Bellingcat and associates have claimed that sanctioned oligarch Roman Abramovich, Tatar politician Rustem Umerov, and one other Russian businessman suffered illnesses consistent with poisoning early in March while negotiating for peace in the second round of talks in Kyiv, and were then examined by experts called in with the help of Bellingcat. I argue that the story can only be regarded as fiction. With others, I note the widespread denials, including apparently of Umerov, the complete absence of contemporaneous evidence, quite at variance with Umerov's tweets at the time, and indeed, of Abramovich's location as indicated by his jet stationed in Turkey. I run through the suspicious and artificial nature of the alleged circumstances that reveal ambiguities as to the date of the poisoning, the number of those poisoned, the means of poisoning, the nature and timing of the symptoms suffered, and the contradictions evident in the tracing and testing, and finally the movements after the alleged testing. I relate the shiftiness of the excuses given to explain away the lack of contemporaneous evidence, and also the signs of media coordination that serve as alibis. Taken together such anomalies urge radical skepticism.
1. I will critically examine the claim that Roman Abramovich and two other peace negotiators were poisoned in Kyiv shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. As we shall show, the thesis faces enormous difficulties, and radical scepticism cannot be allayed. To us, it is quite plausible that the whole story (symptoms, initial examination, and so on) was concocted several weeks after the purported events. This suspicion raises serious concerns about the credibility and integrity of Bellingcat, the investigators who broke the story.
2. The news, then, emerged in the afternoon of Monday March 28 with Maxim Colchester and Yaroslav Trofimov writing in the Wall Street Journal (16.14 BST), while at the same time @Bellingcat put out a careful thread. Almost simultaneously, Bellingcat's Christo Grozev, as it will transpire, a very significant player, urged Twitter to follow the thread. Very shortly after this, Rachel Bunyan for the MailOnline wrote an article that would be updated the next day so as to include an interview from Grozev via Times Radio, and then Shaun Walker for the Guardian (who had long known Grozev) started tweeting and writing - clearly having heard from his source, though at first he is not named. In the early evening Max Seddon wrote for the Financial Times, and the story was boosted by the BBC's Security Correspondent Frank Gardner.
3. On the other hand, also that evening BBC's Tim Franks cited a Ukrainian official downplaying the story, and observers were quick to note that even before the news broke, in fact, first thing that morning, one of those allegedly poisoned had tweeted that he was fine and urged people not to follow unverified news. US officials, too, cast doubt on the story on the evening of the first day.
4. If we accept Bellingcat's original thread at face value, three members of the delegation attending peace talks - Roman Abramovich, another Russian "entrepreneur," and Ukrainian MP Rustem Umerov - all attended a session from 3pm to 10pm on [Thursday] March 3, but later that night felt "initial symptoms" (eye and skin inflammation, and pain in the eyes, though the thread does not refer to blindness or loss of sight). These had abated by the morning.
A Bellingcat investigator was called in. The thread is slightly unclear as to when the investigation took place. It was reported that the three men - perhaps with a fourth man - journeyed on to Istanbul, driving to Lviv, and then on to Poland, before flying to Turkey. The drive commenced "the next day" presumably meaning Friday March 4, and immediately after mentioning the drive, Bellingcat refers to the examination by "chemical weapons experts." A not unnatural reading of the thread is that the examination took place in Lviv. If so, it might be assumed that the examination took place later that afternoon given that Lviv is about eight hours away from Kyiv.
Bellingcat explained that the three men, indeed, the fourth man too, "consumed only chocolate and water in the hours before the symptoms appeared." The fourth member of the team, however, did not experience the symptoms. The experts opined that poisoning with an "undefined chemical weapon" was most likely, though Bellingcat concedes, "A definitive determination was not possible due to the absence of specialized laboratory equipment near the victims."
This last concession suggests at least that the examination did not take place when the team reached the surely well-equipped Turkish hospital chosen by Abramovich, and for similar reasons, that it probably took place before the team reached Poland.
