Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst experienced symptoms consistent with poisoning months before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022.
Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, spoke with Newsweek hours after independent news outlet Agentstvo, citing unnamed sources, reported that he was one of at least four people who have experienced alleged poisonings or break-ins by unknown individuals linked to Russian intelligence services over the past two years. The report said the FBI began an investigation into the “sharp deterioration” in Herbst’s health at the time.
Multiple Russian opposition figures and Kremlin critics have been poisoned during Putin’s reign, including former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko, British-naturalized Russian defector and former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko and former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.
Herbst told Newsweek that a statement issued by the Atlantic Council would be “conclusive” in addressing those reports, but “I’m not going to talk about it beyond that.”
The Washington-based think tank said that although Herbst has since recovered to “full health, in April 2021 he grew ill and experienced symptoms that could have been consistent with poisoning, including elevated levels of toxins in his blood.”
“Medical professionals treated Ambassador Herbst effectively at the time but could not definitively conclude there was poisoning involved,” the Atlantic Council said in a statement on May 16.
The Atlantic Council said it worked with federal law enforcement on the matter, who later also took a blood sample from Herbst, and the lab results failed to detect toxic compounds.
“The health and safety of our staff is the highest priority,” said Frederick Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. “We were in touch with authorities immediately at the time of Ambassador Herbst’s illness, but due to the results of the test we decided not to make the incident public.”
The think tank said Herbst and its Eurasia Center have been “among the leading voices in the United States analyzing and responding to Russia’s threats to the U.S. and Ukraine, including its ongoing war, and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and freedom.”
Just weeks into Putin’s full scale of invasion, in March 2022, Herbst told Newsweek that the war had been an “unmitigated disaster” for the Russian president.
Reflecting on the conflict more than a year on, the former ambassador said on Tuesday that Putin’s “obvious failure” in Ukraine is placing “significant and growing strain” on his regime.
Putin has “failed miserably” in his war against Ukraine, Herbst said.
Natalya Arno, a Kremlin critic and the head of the U.S.-based nonprofit Free Russia Foundation, has also said she believes she may have been poisoned, “possibly by some nerve agent” during a trip to Europe in early May.
“I still have neuropathy symptoms but overall I feel much better,” Arno wrote on Facebook on May 16.
Agentstvo suggests unknown persons associated with Russian intelligence could have been behind such incidents.
Newsweek has contacted Russia’s Foreign Ministry via email for comment.
Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, a toxic chemical, during an election campaign in Ukraine in late 2004, as he ran against Russia-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych. The substance caused caused bloating and pockmarks on his face.
Litvinenko, a vocal Kremlin critic, died by radiation poisoning in 2006. In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights found Russia responsible. An earlier 2016 U.K. public inquiry had assessed that his killing was likely ordered by Putin himself.
Skripal, a British citizen who formerly worked as a Russian intelligence officer, nearly died after coming into contact with novichok, a military-grade nerve agent originally developed by the former Soviet Union. The leaders of the U.S., France, Germany and the U.K. concluded the Kremlin ordered the attack, saying that there is “no plausible alternative explanation.” Dawn Sturgess, a British woman who came into contact with the nerve agent in the city of Salisbury, died.
Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about the Russia-Ukraine war? Let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org.