It seems pretty clear now that Victor Yushchenko was poisoned. Doctors in Vienna have confirmed that his blood contained over 1,000 times the normal amount of dioxin.
Yushchenko himself has laid the blame on the Ukrainian authorities and has called for an investigation to be carried out after the re-run of the Presidential election of Dec 26th.
Some of Yushchenko’s aides, however, are pointing the finger at Russia (although being very careful with their words).
When asked by ABC News’ Bill Weir if the Russian government, and specifically President Vladimir Putin, had anything to do with the poisoning, Yushchenko chief of staff Oleh Rybachuk said: "I am not very positive about government, but what I might say that was Soviet Union sort of KGB experts are clearly involved in this plot."
Of course, Russia is denying everything. An official wheeled out by the Health Ministry claimed that:
"Dioxin is not a poison with an immediate effect, its toxicity builds up over years, dozens of years, and it is impossible to receive a dose one day that would poison you the next," said Yuri Ostapenko, head of the Russian health ministry’s poison centre.
Not knowing the slightest thing about poisons, other than they are generally bad things, I did a little fact checking. Ostapenko is largely talking rubbish. Although he is correct to say that a dioxin can build up over many many years, it can also act relatively rapidly:
Dioxin posed a fascinating challenge for toxicologists like Moore and Peterson because it is not your ordinary poison. Animals given lethal doses of dioxin don’t keel over quickly; they lose their appetite and undergo a mysterious wasting before they actually die weeks later.
The Christian Science Monitor adds to the intrigue with a history of KGB/FSB poisonings, including several from the last few years:
More recently two different journalists covering the Beslan hostage crisis in September say they were drugged – one on a plane, another during an FSB interrogation – to prevent their coverage of the story. Medical tests later confirmed one of the cases.
Friends and family of Yury Shchekochikin, a Duma deputy and deputy editor of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Moscow, believe that his death after an unexplained skin rash in July 2003 – while he was investigating a company owned by former KGB top brass – may have been due to dioxin poisoning.
And in early 2002, the FSB celebrated its killing of a Saudi-born warlord in Chechnya, called Khattab, who had once fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. In the mid-1990s, Khattab became a key Chechen link to foreign funding and Islamist militants. He received the letter from the FSB through intermediaries.
Personally, I wouldn’t rule out Russian involvement. However, more likely, I think is that this was a home-grown poisoning. The Ukrainian SBU is, like the Russian FSB, a descendant of the KGB. A lot of the same tactics are likely to be employed by both. And SBU agents are very likely to have looked at the effectiveness of recent Russian poisonings, and thought that it was a strategy worth a try.