5. At this juncture we can explain that it was none other than Umerov who had tweeted and posted on Facebook early that morning that he was "fine," (and that we should not trust "yellow news"), and that beyond doubt the chosen investigator was Grozev who was about to make his own contribution to the story from the Netherlands in an interview through Times Radio.
6.Many were sceptical of the story, preferring Umerov's caution to Grozev's first hand testimony. In this respect the sceptics joined the Americans, Ukrainians, and Russians, and the cynics among them pointed out that: by portraying himself as a victim the sanctioned oligarch would thereby rehabilitate his reputation as an honest broker and so avoid further sanctions; Abramovich looked fine when he travelled to Israel a little later; and he was undaunted when spending time with Putin in Moscow a couple of weeks after that. Nor did Bellingcat receive from the Twitterati the generous approbation that it got from the mainstream media. Even Walker, who had known Grozev for at least eight years, tweeted that the affair was as "murky as fog."
7. For us, the chief point is contemporaneity. The story came out of the blue, completely devoid of any shred of evidence that could be verified at the time. Moreover, as we probed the story it seemed to us that the "corroborating" details supplied by the narrators were both intrinsically implausible, and at the same time suspiciously artificial inasmuch as they were designed only to shore up intrinsic difficulties with the narrative - most especially, of course, the absence of contemporaneity.
8. Here we can just mention that the tweets of @Rustem_Umerov at the time of the alleged events show little sign that they were actually happening. We are inclined to think that he sent out a question mark as soon as he heard of the story - which is to say, shortly before it was hatched, and nearly one month after the events. It was news for him too.
9. At this juncture we can turn to Grozev's five minute interview put out on Monday evening - after having recommended Bellingcat's thread. Straightaway we must advertise the most astonishing claim that appears to have been completely missed by the public, namely, that Grozev sets the date of the poisoning as March 2, not March 3. Grozev agrees with the canonical view that the symptoms developed overnight, and that he was contacted within hours of the men developing symptoms, and that Bellingcat (who were contacted as it was thought likely that they had the requisite expertise) arranged for two chemical weapons experts and a doctor to do tests. This was around noon of March 3 - implying that the dreadful night suffered was March 2/ March 3 (Wednesday through to Thursday) and not as Bellingcat (and as everyone else) had it, March 3/ March 4 (Thursday through to Friday).
This seems an astonishing blunder, for if tests were undertaken both in situ and remotely, some sort of electronic record would have been generated that Grozev would likely have consulted. Grozev, incidentally, seems to be the only source able to say just when the examination took place - around noon, on the day after the bad night - and Grozev specifies the exact time that the symptoms emerged - around 1am in the morning.
How could anyone so closely involved get such basic detail wrong?
In our view, the only saving explanation is that Grozev had a mental block (perhaps relying on memory, and so not bothering to check his records), and as a result misspoke, confusing himself as to the actual day given that the night in question straddled the previous day and the next one. Or else it was Bellingcat (and boss Eliot Higgins) who made the blunder, which seems to us less likely, as that error was repeated so often, and we would have expected those less closely involved to have checked the records.
We have to persist that such errors would be entirely consistent with the theory that the whole thing was just made up. And let's add that it's an easy matter to put the cynics straight: present the emails or texts (from around half a dozen relevant agents). We are not aware that Bellingcat has offered to provide such verification.
To be fair to Bellingcat, though, it does not appear that anyone with any influence requested that they do.
10. We now take up our contention that the circumstances are both intrinsically implausible and suspiciously artificial by addressing six themes that we shall abbreviate as a) chocolates and water, b) the fourth man, c) blindness, d) medical tests, e) the arduous journey, f) excuses for late reporting.
11. "Chocolates and water" refers to the supposed mechanism used to administer the poison. Bellingcat tweeted that four men had only consumed these foods, and that three of them had become ill, with the inference that a poisoner had contaminated one foodstuff or the other. To us the idea seems intrinsically implausible chiefly because the items would be very difficult for a poisoner to control, even as the items would be easy for the people poisoned to control. The point here is that apparently the purpose of the poisoning was merely to send a warning, but it does not seem that such means are appropriate for that goal.
