The Wall Street Journal and the open-source investigative news site Bellingcat reported Monday that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who had been working to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine, and two Ukrainian negotiators fell ill earlier this month after allegedly being exposed to a yet-to-be identified poison in Kyiv.
Bellingcat said on Twitter that chemical weapons specialists had asked an investigator with the organization “to help provide an examination.” Remote and on-site examinations determined that a chemical weapon best explained the symptoms the three alleged victims experienced, Bellingcat said. After eating chocolate and drinking water on the night of March 3 the three reportedly felt eye pain and skin irritation that did not ease until morning. A fourth member of the group did not become ill.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the other alleged victims were Rustem Umerov, a Ukrainian lawmaker, and another negotiator. The newspaper said they and Abramovoch had peeling skin on their faces and hands, painful tearing, and red eyes. Abramovich was temporarily blinded after the incident and went on to develop trouble eating. The three have recovered since the incident, the newspaper said.
Sources told The Wall Street Journal that it was difficult to tell whether the alleged poisoning resulted from a chemical or biological agent, saying even an electro-magnetic radiation attack remained a possibility.
The newspaper cited “people familiar with the matter” as blaming the incident on Russian hard-liners who do not want to see the conflict resolved. An Abramovich spokesperson, however, said it was unclear who perpetrated the alleged poisoning.
Reuters reported that an anonymous US official said the incident was caused by “environmental” factors and not poisoning. And later an official in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office told the BBC that the Ukrainian delegation was “fine” and that a negotiator had called the poisoning story “false.”
In Brussels last week, a reporter asked US President Joe Biden if NATO would retaliate against Russia militarily if Russia used chemical weapons. Without elaborating Biden said such an attack “would trigger a response in kind.” Later the White House said that if Russia used biological or chemical weapons, the US response could include further sanctions.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Abramovich has been involved in various ways in negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, sometimes acting “in conjunction and sometimes parallel” to official negotiations. Zelensky has asked Biden not to sanction Abramovich, due to his role in the talks.
Although diplomacy has not yet achieved tangible results, Zelensky recently broached the idea of Ukraine abandoning its efforts to join NATO.
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