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Something she ate? Ukraine spies investigate poisoning of intelligence chief’s wife

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Even as Russian and Ukrainian troops remain locked in a grim, violent stalemate on the front lines, a vicious shadow war involving poison appears to be raging behind the scenes, 644 days into Moscow’s invasion.

The latest victim: Marianna Budanova, the wife of Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s deadly and provocative military intelligence chief

Budanova, who lives in her husband’s fortified headquarters, survived a bout of heavy metal poisoning this week, a Ukrainian intelligence spokesman told reporters. Members of Budanov’s staff were also found with elevated levels of arsenic and mercury in their blood, apparently introduced through their meals, Western and Ukrainian media reported. 

Experts say the incident showed Russia’s long reach into the stronghold of a top Ukrainian official – one who has publicly boasted of his own prowess as an assassin.

“This is a microcosm of the bigger problem with this war,” Alexander Vindman, a former top official on Ukraine and Russia at the National Security Council, told USA TODAY. “People think that it’s static but it isn’t.”

“It’s kind of nasty when it comes over to family members, of course.”

Ukraine’s killing chief

Lt. General Kyrylo Budanov sits at the top of his country’s killer elite. 

As leader of the GUR military intelligence agency, he and his colleagues have terrorized Russian ships on the Black Sea with surface drones, and killed an estimated 30 enemy officers in a single missile strike on Russia’s naval headquarters in Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014. 

Sometimes with a wink, Budanov has denied a role in dozens of incidents on Russian soil, including attempted drone strikes on Moscow and other targets, the car bomb murder of a leading Kremlin propagandist’s daughter, the fatal bombing of a pro-war nationalist blogger, and the assassination of a Russian submarine commander who was reportedly tracked through his jogging app. 

He’s often taunted Russian forces on social media, an unusual habit for an intelligence chief. Budanov “practices information warfare and influence operations, trying to get into the Russians’ decision making and their heads by casting the idea that the Russians can be reached anywhere,” Vindman said.

The commander, who was considered a possible choice for defense minister earlier this year, has been the target of as many as a dozen Russian assassination attempts, according to Vindman and other reports. In July the Kremlin mistakenly boasted that he’d been grievously wounded in a missile strike.

“Budanov will say he’s target number one, and he’s probably in the top three to five targets” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crosshairs, said Vindman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who also served as an attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Plutonium, nerve agents and deadly chemicals

The Russian and Ukrainian intelligence services are descendants of the Soviet-era KGB. Both inherited its penchant for dirty tricks and murder, and its spy tradecraft. 

In recent decades, Russian spies have allegedly targeted opponents at home, and in Ukraine, the United Kingdom and elsewhere with toxins including radioactive isotopes, deadly nerve agents and dioxin. 

Not unlike Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was hunted by a Russian hit team in the opening days of the February 2022 invasion, Budanov lives and works under imposing security at a base near the Dnipro River.  

Shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles line the hallways outside his darkened office. Inside, a pair of love birds are kept in a cage to detect poisonous gas. Two frogs in a screened-off tank serve the same macabre purpose.

In each of several meetings with USA TODAY over the course of the war, the 37-year-old spymaster had a Kalashnikov rifle resting on his desk within arm’s reach. 

“He is very careful about how he operates,” Vindman said. “I’m sure that’s the product of having been targeted multiple times.”

Spy vs. Spy

How Russia was able to get access to Budanov’s kitchen remains to be seen. “I don’t know if it’s so much damning of Budanov’s security as much as it is the fact that the Russians are learning, adapting – and that they are a very dangerous foe,” Vindman said.

Local media said no criminal charges had been filed. Andriy Yusov, a Ukraine military intelligence spokesman, said an internal investigation has been launched and continues into the poisoning of military intelligence officers and Budanov’s wife.

Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, followed by numbness and tingling of the extremities, muscle cramps – and, in extreme cases, death, according to the World Health Organization. Mercury is a neurotoxin.

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