Thus, if the plan was to administer an appropriate dosage to the various parties, how could the poisoner control how much each individual consumes, if indeed they consume anything contaminated, and not something that might interfere with the plan (such as uncontaminated chocolate from another source). Nor does it seem easy to ensure that the poisoned items correspond to particular preferences, for what if the first likes plain, a second milk chocolate, a third still, the fourth sparking water? In any case, how could one ensure that the foods are delivered? Or that they are consumed at the right time? Or not consumed but retained for analysis when the items became suspicious? With the consequence that the source of the poison and hence the poisoner is traced?
Clearly, however, some such contamination has to be postulated in order to explain why these symptoms appeared in these men (albeit not all of them). We are to imagine that the symptoms developed overnight (perhaps as the men tried to sleep), and that in the morning they came together, reported on their experience now understood as common, and set about deducing the cause (and consulting with the fourth man who, though he had no symptoms, had consumed what the other three had, as they then realised).
Even so, the further difficulty arises in that nowhere do we hear of the men collecting wrappers or bottles or crumbs or drops or flakes of skin that might be useful in both catching the criminal and saving their own life. Even if nearby laboratories were lacking, those with the presence of mind to call in investigative journalists would surely have tried to gather as much evidence as possible for a later date.
We do not think that these questions exhaust the difficulty, and let us end by noting that in his interview Grozev never mentions chocolates and water, and yet just six months earlier he was tweeting about traces of Novichok from water bottles in Tomsk!
12."The fourth man" perhaps, serves the story by acting as a kind of control. Grozev does mention this person, not, as we have seen, as someone who consumed without getting ill (as Grozev did not mention the chocolates and water at all, and even notes that the dosage was not high enough to kill the other three), but as someone who shared the same environment as the other three but did not fall ill - which was taken as a sign that the symptoms could not be explained away by "environmental factors" such as an allergy, as per the US official quoted by Reuters in the evening.
Of course, the fourth man qua control is anomalous in that according to Bellingcat he co-consumed safely, but perhaps he was merely the remnant of an older story. As we have seen, despite belonging to the same congregation, not everyone sang from the same hymn sheet.
Another conjecture is that the group of investigators really did exist (and of course, two are named), and that all four really did travel to Turkey, which was why the story had to include the fourth man.
13. "Blindness" refers to a detail not provided in the original Bellingcat thread, but emerging for the first time, it seems, courtesy of Walker (and therefore from Grozev, most likely). In his interview Grozev mentions that the symptoms included "erm, essentially a loss of a certain part of the vision of, er, at least one of the gentlemen." However, in his original tweet Walker has, "Roman lost his sight for several hours and was treated in Turkey," and later, "'Roman lost his sight for several hours. In Turkey, they were treated in a clinic, together with Rustem,' said the source." Meanwhile, Seddon told readers of the FT that "Abramovich's eyesight 'completely disappeared' for several hours while a member of the Ukrainian delegation, parliamentarian Rustem Umerov, partially lost his eyesight, two of the people said. 'People became totally blind...the next day,' said a person close to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's president." Clearly, this aspect of the story was not stable, and as a matter of fact, when Eliot Higgins was interviewed for the Times April 2, the loss of sight went unmentioned.
Once again, we find the story implausible, and it ought in principle to be verifiable insofar as records of the examination capable of re-presentation exist that would clearly indicate who was blind when. As it is, we are even left with the notion that Umerov was one of those "completely blind the next day," according to one account.
In that case he would have found it very difficult to tweet.
This sensational aspect of the story, though, is demanded in that it provides a graphic detail, quite consonant with another elaboration that would emerge the next day in the NYT, when Abramovich was supposed to have asked, "Are we dying?" Neither Grozev nor Bellingcat told us that in their initial accounts.
14."Medical tests" might convey the idea of detailed analysis scientifically confirming poison: bodily fluids are taken away, tests are performed in labs, and at last the dreadful results prove positive. This suggestion is conveyed by the Times headline, "Poison? It's a bad curry, I said. Then I saw the tests."
However, Bellingcat had already explained in the original thread that specialised equipment was unavailable.
