Russia has long prepared its war in Ukraine by deploying the full array of hybrid warfare tools at its disposal in Europe: election meddling and strategic corruption aimed at political parties and media, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure and disinformation, economic coercion, and targeted assassinations using difficult-to-detect toxic agents, to name a few. Europe has been slow to react, with EU member states failing to anticipate the war in Ukraine even after the Kremlin started preparations for its final act by deliberately reducing gas storage levels in Germany in the autumn of 2021. Some EU and NATO member states and many political party leaders across the continent remain in denial, even as the war approaches a full year of destruction. NATO and European institutions have begun to prepare policy and operational responses to these emerging hybrid threats, but implementation remains slow and uneven.
Over the past two decades, Russian security services have been implicated in a series of high-profile cases in which radioactive and chemical warfare agents were used to poison individuals perceived as adversaries and political opponents. The most well-known of these cases is the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector and dissident, for which the Kremlin’s involvement was confirmed in court. The investigations of the Novichok poisonings of the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny indicate that these incidents have followed a similar pattern to that of Litvinenko. While targeted assassinations are not a novel tactic in the Kremlin’s toolbox for power projection per se, the use of toxic substances traditionally associated with chemical and nuclear weapon programs signals Moscow’s determination to both maintain and deploy its offensive WMD capability, when deemed necessary.