also a cup of tea that caused the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent.
Three weeks after drinking tea laced with the deadly radioactive compound, polonium-210, at a London hotel, Litvinenko died. An investigation by British authorities found that Litvinenko was poisoned by several FSB agents, with orders likely coming straight from the Kremlin.
The European Court of Human Rights found the Kremlin responsible for Litvinenko’s death, while two of the accused FSB agents suggested that Litvinenko might have poisoned himself.
And on his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering his assassination.
The Chechnya link?
While each one of these deaths, and many others, are disturbing enough, things get even more shocking when we scratch beneath the surface and discover that there are a few common threads that tie them all together, often involving the now-Russian republic of Chechnya.
When Litvinenko left the Federal Security Service, for example, he went on to become a vocal critic of the agency. He later blamed the service for carrying out a series of bombings in 1999 that killed hundreds of civilians in Russia, writing a book titled, “Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within.”
Meanwhile, Russian authorities blamed these attacks on Chechen warlords, and the bombings increased public support for the invasion of Chechnya that followed, all of which contributed to the rise of Putin, who took a hard-line against Chechnya and vowed not to negotiate with terrorists.
The Liberal Russia leader, Yushenkov, believed that Russia orchestrated these attacks, and claimed to be gathering evidence of such a conspiracy when he was killed.
Berezovsky, the man who died in a supposed suicide, was allied with former Chechen warlord, Ahmed Zakayev, as well as Litvinenko, whom Berezovsky helped with the spread of these claims.
Litvinenko also accused the Kremlin of ordering the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. He’d worked with the doomed journalist on what they saw as another conspiracy — that the FSB were allegedly involved in the Moscow theater hostage crisis, when 50 Chechen terrorists stormed a theater and took 800 people captive. After a 57-hour standoff, Russian special forces raided the theater, during which most of the terrorists and 120 hostages were killed.
Politkovskaya — who investigated this story — also had links to others who have been killed. She was colleagues with Shchekochikhin, who died following a sudden and mysterious illness. Estemirova, who was abducted and shot in the head, also worked with Politkovskaya, and investigated human-rights abuses by Russian forces in Chechnya.
Then there’s Klevinov, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting. According to a Moscow Prosecutor-General, the killing of Politkovskaya may have been linked to the death of Klevinov, with a group led by an ethnic Chechen organized crime boss blamed for the murders.
Has Putin responded?
For his part, Putin has either denied any involvement in these deaths or argued that the same happens elsewhere. For example, during one press conference in 2021, Putin responded to these accusations by referring to the U.S. response to January 6.
“Alright, about my opponents being jailed or imprisoned,” Putin said when pressed by an American journalist. “People went into US Congress with political demands. 400 people are now facing criminal charges. They are facing prison terms of up to 20, maybe 25 years. They are called home-grown terrorists.”
He even went on to reference the shooting of Ashli Babbitt.
“One of the participants, a woman, was shot dead on the spot. She was not threatening with arms or anything,” Putin added. “Why am I bringing this up? Many people are facing the same thing as we do, and I am stressing this — we are sympathizing with the United States, but we do not want the same thing repeating here.”
While experts are hesitant to blame Putin directly for these — and other — deaths, some argue that Putin has instead “created the climate” which allows these murders to happen.
More dead oligarchs as Russia invades Ukraine
With Russia invading Ukraine, the trail of violence involving Russian dissidents, critics, or other prominent figures has continued.
Sergey Protosenya, a former high-level manager of Russia’s Novatek energy corporation, was found hanged in Spain earlier in April, while his wife and daughter were found stabbed to death. This came one day after the body of Vladislav Avaev, former vice president of the Russian bank Gazprombank was found, also with the bodies of his wife and daughter.
Vasily Melnikov, a Russian billionaire, was found dead alongside his wife and two sons in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. They had all been stabbed to death in late March.
Mikhail Watford, a Ukrainian-born Russian oligarch, was found dead in his United Kingdom home in February, hanged in his garage. That same month, Alexander Tyulyakov, Deputy General Director of the Unified Settlement Center (UCC) for Corporate Security for Gazprom, was also found hanged in a garage near Saint Petersburg.
In reality, we’ll likely never know who was behind these deaths and so many more. One thing is for sure, though: speaking out against the Russian regime is a dangerous business.
To find out more, listen to a special episode of Morning Wire, “Murder in Moscow.” Ian Haworth is a writer for The Daily Wire and contributor to Morning Wire. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.