In itself, that is not implausible, given the war situation, and the tenor of what Grozev says accords with very rudimentary tests. The analysis undertaken seems to have been along the lines that given the proximity of the fourth man to the same environmental factors faced by the other three, and given that he was not ill, the illness of the other three could not be put down to an allergy, say, but rather a toxin. In that case, however, the idea of awaiting tests and having one's initial scepticism confounded (as suggested in the Times) hardly squares with the facts. It makes little sense to think of Higgins' "curry" hypothesis being overturned by such a test.
Besides, the fourth man was only tested because he had only eaten chocolates and water, and so it was already known that he had not had a curry.
The main point, though, is that it transpires that no tests were actually performed that might be amenable to a second opinion, or having scientific consequences that might actually identify the poison, say, - for example, on the water bottles that anyone facing that situation would surely have retained (even supposing that in the event it was the chocolate that was contaminated). Once again, just a little reflection shows up the faults in the story.
15."The arduous journey" refers to the eight hours drive from Kyiv to Lviv followed by a six hours drive from Lviv to Warsaw in order to catch a private jet to Istanbul. The story was that, despite having been poisoned, Umerov trustingly accepted the lift from the two Russian entrepreneurs (accompanied perhaps by the fourth man) in order to get treatment in Turkey - literally a case of the blind leading the blind.
But it is surprising that Umerov did not travel by helicopter - as it was reported that other members of the delegation did on March 3. Moreover, those tracking "Russian oligarch jets" give no indication that any of Abramovich's jets ever flew from Warsaw early March. Indeed, the particular jet that Abramovich seems to have been using, Jet LX-Ray (which had landed in Tel Aviv on March 13 just prior to Abramovich being photographed in the VIP lounge), had flown from Istanbul March 2 to Ankara March 2, and had returned from Ankara March 4 to Istanbul March 5 suggesting that Abramovich may have been staying in Ankara at the time he was supposed to have been poisoned.
16. In response to this it might be claimed (as per the Times on March 28, Abramovich skirts sanctions and radar) that Abramovich and Umerov were using a Hawker 800XP rerouted to Warsaw, and organised by a Turkish company. Hannah Lucinda Smith reported that a Hawker travelled from Istanbul to Moscow and back on March 23, and so presumably the same arrangement was deployed twenty days earlier.
However, it is odd that Abramovich did not use his own private jet to travel to Moscow on March 23 as he appears to have done just that on March 14/15, when of course it does not seem that he would have had to avoid sanctions. Given the timing and source of the radar-skirting article, the Turkish Hawker begins to look suspiciously like an alibi (in that the story gives credence to the idea that he might have been out of Turkey in time to be poisoned in early March).
For if the aim was to avoid detection (the flight tracker was switched off) how would the Times come to know that fact? And if they were told what was the point of the secrecy in the first place? Finally, why did the Times bother to mention sanction-avoidance-measures at all given that these were not relevant to flights to Moscow?
In any case, Abramovich was sanctioned by the UK government on March 10, and so presumably he could have freely flown to Europe for the second round of peace talks had he attended them.
From such considerations we may glean why this strange artifice of the arduous journey had to be invented. If indeed Abramovich had stayed in Turkey during the relevant time period, and had not used his jets to travel to Ukraine, then some other means of travel would need to be postulated - hence the rendezvous in Warsaw. It was Grozev who had supplied that detail, which had also been intimated earlier that morning with Smith's scoop about the Hawker 800XP.
17. Needless to say, all these considerations only strengthen radical scepticism, namely, that the whole story was made up at a later date. When the circumstances are put under the microscope they melt away. That is to say, and to repeat, the story completely lacks contemporaneous evidence.
Plainly, for investigative journalists, this is awkward. At the very least one might expect Bellingcat to have issued a promissory note in early March to the effect that we have a big story coming but can't say what it is yet. That would have given those in the future something to look back on by way of corroboration.
To be fair to Bellingcat, the tweets of Grozev and Higgins suggest that they had many other things on their mind at the time, and perhaps the organisation wasn't over keen on self-promotion.
Nevertheless, any investigator worth his or her salt would have thought about this problem. They would appreciate that without evidence from the time their claims would be doubted.
Plainly again, Bellingcat attempted to meet this difficulty (for which the organisation sent its apologies). However, the excuses that they came up with are neither consistent nor coherent.
The earliest "excuse for late reporting," found in the original thread, was that "Bellingcat chose not to report this story earlier due to concern about the safety of the victims." But it is difficult to see why this is so - though admittedly, perhaps Putin might have been antagonised when he met with "Mr A," some "mice" having let his "cat" out of the bag.
The second "excuse," put out by Grozev late on the first day, was that it might "endanger the peace talks. Or someone's life. The latter is why we didn't write anything on this until WSJ decided to." But the novel aspect of the excuse, that the news would endanger peace talks, again seems to lack credibility given that the actual effect of the world-wide scoop was very much to amplify Abramovich's role in the current peace talks, that as a matter of fact were announced via a scoop in the Times first thing March 28 courtesy of Hannah Lucinda Smith. And the idea the Bellingcat were bounced into reporting because WJS got there first is risible given the close coordination between the journalists involved.
The third "excuse" tweeted by @EliotHiggins on April 1 was that "Christo was approached in a personal capacity and not as a journalist we've had to examine the ethical questions around how and where we release information." The first part is also laughable as all accounts imply that Grozev was approached precisely because Bellingcat were supposed to have a particular expertise with chemical weapons.
The fourth "excuse" follows on from the ethical questions, and again was proffered by Higgins the next day to the Times, "We did not have permission to refer to all the medical records." This is especially feeble as little care appears to have been taken in respecting Umerov's confidentiality (with stories appearing that contradict his own version of events) and which are hardly plausible insofar as in the first instance the men chose to approach not law enforcement agents (there's a poisoner on the loose), or medical doctors (we can't see, we're dying), but rather citizen journalists whose duty it is to inform the world. By withholding medical records the victims were ensuring that the only people able to access the evidence were a select few that the rest of the world would have to take on trust.
Obviously, the excuses are embarrassing, but the upshot of all this is that Bellingcat not only have good "reason" for not reporting at an earlier date, but they also have good "reason" for not at some future date supplying relevant evidence such as videos of the examination of the red-eyed, skin-peeling, partially blind, men by two chemical weapons experts with a medical doctor on hand.
To be fair to Bellingcat, were they to release such information it would prove an embarrassment to Umerov who had been so quick to downplay their "yellow news."
18.Let us conclude without having exhausted our reasons for scepticism. From the first, our chief difficulty lay in the timing. The so-called evidence lacked contemporaneity, and here it must be said that the information was only released at a time when the story could not be verified, and it was not released when it could be verified. The natural reading of such a decision is that neither Bellingcat nor the victims were releasing information for the sake of those who care about forensic detail. That alone makes those responsible vulnerable to the charge that they made the whole story up ex nihilo.
As for those implausible and suspicious details, we are reminded of the cloth "with colours and patterns uncommonly fine," that mischievous weavers sold the Emperor, and which had "a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office."
But we can't trust everyone who spins a yarn. Suppose I claim that I once saw a mouse putting a bell on a cat. Would you be more likely to believe me if I add that I have the photos (but never produce them)?
And if you say, "But you can't get inside the mind of a mouse," and I say, "Well I've got an audio of one mouse explaining to the rest of the mischief, that he was off to put a bell on a cat." Wouldn't you, like the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson, wouldn't you be glaring?
A "mischief of mice" and a "glaring of cats." Makes sense when you think about it.
Abramovich Poisoning Story Timeline
28 February: The Jerusalem Post breaks the news that Abramovich will be assisting the (first round of) negotiations in Belarus at the request of Kyiv. Although widely reported, this news was questioned, and the Jerusalem Post did not report that Abramovich was at the second round of talks in early March. Nor does Twitter show any sign that Abramovich was negotiating in Kyiv (although it was frequently mentioned that he was in negotiations with respect to the sale of Chelsea FC). The third round of negotiations began on March 14 in Belarus (when Abramovich was between Israel and Turkey). Abramovich and Umerov will not be tweeted about together until March 28.
1 March: Rustem Umerov tweets 4 times.
5 March: Umerov tweets 3 times, with no signs of poisoning. Abramovich's Jet LX - Ray lands in Istanbul.
10 March: Abramovich hit by UK government sanctions and travel bans.
12 March: Abramovich's Jet LX - Ray takes off from Istanbul.
15 March: Abramovich's Jet LX - Ray lands in Moscow.
23 March: Max Colchester in WSJ re Abramovich and sanctions.
6.42am: Hannah Lucinda Smith from Turkey in the Times is the first to report that Abramovich and Umerov are involved in peace negotiations, archived here and as per this, and see also. The article states that Abramovich and Umerov were using a Hawker 800XP supplied by a Turkish company on March 23, suggesting perhaps that they had travelled by that means earlier (in flights rerouted to Warsaw).
4.10pm: Colchester tweets forthcoming scoop.
4.14pm: Colchester and Trofimov WSJ story.
4.18pm Bellingcat begins thread. RA poisoned March 3rd.
4.19pm: Grozev tweets to follow the Bellingcat thread.
4.19pm: Colchester tweets his WSJ article.
4.27pm: Trofimov tweets WSJ article.
4.30pm: Shaun Walker tweets Bellingcat thread.
4.51pm: Walker tweets <"Roman lost his sight for several hours and was treated in Turkey.">
5.02pm: MailOnline now includes detail of blindness in its headlines (see third version of archived material)
6.25pm: From this time it seems that Reuters reports that a US official attributes symptoms to "environmental factors." After this Grozev is interviewed for Times Radio (he refers to the reports from Reuters). Grozev dates the poisoning as March 2nd, with symptoms emerging from 1am the next day, and then examination from noon. Grozev implies only three men were poisoned, and refers to the loss of sight: "Erm, essentially a loss of a certain part of the vision of, er, at least one of the gentlemen " Curiously, Umerov goes unmentioned by name in the interview.
6.27pm: Max Seddon article in FT archived for first time
7.53pm: Seddon tweets his FT article.
8.31pm: BBC Tim Franks tweets Ukrainian Ihor Zhovkva, Deputy Head of President's Office, playing down the story.
8.36pm: Walker in Guardian. Grozev is not named, but <"It was during his first trip to Kyiv. Roman lost his sight for several hours. In Turkey, they were treated in a clinic, together with Rustem," said the source.>
8.38pm: BBC tweets story with analysis from Frank Gardner boosting the story.
9.59pm: Grozev tweets that "we" didn't write anything until the WJS decided to because it <"would endanger the peace talks. Or someone's life.">
8.09am: MailOnline updates its previous article, and now includes the Times Radio clip of Christo Grozev (first archived 8.27) who dates the poisoning as March 2, so that RA and others were seen by experts on March 3. He says that the three men were seen at noon March 3, and that they went on to Warsaw (without referring to Lviv). Times Radio did not tweet the interview (that bears their legend in the top right corner).
10.29pm: Walker in Guardian now cites Grozev:<"We are trying to find a balance between protecting privacy and security concerns of the individuals and informing the public correctly," Grozev said.> However, Walker does not name his blindness source.
11.13pm: Valerie Hopkins in NYT. RA asked doctors if he was dying.
7.59am: Higgins tweets NYT article saying more to come.
10.47am: Ann Dorit-Boy Der Spiegel article.
11.34am: Elliot Higgins tweets Der Spiegel article.
8.15am: Damian Whitworth in Times interviews Higgins and tweets.
(The writer Doctor Chris Friel taught maths for many years before undertaking, first, a masters in Philosophy, and second, doctoral research on value and credibility in the thought of Bernard Lonergan. In 2018 he investigated at length the "purposely timed hysteria" of the pro-Israel hawks in the UK amidst the antisemitism crisis, and commencing in 2019 has devoted an equally lengthy exploration of the Cardinal George Pell case and its context).